The Volkswagen Thing, as it was called in the U.S., began life as the German Kubelsitzwagen. This bucket seat vehicle was offered as a military-style off-roader or dune buggy. It was built on the Volkswagen Beetle Type 1. In Europe, it was referred to as the Kurierwagen or Type 181. In Mexico, where rural roads demand tight suspensions and handling, it was sold as the Safari. The Thing was made from 1969 until 1983, but sales to civilians ended in 1980.
The car was a mashup of old parts from several models, including the flat-four engine, manual transmission and rear-engine platform from the Type 1, the Karmann Ghia's floorpans and the Volkswagen Transporter's reduction gearing. It had four-wheel drive and was lightweight and durable. In 1979, a front-engine model, featuring the four-wheel drive transmission borrowed from the Volkswagen Golf, was introduced. Volkswagen hoped to inflate its profits by using the shared parts. Originally, the Type 181 had been envisioned as a project between a few European countries, but the project fell through. Volkswagen later picked it back up as a passenger vehicle.
Sales to civilians started in 1971 in Mexico and Europe, but the Thing didn't reach the U.S. market until 1972. In 1975, the Thing was removed from the U.S. market because it failed to meet tougher safety standards for passenger cars. The requirement for passengers to sit further from the windshield doomed the Thing. If it were released currently, it would be classified as a light truck and would not be regulated so strictly.
From 1969 to 1972, more than 50,000 Things were sold to NATO as it awaited delivery of the Europa Jeep, as a joint partnership between NATO members to have a uniform, light-duty vehicle for patrol. Once the Europa project dissolved, Volkswagen picked up the slack with its Type 183, released as the 1979 model. Mexican and European sales were brisk well into 1980. NATO continued to buy Type 183 models until 1983, having grown accustomed to th inexpensive price and low-maintenance fees.
Local variations appeared as well, such as the custom-designed Acapulco Thing, made for Acapulco's Las Brisas Hotel. This model had a surrey top, running boards, special upholstery and unique paint job. The Acapulco models also had white-striped designs in orange, yellow, green and blue. The Thing's odd look and angular nature has earned it a spot in pop culture. Things can be seen in movies such as Drew Barrymore's 50 First Dates. Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Dustin Hoffman have also driven Things in their films. What began as a simple idea for a cooperative vehicle among European nations is now a post-Gothic, retro-industrial cult classic
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