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So there I was, walking along a dusty street in Mexico, when I spotted an attractive blue chunk of automotive history: a Volkswagen Thing. Yup, you read that right, Volkswagen once built a chunky off-roader on the Beetle’s chassis named the Thing. But as rad as this retro rig is, the perfect “thing” for your next vintage vehicle expedition might be its successor, the Volkswagen Iltis.

The Volkswagen Thing was built out of spare parts

A bright blue Volkswagen Thing off-roader parked in front of a palm tree in Mexico.
Volkswagen “Safari” Type 181 in Mexico | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

The year was 1968: The Beatles were on the radio, Bullitt was playing in every cinema, and the Volkswagen Bug had become a cult classic in the United States. The Beetle–officially called the “Type 1”–was also a hugely popular economy car in countries such as Mexico. So when NATO’s ill-conceived project to invent a light amphibious “Europa Jeep” patrol car stalled (spoiler: it would never get started again), it turned to VW to build a stop-gap military transport.

As luck would have it, VW’s market research showed a more off-road capable civilian vehicle would sell well in Mexico, where the roads had been especially hard on the popular Beetle. So Volkswagen literally threw together an off-roader out of spare parts.

The “Type 181” project shared the Beetle’s drivetrain. This means it was RWD, with a tiny flat-four engine in the trunk. It made 46 horsepower.

Volkswagen reused the Karmann Ghia’s floor pan because that car was wider than the Beetle. Then it stamped out the simplest square body panels possible. The resulting vehicle was a chunky four-door convertible. It had a long trunk with room for the spare tire, flat fenders, and a fold-down windshield.

The Type 181’s windows did not roll down. Want to drive an old VW Thing around without windows? You’ll have to remove them and leave them at home or toss them in the frunk.

The Volkswagen Thing is a unicorn in the U.S.

Closeup of a blue Volkswagen Safari built on a Beetle chassis as a military transport.
Volkswagen “Safari” Type 181 in Mexico | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

Back to my Thing-sighting in Mexico. I was shocked because I had yet to see a VW Thing. Air-cooled Volkswagen fans certainly talk about the car, but surviving examples are rare. This is because Volkswagen began to export the car to the United States in 1973 but had to pull it from the market after 1974.

The U.S. implemented stricter crash regulations after 1974. The little rear-engine convertible had very little crash protection. But the final straw was how close the windshield is to the driver and front passenger.

The Type 181 was only called the “Thing” in the United States. The military version was just called the “Type 181” or “Type 182” in righthand drive countries. The ground clearance of the military versions benefited from a VW-built portal axle, which was a pretty cool upgrade. But its lack of 4WD still limited its capabilities.

The Type 181 I spotted in Mexico was actually branded as a Volkswagen “Safari.” It was built alongside the Beetle in the Puebla, Mexico, VW factory between 1970 and 1980. Despite this VW’s rough condition, gazing at it got me daydreaming of an off-road jungle expedition to some undiscovered Mayan pyramids. But the truth is that the Type 181 would have been the wrong VW for the job.

Volkswagen improved on the Thing with its Iltis 4×4

This is a Volkswagen Type 183 "Jeep" parked in front of a stucco house in Mexico.
Volkswagen “Safari” Type 181 in Mexico | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

Volkswagen dubbed its next-generation military Jeep the Type 183–unsurprisingly. But it also was dubbed the “Iltis.” The word is German for a local predator, also known as the Polecat. This go-around, it shared an advanced 4WD chassis with the Audi 100–according to Petrolicious.

The improved drivetrain was all the Iltis needed to achieve off-road greatness. In fact, this 4×4 won the 1980 Paris Dakar rally race. Best of all, the Iltis retained the Thing’s off-beat style. The Iltis is just the “thing” for your next retro rally.

Next, read about a Volkswagen Iltis in the Dakar Classic reenactment or watch Doug DeMuro review the Volkswagen Thing in the video below: