“At last a car that can be anything.” Especially ugly.
Developed by Volkswagen in 1968 at the height of their “the war is over, let’s appeal to the hippies” movement, The Thing was (and to a small band of admirers, still is) the Monty Python of the automotive world – a vehicle so bizarre that it’s impossible not to love. Originally branded the Type 181, The Thing (as it was known in America), was a redesign of the earlier Kübelwagen which had been used by the German military during World War Two, and while it might have been funny looking, it sure was one helluva automobile.
Unlike it’s militant forefather, the 181 was created for more leisurely pursuits, with a more a laid back (read: stoned) market in mind. Built on the same chasis as the original Beetle (Volkswagen reused many of their past specs for The Thing in order to keep prices down for their more financially challenged customers), The Thing was probably better suited for off road excursions than it was for asphalt. The Safari (as it was known in Mexico) was actually first released south of the border because so many off-roaders down there were already converting existing VW’s into dune buggies and the company wanted a piece of that action.
A year later in ’72, The Thing arrived in the states and found a niche market within the free-spirited (once again, read: stoned) sub-cultures of America. As listed in the promo material below, The Thing was fully convertible – its doors could come off, the windows could disappear, the seats could be tucked away, its rag top could be retracted, even the front windshield could be folded all the way down. Sure, all these utilitarian features didn’t exactly make for an attractive vehicle, but it certainly made The Thing perfect for camping trips and unplanned expeditions with a few too many people. While production ceased in 1975 after the cars failed to meet new American safety standards, you can still pick up a well-loved Thing for under ten grand if you do some digging. It might be ugly, but it sure beats a Camry.
Most images via the incredible vintage Volkswagen site, The Samba.