This Volkswagen Thing has been significantly modified from stock, it’s now equipped for desert racing with upgraded suspension and brakes, and power now provided by a 2.0 liter EJ20 Subaru flat-four.

The Subaru EJ20 produces up to 153 bhp depending on the state of tune, vastly more than the 46 bhp of the original VW mill. Also known as the Volkswagen Type 181, the Thing was developed for the West German Army as a locally-produced answer to the American Jeep.

Fast Facts – A Subaru-Powered Volkswagen Thing

  • The Volkswagen Thing’s conceptual predecessor, the Type 82 Kübelwagen, was developed during World War II. The German military needed a rugged, lightweight vehicle that could navigate diverse terrain. Drawing from the mechanics of the Beetle, the Kübelwagen was designed with simplicity in mind.
  • Recognizing a potential market for a civilian vehicle inspired by the Kübelwagen, Volkswagen introduced the Type 181 in the late 1960s. It was tailored for civilian use but retained the core design elements of its ancestor, it was introduced to various global markets under different names, with “Volkswagen Thing” being its model name in the United States.
  • The Volkswagen Thing was characterized by its utilitarian design, prioritizing function over aesthetics. It featured a convertible soft-top, easily removable doors, a fold-down windshield, and simple Beetle mechanicals.
  • In the early 1970s, the Volkswagen Thing gained traction, especially among American youth who appreciated its low cost, unconventional design, and versatility. However, by the mid-1970s, evolving safety regulations in the U.S. made it challenging for the Thing to comply, leading to its eventual withdrawal from the American market.
  • The Thing you see in this article is a 1974 model that has been significantly modified. It now rides on high-performance suspension, it has disc brakes front and rear, and it’s powered by a 2.0 liter EJ20 Subaru flat-four that’s almost three times more powerful than the original VW engine.

The Volkswagen Thing: A History Speedrun

The origins of the Volkswagen Thing can be traced back to World War II. The German military had been seeking a lightweight, versatile, and robust vehicle to function as a locally-produced answer to the American Willys Jeep. This led to the development of the Volkswagen Type 82 Kübelwagen. Built on the mechanics of the now-famous Beetle, the Kübelwagen was characterized by its simplistic open-top design, flat steel panels, and its rear-mounted air-cooled flat-four.

Volkswagen Thing Vintage Ad 1

Image DescriptionThe Volkswagen Thing was marketed as an inexpensive, go-anywhere vehicle and it proved very successful in the United States, particularly in California. Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG.

In the 1960s, Volkswagen saw an opportunity to reintroduce a vehicle reminiscent of the Type 82 Kübelwagen for civilian use. Thus, the Type 181, known as the Volkswagen Thing in the United States, was born.

The inspiration for the creation of the Type 181 has been the source of some contention, some say it was an answer to the civilian CJ Jeeps, and others believe Volkswagen was inspired by the Meyers Manx – a minimalist beach buggy built on a VW Beetle frame with a lightweight fiberglass body.

With a boxy, utilitarian design, the Volkswagen Thing was intentionally simplistic. Its design prioritized function over form, reflecting its military heritage. This vehicle boasted a convertible soft-top roof, removable doors, and a fold-down windshield, providing drivers with an undiluted driving experience. Beneath its minimalist exterior, the Thing utilized the same reliable air-cooled four-cylinder engine and drivetrain found in the Beetle.

Initially introduced to serve markets in Europe, North America, and other regions, the Volkswagen Thing quickly found its niche. In the United States, it resonated with the youth of the time, who were drawn to its low price, quirky design, versatility, and the fact that it could seat five.

Volkswagen Thing Vintage Ad

Image DescriptionThe Volkswagen Thing was particularly popular with surfers, who liked the fact that it was capable of exploring beaches for mile after mile. The Thing was rear-wheel drive only, rather than four-wheel drive, but due to the low weight and impressive ground clearance it still proved highly capable off the asphalt. Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG.

Its lifespan in the US market was somewhat short-lived, primarily due to stricter safety regulations that were introduced through the 1970s. Despite its relatively brief production run, the Thing left an indelible mark, and today it’s a much sought-after classic, especially among Volkswagen enthusiasts.

The Subaru-Powered Volkswagen Thing Shown Here

The VW Thing you see here has been given a comprehensive ground-up rebuild which has significantly improved its performance both on road and off.

It’s been repainted in Toyota Heritage Blue and fitted with a full roll cage built by Penhall Fabrication, it’s also been given widebody fenders, aftermarket bumpers front and back, and a custom grille that covers a radiator for the new engine.

The engine is a 2.0 liter EJ20 Subaru flat-four, these have been a common choice for VW owners looking for engine swap options for years now as they offer far more power, and they can be made to fit in the same engine bay as the air- cooled VW flat-four original.

Power is sent to the rear wheels via 4-speed manual transaxle and the vehicle rides on 15″ Method wheels with 31×10.5″ General Grabber HTS tires up front, with General Grabber M/T on the rear.

Modified VW Thing 13

Image DescriptionThis Thing is now powered by a 2.0 liter EJ20 Subaru flat-four that produces approximately three times more power than the original VW engine. The suspension is also completely revised with King Shocks coilovers with remote reservoirs front and back, it’s also been fitted with four-wheel disc brakes and a full roll cage built by Penhall Fabrication.

This Thing has been fitted with PRP front bucket seats, a rear bench, a carbon-style dashboard with Speedhut gauges, a Lowrance GPS system, a PCI race radio, and a Kicker bluetooth stereo controller. Underneath you’ll find King Shocks coilovers with remote reservoirs, custom front suspension components, four-wheel disc brakes, and a front bash plate.

It’s now being offered for sale with a clean Colorado title out of Boulder, Colorado on Bring a Trailer. If you’d like to read more about it or register to bid you can visit the listing here.

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Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer.

Published by Ben Branch -