Volkswagen 'Thing' 181/182 Buying Guide

It's fun, practical, tough – and a little bit crazy. Here's how to buy a decent Volkswagen 181 ‘Thing’ or Trekker

Volkswagen 'Thing' 181/182 Buying Guide

How much to pay

• Project £1500-£4000 • Good £5000-£7000 • Concours £8000-15,000 •
• Most expensive at auction: £40,000 (1974 VW 181 Thing)

Overview

Practicality ★★★★
Running costs ★★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★
Investment ★★★★
Desirability ★★★

The Type 181 is a true Meccano kit, with removable doors, soft-top and a folding windscreen. Originally produced to fulfil the needs of the German army, which had been left without a small vehicle since the demise of the DKW Munga, the VW 181 was also marketed for the American and European markets as a civilian and utilitarian vehicle for forestry, emergency services and field sports.

Based on the wider VW Karmann Ghia floorpan and featuring Beetle and Type 2 ‘Bus’ components, the all-steel ‘jeep’ remained two-wheel drive, but was still handy off-road, especially when fitted with the optional limited-slip differential.

All VW 181s were basically the same, tweaks being made in lighting and emission controls to comply with local regulations. The biggest change was made for 1973, when the rear axle lay-out was changed; the noisier reduction-box rear swing-axle transmission was replaced by one with double-jointed axles with constant-velocity joints.

For two years from 1973, the 181 (known as a ‘Kübelwagen’ in Germany) was sold as the Volkswagen ‘Thing’ in the USA. It was marketed with bright colours and accessories to appeal to beach and recreational users. It had been sold across many world markets with production beginning in Wolfsburg, Germany, before moving to Puebla, Mexico.

By 1975, some British dealers had been given right-hand-drive examples (known as 182) to sell; a competition was run to name it for the UK, so it became the ‘Trekker’. Other names around the world were ‘Safari’ for South America and ‘Pescaccia’ for Italy.

Although German production stopped in early 1972, production continued in Mexico until 1980, with CKD (complete knock-down) kits being assembled in as far afield as Indonesia. The German Bundeswehr (armed forces) continued to import the 181 for its use until the end of production.

Your AutoClassics Volkswagen 181/182 ‘Thing’ inspection checklist

Engine

Several engines were offered over the 181’s production run. Early 181s were 1500cc, whereas models built from 1972 to 1983 were dual-port 1600cc. The 181’s Beetle-sourced air-cooled flat-four has the same characteristics as its cousin, although the sound may be harsher as the larger engine bay has more space to resonate. At least it has improved access over the Beetle's. The air-cooled motor is durable and relatively easy to rebuild.

Expect minor oil leaks from the rocker covers and engine main seals. Oily smoke and rough idle could point to more serious matters and a potential rebuild. With VW air-cooled engines it is often advisable to find better-quality German-made coil and carburettor over a Brazilian-made alternative, if not already fitted.

It is important to check the rubber fuel hoses and, if perished or cracked, replace as soon as possible. A cause of many air-cooled engine fires is the fuel pump and filter, when connections fail and spray petrol over the engine. Ensure these are in prime working condition.

Heat exchangers and exhaust systems were originally unique to the 181 and 182. Beetle or Type 2 versions can be fitted, but don’t look correct. Two exhaust systems were designed – one for cars with Beetle-style heat exchangers (from 1974) and straight-through twin pipes from earlier examples.

181s came with an oil-bath air-cleaner design that was seen only on this model, but other types can work. You may find ex-military 181s with twin oil-bath filters either side of the engine bay, extra pulleys, upgraded alternators and waterproofed ancillaries installed from use as a military radio car. A fun, although tricky, accessory was the addition of a starting handle. All 181s had the hole in the bumper, but only select examples came with the handle or the dog-nut arrangement on the crank wheel to use it.

Gearbox

All 181s utilised manual four-speed transmission. Various gearbox specifications were employed depending on the market, but all ratios were specifically engineered to allow for improved traction off the beaten track. Check for AT, BG, AH, DC, BA, GA and AV codes stamped on the gearbox casing; if it reads anything other than this, you’ve got a replacement Beetle or Type 2 box on your hands.

The first sign of trouble with the manual gearbox is crunching, often in second gear, as you select from third. This is solely down to wear, and often requires a rebuild to change the synchro selector rings. Check for axle and gearbox oil leaks and evidence of greasing on the grease nipples.

Suspension and brakes

Bullet-proof rear swing-axle suspension was installed until 1973, when it was replaced with double-jointed axles used by Porsche, and an IRS semi-trailing arm set-up as used on the Beetle.

Vibration in the steering wheel can mean the steering damper is worn and in need of replacement, which is a simple DIY job.

Throughout production the 181 was fitted with drum brakes, and these are adequate to stop the vehicle if maintained properly. They can be upgraded, which is why some 181s may have four-stud wheels and hubs. Some brake parts are unique to the 181, including the rear drums and front-brake backing plate.

Bodywork

As with other air-cooled VWs of this time, the 181 can rust, and with off-road use there will be plenty of it. However, as much of the structure is exposed, it isn’t as hidden. Check for corrosion in the horizontal seams at both ends of the outer sill, the base of the inner sill where it meets the floor, the chassis frame head, the spare-wheel well, the under-seat battery tray, headlight bowls, rear panel around the rear lights and the inner wings, where mud could become trapped. Should you need to replace rotten doors, they are removable in seconds and also interchangeable per side.

Particular attention needs to be given to the base of the front windscreen, where there is a groove that takes a rubber seal. Unclamp and fold the screen forward to check. These are often rotten, although a replacement lower section can be sourced. There aren’t the usual sill heater channels to check. If fitted with heat exchanger-sourced heating, it is via plastic trunking on the centre tunnel.

Front wings had a larger plinth for the indicators after 1973, due to the use of a new-style indicator for the USA.

All 181s and 182s had five-stud wheels, while 1969-1972 cars had 15in steel rims before changing to a slightly smaller 14in get-up. Both steel-wheel designs had the domed hubcap from the Type 2 split-screen bus, however Type 2 wheels are not interchangeable with the 181 design.

When inspecting the canvas roof, check the formed header bow upon which the hood attaches and clamps the top of the windscreen. Repair welding is tricky due to the thin metal, while new ones are scarce and will still require welding to the frame.

Interior

The Beetle-style vinyl front seats will have taken some abuse from the elements with such an exposed cabin. However, as the vinyl was smooth rather than basket weave on some VWs of the era, it should be easy enough to repair.

The original interior had perforated rubber mats, which allowed the partially exposed floor to dry out if wet. Over the years some owners have added wood-slatted ‘duck boards'. The wiper motor is a 181-only part and can be repaired if damaged or worn.

Most 181s were fitted only with front lap belts. UK models had an extended three-point seatbelt anchorage pole on the B-pillar.

Radios were not commonly fitted. If they have been installed, they tend to be slung underneath the dashboard or in the open glove compartment. An accessory compartment door has been available for a few years, however that would necessitate the repositioning of the 181's NATO-specification interior light, which was also fitted to military Land Rovers.

If fitted with the Eberspacher BN4 petrol heater under the front hood, there should be a green timer switch to the left of the steering wheel. The petrol heater was a simple but effective design when working properly. Similar to truck cabin heaters, they can still be serviced. The exhaust for the heater exits under the nearside wing, and if it misfires you can get an alarming plume of dark smoke.

History

  • 1969: German production begins, as do sales to the military
  • 1970: The 181 begins production in Mexico
  • 1971: European markets and Mexico (Safari) can buy a civilian version
  • 1972: German production ends
  • 1973: CV joints replace reduction-box rear end. 1600cc dual-port engine is introduced. 181 goes on sale in the USA (Thing). Indonesian 181 (Camat) assembly plant opens. Mexico gets an Acapulco special edition
  • 1974: The 181 gains fresh-air heating like the Beetle and rear air boxes. Sales in the USA are halted due to new automotive regulations. A limited number of 182 (RHD Trekker) begin to be offered through UK dealers. USA gets the Acapulco special edition
  • 1979: German military replaces the VW 181 with the VW 183 ‘ILTIS’ four-wheel-drive ‘jeep’. It shares the same windscreen and steering wheel
  • 1980: The last civilian 181s roll off the Mexican and Indonesian production line
  • 1983: The last 181 (military/government order) rolls off the Mexican production line

AutoClassics says…

The 181 offers unusual classic motoring of the topless kind. A hard-top was available, but they are rarely found in good condition. However, the 181 is all about the open air, and can be driven with confidence on motorways or across fields.

Most of the mechanicals come from the Volkswagen parts warehouse, and maintenance is easy for the DIY owner. Wings and some other panels just unbolt, however supplies of steel body panels are hard to find and often expensive. Most suppliers reside in the USA, partly due to main production being in Mexico after 1973.

In standard or customised form, the car is guaranteed to get you noticed. Some owners prefer the military olive-drab look, while others prefer the bright colour options. The paint finish was deliberately ‘flat’ from the factory.

As the American VW ads suggested, you really can make it your ‘Thing’, but get into ownership before values get too high. Values in the USA are exploding, so much so that some UK-based 181s have been exported there despite the exchange rate.

Specifications

VW 181 1500 (1969-1970)
  Power 44bhp
  Top speed 68mph
  0-60mph 25 secs
  Economy 22mpg

VW 181 1600 (1973-1983)
  Power 46bhp
  Top speed 71mph
  0-60mph 23sec
  Economy 25mpg

Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics

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