The ill-fated Europa Jeep: 3 countries, 6 automakers, 1 military dud
If you’re not familiar with the Europa Jeep, you’re not alone. The proposed multinational military vehicle sputtered and ran out of gas before reaching its destination, making it obscure to most of us. But the ill-fated Europa had everything to do with the creation of the now-iconic Volkswagen Type 181—better known as the Thing.
At the risk of making this is a “Luke, I am your father” situation, let’s be clear: the Thing did not evolve from the Europa Jeep. It was created as a placeholder while European automakers tried to get the Europa into production, which never happened. That’s the result when you try to get several nations—allied nations—and twice as many auto manufacturers to agree upon a vehicle they could all use and be satisfied with.
The Europa Jeep project began in the 1960s, when European NATO partners West Germany, France, and Italy launched a cooperative effort to develop a lightweight, mass-produced, amphibious, four-wheel-drive military vehicle to replace the German DKW Munga, French Hotchkiss M201, and Italian Fiat Campagnola. In order to create competition, the governments originally formed three automotive groups, which included one manufacturer from each of the three countries. Only two groups moved forward, however: Fiat, MAN, and Saviem, and Hotchkiss, Büssing, and Lancia.
The guidelines for the “Vehicule de Commandement et de Liaison” (VCL) were simple, but specific. The Europa Jeep should be equipped with a “multi-fuel” engine that generated 40–50 horsepower, the ability to travel at a “maximum and continuous speed” of 95 km/h (59 mph), an “operating radius of 800 kilometers (497 miles),” be able to transport a payload of 500 kilograms (1102 pounds) and trailer 750 kg (1653 pounds), and weigh no more than 1.5 tons. It also needed to be floatable and fully off-road capable, and tough enough to be air-dropped into service. Once a winning model was selected, 50,000 would be built for the three countries involved, equipped differently depending on their intended use.
The two groups planned to have a working prototype by 1970 so that field testing and evaluation could begin, but the proposed deadline came and went without a prototype from either trilateral team. Development of the Europa Jeep continued, but it dragged on for years. Although both groups eventually completed the task, the project ultimately collapsed when France withdrew from the venture in 1976 and asked its own automakers to develop independent versions. [The Italian military eventually purchased a number of Fiat-produced FMS-version Europa Jeeps.]
Although the two Europa Jeep concept vehicles were built with the same goals in mind, they look decidedly different. The FMS version has a shorter but higher nose, a two-piece windshield, horizontal drop-down side gates in addition to the front doors, an angled rear end, and open sides, even with the canvas top up. The HBL version has a longer nose, a flat single-piece windshield, covered rear sides, and a flat rear end. Both vehicles were designed to carry four passengers.
Eventually, three French automakers came up with their own 4×4 military prototypes—the Renault TRM 500, Citroën C44, and Peugeot P4—although none of them was amphibious. Peugeot won out and built 15,000 P4s.
So, back to the Thing. In the late ’60s, the West German government needed a limited number of inexpensive, lightweight transport vehicles that could fill the gap until the Europa became a reality. Volkswagen answered the call with the Type 181, which did more than just fill the gap. It was also used by other NATO countries and—as we all know—eventually made its way to the U.S. The Thing was also the precursor to the Germany military’s eventual all-terrain solution, the VW-built Type 183 Iltis.
Turns out that while the ambitious Europa Jeep project was a dud, the Type 181 was the real Thing.