Volkswagen 181

Volkswagen 181

The Volkswagen Type 181 "Kurierwagen", popularly known in the United Kingdom as the Trekker, in the United States as the Thing, and in Mexico as the Safari, was a small military vehicle produced by Volkswagen from 1969 to 1983, although civilian sales stopped in 1980. It was based in part on Volkswagen's Beetle Type I, and was an evolution of the Kübelwagen, which had been used by the German military during World War II. The name literally means "courier wagon".


During the 1960s, several European governments began cooperating on development of a vehicle known as the Europa Jeep, a lightweight, amphibious four-wheel drive vehicle that could be mass produced for use by various national military and government groups. Development of the vehicle proved time consuming, however, and the German government was in need of a limited number of light, inexpensive, durable transport vehicles that could fulfill their basic needs while the Europa Jeep was being developed and put into production.

Although Volkswagen had been approached during the 1950s about building such a vehicle, and had subsequently passed on the proposition, the then-current management of the company saw the project as having some amount of potential as a consumer vehicle; Mexican customers were asking for something that could better handle rural roads than the Beetle, which was a large seller in Mexico at the time, and the popularity of VW-based dune buggies within the U.S. made executives think that a durable, fun, off-road capable vehicle would become attractive to many buyers. VW could keep cost to a minimum and thus maximize profitability by using existing parts.

Like the World War II era Type 82 Kübelwagen, the Type 181 used mechanicals and a rear-engined platform derived from that of the Type I Beetle. The floorpans came from the Karmann Ghia, which itself was based on the Type I, and reduction gearing from the Volkswagen Transporter Bus was used through 1973 when platform upgrades eliminated that setup in favor of revised parts.

Civilian sales began in Europe and Mexico during 1971, and in the U.S. in 1972, but the model was dropped from the American lineup for 1975 as it failed to meet stricter new safety standards. Notably the Type 181 was reclassified as a passenger vehicle, and thus subject to stricter safety standards, not as a light truck as is the case with the modern-day Chrysler PT Cruiser. The Windshield Intrusion Rule of the 1975 DOT standard called for a greater distance between the front seat occupants and the front window glass. This change was mandated after lighter cars made in reaction to the first fuel crisis caused front hoods to bisect the passengers in moderate speed impacts.

The Europa Jeep was a NATO dream, to have a vehicle where by each European NATO makers all combined to build a light duty patrol vehicle. The Volkswagen 181 was only supposed to fill in, until the time that the Europa Jeep was ready. From 1968 until 1979, over 50 thousand Type 181 were delivered to the NATO forces. By 1979 the Europa Jeep project had fallen apart completely and was abandoned, and the German government began supplementing their consumption of 181's with the new front-engined Type 183 Iltis, which featured four-wheel-drive based on the mechanical system from a VW Golf.

Despite the German government's switch to the Type 183, European and Mexican sales of the civilian 181 continued through 1980, and several organizations, including NATO, continued to purchase military-spec units through 1983, finding their reliability and low purchase and maintenance costs attractive.


Several region-specific variants of the 181 were produced during the vehicle's lifetime, including an Acapulco Thing, originally designed for the Las Brisas Hotel in Acapulco. Running boards, special upholstery and paint schemes, and a surrey top were standard features. The Acapulcos are most easily identified by their striped paint scheme and were offered in orange and white, yellow and white, green and white, and blue and white.

The '182' was the name given to the '181' in right hand drive form.

1973 was the first year sold in the us Market. Mexico began producing them after 1972.

Current popularity

The 181 has become something of a cult classic, due in no small measure to its angular styling, which leaves no question as to its strictly utilitarian purpose. The doors are removable without tools, and the windshields fold down, similar to a Jeep. The interior is a perfect illustration of form following function, and its painted steel door panels and split, flat bench seats look appropriately post-modern, industrial chic today. The Volkswagen 181 has been seen in episodes of The Simpsons featuring Patty and Selma, the opening theme segemnt of the 1992 made-for-television movie "Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation, and That's So Raven episode "Driving Miss Lazy". The Volkswagen Thing was also the basis for the Roamer vehicle (with the customized bodywork of a Brubaker Box) on the CBS Saturday morning live action television sci-fi series Ark II.

Current prices in the United States range from $3,000 for restorable units to upwards of $15,000 for nicely restored examples. In early 2007 four 181 "Things" sold at the Barrett-Jackson auto auction for well over $20,000 each, with one 1973 example selling for $42,560..


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