The Volkswagen Thing is weird, fun, and affordable as ever
Volkswagen might make sober Golfs and Jettas now, but in the 1960s and 1970s the German brand was home to cars that exemplified counter-culture. Classic Beetles, funky buses, and boxy Vanagons are to this day viewed through this lens, but what about the stubby VW Thing? Also known as the Type 181, this bare-bones off-roader is actually experiencing a surge of interest amidst the market’s overall boom for vintage SUVs like Jeeps, Land Rovers, Ford Broncos, and Toyota Land Cruisers.
The Type 181 was born in 1969 when the West German military revisited the boxy, open-top theme last seen in the World War II-era Type 82 Kübelwagen. The idea came from the military’s need for cheap, reliable, and durable transport, during a time where many European countries were awaiting international development of the (ultimately abandoned) Europa Jeep 4×4 project. Using the Beetle Type 1 driveline and Transporter Type 2 suspension, the Type 181 formula proved sound.
A civilian version followed for 1971 in Europe and Mexico, while U.S. models arrived for 1972. (It was marketed as the Safari in Mexico and the Thing in the U.S.) The Type 181 was particularly suited to rural roads in Mexico where the Beetle wasn’t ideal, and Americans’ love of dune-buggy Beetles made the Thing seem like an attractive alternative. The removable top, folding windshield, and practically barren interior made it perfect for open-air adventuring and easy cleanup.
Although VW would continue selling the Type 181 through 1980 (and military models through 1983), U.S. sales ended after the 1975 model year, as a result of more stringent safety regulations.
While many other off-road, 4×4 vehicles are skyrocketing in value, the Thing is still very much affordable. Values are basically flat over the past five years, with the average #3 (Good) condition Thing commanding $15,500. Best-in-the-world (Concours) examples go for just north of $30,000. These numbers are down significantly from the Thing’s peak in the summer of 2015, when the average Thing was $22,900 and #1-condition Concours cars went for $42,900. In general, Acapulco Edition cars (complete with striped top, like the Jeep Surrey Gala) are worth a 20-percent premium.
The VW Thing may be an alternative to a classic SUV, but the data shows interest in the Type 181 has been growing by 10 percent annually since 2010—well before the vintage off-roader trend kicked into high gear. Our insurance quote activity is at an all-time high, and interest is coming from Gen Xers, Millennials, and older generations alike. Nevertheless, flat prices indicate people still aren’t willing to pay more for a Thing, likely because it’s essentially a rugged Beetle better suited to beach cruising than Baja racing or rocky off-roading. While quirky and approachable, they’re neither sensational to drive nor especially rare.
The Thing’s thing, true now as it was in the 1970s, is that it’s a mechanically simple oddball with a unique personality. You’re guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows when you roll by in a Thing, and most examples are regularly used enough that owners don’t mind a shoeful of beach sand in the footwell.