What’s uglier than a Volkswagen Thing? Its Aussie cousin
Most automotive enthusiasts are familiar with the Volkswagen Type 181, the boxy, military-looking vehicle from the 1970s known in the U.S. as the Thing. Ugly, right? Hold on, mate, the Australians did it better. Or is it worse?
At about the same time as the Type 181 came to be in the late 1960s (it wasn’t imported to the U.S. until 1973), the land Down Under was also creating its own off-road vehicle based on a basic VW Type 1 chassis: the Country Buggy—or Type 197. And the Aussies made no bones about it, this “thing” was not a beauty queen.
“If you think the Beetle is ugly … take a look at this one,” one Volkswagen Australia ad beckoned. “The uglier Volkswagen built for rugged dirty work.”
Another punchy VW ad—one of many—described the odd-looking vehicle as “the reliable one” and encouraged potential buyers to “run it up a hill, over a creek bed, across a ploughed paddock, through a sandpit. See how the Volkswagen Country Buggy can handle most of the jobs that used to need a four-wheel drive. Test drive one where you wouldn’t take your car …”
Conceived first as a potential military vehicle—perhaps even amphibious—the Country Buggy was designed and engineered in Australia using Type 1 (Beetle) and Type 2 (Transporter) Volkswagen components. Created with short overhangs to increase its approach and departure angles off-road, the Buggy’s exhausts fed through its bumper to raise ground clearance. Power, from a stock Beetle flat four-cylinder engine, went to the rear wheels via portal axles from the early Type 2 buses. In keeping with its utilitarian approach, the Buggy had no doors, only high side sills that could be closed off with vinyl curtains, and a folding windshield and either hard or soft-top roof. The bodywork—sitting on 15-inch wheels—was flat-stamped steel, with Beetle headlamps pushed into the fenders. And there was plenty of storage space in the frunk.
Production of the Country Buggy began in July 1967, but by the time it began being sold in 1968, the market had changed. The final model wasn’t suited for military applications, and with the Type 181 launching globally, few customers in Australia saw the appeal of the Country Buggy over the Thing. After a brief run of nearly 2000 vehicles, Country Buggy production ended … in Australia, at least.
Partially-assembled Country Buggy kits were later shipped to the Philippines, where they were generally well received. So in 1972, Volkswagen invested in the local construction of a slightly modified Philippines version of the Country Buggy named Sakbayan. It remained in production for several years.
Much like Thing owners in the U.S., Country Buggy enthusiasts are a passionate group. Three years ago, for the 50th anniversary of the Country Buggy, Australia’s volkswagenspectacular.com sponsored a reunion that brought together 36 of the rare vehicles in New South Wales. We’re guessing no one called it a beauty pageant.