Click HERE for a Thing GIF (57K)
The Volkswagen Type 181, variously known as the Thing, the Trekker, and the Safari, is a vehicle developed for the civilian market in the 1960's from the Type 82 Kubelwagen used by Germany during WWII as a light field transport vehicle. The Type 82 was derived from the KDFwagen chassis platform, a mass produced "people's car" for German families designed by Ferdinand Porsche (father of the Porsche marque) at the request of Adolf Hitler. As part of the increase of German military power in the 1930's, a military adaption of the KDF platform was suggested in 1934. But it was not until January 1938 that the German military presented Porsche with the specifications for what was to become known as the Type 62. Porsche called on the Trutz company of Gotha to design a special light weight body to be used on the KDFwagen platform, and two prototypes were produced in February of 1938. One of the prototype body styles featured a rounded body and fenders, while the other had a more angular body. Both mounted the spare tire in a recess in the vehicle's front hood (bonnet). Both prototypes were rejected by the German military, however, which requested a more "military" body style. The resulting redesign, even boxier and more angular, received acceptance and field testing was begun.
Click here for a 50K GIF of a Type 62.
Field tests of the Type 62 resulted in a request for better off road performance, and Porsche responded by fitting spur gear reduction units to the outer rear wheel hubs, and by redesigning the front hubs. These changes lowered the final gear ratio and increased the ground clearance of the Type 62 by two additional inches, producing the desired off-road performance improvements. Combined with a cam-type limited slip differential and hydraulic steering damper, the Type 62 demonstrated off-road performance equal to, and in some cases better than four wheel drive alternatives. The Type 62 utilized a 985cc, 24 hp VW engine and a four speed, unsynchronized transmission. The first Type 62's were delivered to the Army in December 1939 and given the official designation Type 82. A convertible canvas top was fitted, but heaters were not fitted until later in 1940. By the end of 1940, over one thousand Type 82's had been produced. The early Type 82 dash panel was small, and included only a speedometer, but was increased in size in 1941. Other changes to the basic Kubel included a larger 1131cc engine of 25 hp which was introduced in March of 1943.
Click here for a 45L GIF of a standard Kubelwagen.
A two wheel drive Africa Korps Type 82 was captured by the Allies early in the North African campaign, and in 1941 was shipped to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland for testing and evaluation. Tests proved that although the two wheel drive Type 82 could not quite equal the American GP "Jeep" in extreme conditions, it's cross country capability was none-the-less remarkable, and it possessed several advantages over the Jeep including: several hundred pounds less weight; less material used in its production; nearly double the fuel mileage; very simple to operate and maintain; very rugged; sufficiently room for four occupants; and more agile than the Jeep. Official judgements on the cross country capabilities of four wheel drive Type 82's with their standard cam-type locking differentials both front and rear were either nonexistent, or have been lost in antiquity. However, given the nearly equal performance of the two wheel drive Type 82's compared to the Jeep (with locking differentials neither front nor rear), it is not unlikely that the four wheel drive Type 82 could outperform the Jeep under nearly all conditions. (See below for standard Jeep dimensions and history.)
As Germany had pressed many captured vehicles into service during its initial territorial expansion, so too did the Allies attempt to use captured Axis vehicles to their own benefit. To this end the War Department issued a series of Restricted Technical manuals prefixed by the letter designation "E" (for "Enemy") covering the operation and maintenance of captured enemy vehicles and equipment. After being tested, the captured Africa Korps Type 82 was disassembled, and a manual—TM E9-803—was issued that included a general description; operating instructions; a troubleshooting section; first and second echelon maintenance instructions; shipping instructions; and a list of standard American equipment which could be used with the Type 82. The Type 82 is mechanically very similar to Volkswagens produced after the war, and TM E9-803's repair and maintenance sections could easily be mistaken for those of the earlyVolkswagens.
TM E9-803 lists the following specifications and capabilities for the Type 82:
The instrument panel of the tested Type 82 featured a centrally mounted faceplate containing (clockwise, from the 12 o'clock position): a speedometer; the left directional signal indicator light; high beam indicator; ignition key; dashboard light switch; oil pressure warning light; and ammeter warning light. the faceplate was mounted to an instrument panel that contained two fuse boxes, one on either side of the faceplate; a starter motor push button; a trouble lamp socket; the right directional indicator light; and a multiple with an "Off" position, a position to energize the blackout driving and tail light, and a position to energize the headlamps. The foot operated high beam switch was located on the bulkhead just ahead of the foot pedal cluster, and the engine choke and parking brake were located on the central tunnel. Two self contained, electric windshield wiperswere set into the windshield frame and connected to the main wiring harness.
The Type 82 became popularly known as the Kubelwagen (64K GIF) , Kubelsitzer, or simply Kubel, names which derived from "Kubelsitzwagen," or "bucket seat car," even though many German military vehicles were equipped with bucket seats. The Kubelwagen's aircooled engine enabled it to operate effectively in the both the heat of the Saharan Desert and the cold of Eastern Europe, and the vehicle proved to be agile and tough. The Kubelwagen was outfitted in four basic configurations: four seated car; a four seated survey vehicle; an ambulance, having two seats in tandem on the left side of the vehicle, and a litter on the right side; and a three seated radio car. Total production of the basic Kubel amounted to about 55,000 vehicles.
One variant of the Kubelwagen, the Type 166 amphibious Schwimmwagen, was produced in large numbers. A production run of 150 Porsche prototypes was made under the designation Type 128 for field trials in 1940, but this design was not chosen for production. The Schwimmwagen employed the KDFwagen platform fitted with four wheel drive and a boat-like body with full length fenders. Propulsion in water was provided by a three bladed propeller geared to the engine and mounted on a hinged arm. Schwimmer maximum speeds were 6 knots in water and 50 mph on land. Some 14,265 Schwimmwagens were produced between 1942 and 1944.
Click here for a 45K GIF of a Schwimmwagen.
Several other variants of the Kubelwagen were produced as prototypes, including a half-track version, a version designed to run on railroad tracks, and a version with a 29" shorter wheelbase, but none of these were produced in any numbers. Field modifications were common, such as additional armor plating to protect occupants from small arms fire.
An updated, civilian version of the Kubelwagen with new bodywork was renamed the Type 181 and introduced in the U.S. in the late 1973 as the Thing. Changes included a more modern and complete dash; 40 hp engine; synchromesh transmission; spare tire lodged under a raised front hood; squared fenders; re-shaped doors; new door latches; re-hinging the front door by its forward edge (as opposed to the original Kubel's rear-hinged, "suicide" hinge configuration); headlights mounted in, rather than on the front fenders; the addition of bumpers; and an optional hard top and gas cabin heater. Other changes included the deletion of rear hub reduction gears at the end of 1973, and the deletion of the limited slip differential. All Things imported to the US by VW were produced in Mexico, and importation ceased in 1974.
Click here for a 36K GIF of Chris Smith's red Thing, with the top down.
The VW Thing is built on a chassis pan similar to, but different than that used in the Karman Ghia, and the running gear shares some parts with Beetles and Busses, while including other parts that are unique to the 181. Being built from the same basic chassis pan, the Thing's specifications are similar to those of the Beetle and Microbus. Importation into the US ceased in 1974, though Type 181's continued to be built and sold in Mexico and Brazil for several year thereafter.
A loyal group of Thing owners exists, and can be contacted at the The Internet Type 181 Club Homepage which also includes many links to related 181 web sites.
The data for this page was obtained or inferred from The Observer's Fighting Vehicles Directory by Barth Vanderveen; from the March 1995 issue of VW Trends; and from Volkswagen for the Wehrmacht (TM E9-803). My thanks to Chris Horn for lending me his copy of Dr. Mayer's book. The VW Trends article has a number of very interesting Kubel photos. Information regarding Kubels is sketchy and often contradictory. All information I have included here is thought to be correct, but I will gladly amend any information that is proven to be wrong. If you have further Kubelwagen information, please contact me by clicking here.
Comparisons between the Type 82 and American Jeep continue to be made, and a little information on the Jeep seems appropriate here. In 1939, then Chief of Staff George Marshall requested that the Army's Utility Vehicle Committee draw up specifications for a Light Command and Reconnaissance Car. The resulting specifications approved by Marshall were sent to 135 US automobile manufacturers and suppliers for bids on seventy vehicles. The committee's specifications were daunting: vehicle weight of 1300 pounds; wheelbase of 80 inches or less; a payload of 600 pounds; an engine producing at least 85 foot pounds of torque; a minimum speed of three miles per hour, and a requirement of four wheel drive. But the most difficult requirement was the timeline: the first vehicle would have to be delivered in only 49 days, with the remaining sixty-nine vehicles to be delivered in an additional 26 days. So imposing were these requirements that only two firms returned the bid forms: Willys-Overland, and the smaller American Bantam company, which had each researched and produced very small automobiles.
Almost immediately, the two primary designers—Berney Roos for Willys, and Karl Probst for Bantam each made an important decision. Roos decided that the Army's timeline was impossible. And Probst decided that the 1300 minimum weight was similarly impossible. Probst, aware that Bantam was a small company that needed new business, did adhere to the production timeline, and ultimately was responsible for Bantam's rollout of the first BRC (Bantam Reconnaissance Car) on September 21, 1940, just 47 days after Bantam had signed the production contract. The first BRC was tested and adjusted for two days, and then driven directly to Camp Holbert, Maryland for Army testing. Testing was successful, and even though the 1840 pound weight exceeded the original design specifications, approval for another 70 BRC's was given to Bantam.
Although Bantam had produced the first of what would become know as "GP's", or "Jeeps", production demand soon exceeded Bantam's capability, and Army contracts were let to Willys-Overland and Ford who each produced a slightly different version. Unable to satisfy ever increasing production numbers, Bantam's production percentage dwindled, and the Willys MA version of the BRC became the recognized standard.
The general specifications of the standardized Jeep, Willys MA version, were as follows:
Historical information on Jeeps was derived from The Complete Four Wheel Drive Manual by John Gunnell.