x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Volkswagen's Thing war car turns heads – for the wrong reasons

Volkswagen's most curious model, the Kurierwagen, is a military-style car that came into being amid Cold War tensions and was later adopted by off-roaders.

The Volkswagen Thing is loathed as much as it is loved.
The Volkswagen Thing is loathed as much as it is loved.

There are more than a million words in the English language and yet, when it came to naming Volkswagen's corrugated car-cum-caravan, only one sufficed: the Thing.

It is an odd name for a very odd vehicle. Like a laughably unmenacing villain of a preposterous 1970s B-movie, it is so improbable and weird that specific description is futile. It was, is and will forever remain a Thing. If its looks are baffling, then its purpose is bemusing. At first glance, it looks like an air raid shelter that should be half submerged in a garden. On second glance, you notice the wheels and assume it is coin operated and has escaped from a theme park. Surely no other car with a soldierly purpose is so silly.

During the Second World War, Volkswagen was required to serve the national good by designing a durable, go-anywhere vehicle as the German equivalent to the Jeep. The result was the Kubelwagen, an austere, angular runaround based on Beetle running gear. While they didn't enter national folklore in the same way as their American counterpart, the Kubelwagen's wartime service wasn't to be forgotten.

In the late 1950s, with Cold War tensions reaching boiling point, several European governments joined forces to design a rugged, lightweight, amphibious and all-terrain vehicle to be known as the Europa Jeep. But despite its four-wheel drive, the concept became bogged down in bureaucracy; Germany lost patience and looked to develop a successor to its "bucket car".

The Europa Jeep proved to be a Nato pipe dream and Volkswagen stepped into the breach. In 1968, it sent the first type 181, as the Thing (or Trekker in the UK) was known in its serious, service guise, into military service and, over the next 11 years, more than 50,000 were used by Nato forces. Though it was superseded by the more modern and more mobile Iltis at the turn of the 1980s, the 181's reliability and low maintenance costs kept Nato and other customers calling until 1983.

But it quickly became apparent that the Kurierwagen, as it later became known, could fill a niche in the market for a quirky custom consumer vehicle. The target market for this was the United States, where the emerging surfer culture had led to popularity of dune buggies and offbeat off-roaders. The plan was simple: keep costs low and sell for a high price with a novelty tag. Without coming over all philosophical, the slogan came down to this: "The Thing is". Like its predecessor, the mechanics were lifted from the Beetle, giving it a flat four, rear-mounted engine, and the floor plan was borrowed from the marque's stylish coupe, the Karmann Ghia.

The civilian Thing came onto the market in 1971 in Europe, Britain, the US and Mexico. Its combination of being both peculiar and peculiarly German saw it flop in Britain but, as anticipated, it was warmly received in North America. Despite its popularity and almost instant cult status, the Thing had to be dropped in 1975 as it failed strict new safety standards, which is a little ironic given it was designed to protect troops in war.

The ultimate Thing was designed for Las Bristas hotel in Acapulco to ferry guests around in style. Well, not style. And if we are honest, not really comfort either.

The Acapulco Thing featured running boards and blink-inducing orange-and-white stripes. In total, more than 90,000 Things were made, 20,000 of which were built in Mexico for the domestic and US market.

Unsurprisingly, the Thing has become a motoring oddity and therefore highly collectable. Few cars can turn heads like the Thing, but while pedestrians craning their necks to see a 911 say "wow", those who spy a 181 are more likely to ask "what?". Being rare and ridiculous, its value can only increase.

Fun features such as removable windows and a fold-down windscreen have become almost chic now. Recently, a former fire brigade 181 sold for $35,000 (Dh128,500). And they say Germans don't have a sense of humour.