Cheap Thing: 1974 Volkswagen Thing Project

The VW Thing was known as the Type 181 on its home turf, starting out as a utility vehicle developed for the West German Army. It became available in the civilian market starting in 1968 and enjoyed a run through 1983. In the U.S., the Thing would only have a two-year appearance between 1973-74. It lost out to Ralph Nader and the U.S. Government in the safety department. This ‘74 Thing is pretty battered and beaten and has been in storage for a number of years, so it will need some work to come back to life. It’s located in Kalispell, Montana and available here on craigslist for $4,950. Thank you, david R, for this tip!

VW’s Thing was manufactured in different places around the world and was sold under all kinds of names. In West Germany, it was known as the Kurierwagen (“courier car”), the Trekker in the U.K., the Safari in Mexico and so forth. The Type 181 shared components with all sorts of VW products, including the Beetle, pre-1968 Microbus, Karmann Ghia and the VW Kübelwagen used by the German military in World War II. All four doors were removable and interchangeable, the windshield folded down flat, and the convertible roof could be taken off. The interior offered zero creature comforts, with your basic bucket seats, painted sheet metal, and drain holes for the release of water.

These strange vehicles were barely powerful enough to get out of their own way. Using a VW air-cooled, 46-hp, 1600-cc flat-four with a 4-speed manual transmission, the Thing would blaze its way from zero to 60 mph in a neck-snapping 23 seconds! VW produced about 140,000 of these “things” over the course of about 15 years, with maybe 25,000 of them reaching the U.S. As American safety standards were tightening by 1974, Ralph Nader got his way when the Thing was unable to meet those requirements going forward.

The seller’s ’74 Thing is a project vehicle. This one has dents and dings most everywhere, although signs of rust are minimal even though these machines were notorious for being rust buckets. Once you beat everything out, a new coat of red paint would be in order. There is a place on the fiberglass top where its been whacked, but it may be okay. The seller says the floors are good and he’s taken out the roll cage since the photos were taken. We’re also told the carb is going to need work after sitting for so long, so the status of the rest of the engine is unknown. The seller will send along a variety of parts.

Due to their oddity and scarcity today, the resale value on 1973-74 Things is higher than you’d probably expect. Hagerty says $11,000 will buy you one in Fair condition and if you want one that’s Concours (if there is even such a thing), prepare to lay down $40,000. So, at almost $5,000, the seller’s Thing is practically a bargain. Your best bet might be to just get it running, fix anything that needs fixing, and drive it as-is to Cars & Coffee and watch the heads turn!

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Comments

  1. Ian C

    Not a bad deal at all, even considering the damage that needs repair. I hope it still has the gas heater under the hood. Those things are awesome!! I had thought about installing one in my Beetle, but it doesn’t get driven in winter. I would still like to have one though.

    Like 6
    • alphasud Member

      No gas heaters for 74. It was standard on 73 models only.

      Like 2
  2. Charles

    I wanted one of these so bad in 1974 , I had a 69 beetle that I wanted to trade in, the local dealer wouldn’t give me what I wanted on trade so I didn’t buy the thing ..I wish I had of.. wish I had one today

  3. JoeNYWF64

    Front bumper & extra paint included? Is that an aftermarket electric defroster pointed at the windshield?
    I imagine few locked the doors on these – with exposed screwdriver friendly hinges like those.

    Like 1
  4. Buffalo Bob

    The Borla-looking muffler tips suggest the engine has been played with. If so, horsepower is probably up to at least 60 (I know. Still not neck-snapping). Get her running, THEN list it. Drives me nuts when someone lists the easiest engine in the world to work on as non-running. And, even needing work, that hard top is a HUGE selling point. I hope it goes to someone who’ll do it justice.

    Like 3
    • Mountainwoodie

      Yup. Just cant be bothered. Wants a buyer to pay him for the privilege of leaving it non op. That hard top looks weird, bent in the back.though its fiberglass. Maybe a photo distortion. Anyway….if someone pays almost five grand I wont be surprised. There doesnt seem to be an agreed upon value for anythinig anymore

  5. Carlos PR

    I would love to have this here In Puerto Rico…🤙🏿🇵🇷

  6. Erik

    If you want to know the true value of classic VWs the shop for one on thesamba.com rather than going on what some are selling for at auctions attended by deep pocketed impulse buyers looking to add something different to their “collection”. As an avid classic VW guy for 30 years, for the past 20 years I have never found thesamba.com out of line like so many other websites out there because the community on that site is made up of true enthusiasts who know their stuff and anything overpriced or out of line laments like an unwelcomed uncomfortable guest at a party enjoyed by all the rest.

    This Thing is in many ways a big project and it will need to be restored rather than driven as is. By all means one can find a Thing that is in driver condition and drive it as is. Or there is always the option to do a “half-a**ed” quickie “50 footer” restoration. But with this Thing, based on current condition, if you are going to jump in, then better do it right than not at all IMHO.

    Having restored my 1974 Thing to high quality “stock” level over a span of the past 15 years (YES 15 years!!!), Things can be costly to restore if done right as it should be done because these were only available 2 years in U.S. and at that were not that plentiful and not many have survived yet these are not rare either.

    Paint and body work is always a costly item for any restoration and it is even more costly on a Thing because due to lack of interior panels on a Thing that leads to need to restore and paint not only the exterior body and paint but also do the same to the ENTIRE inside of vehicle as it ALL shows and is not covered up by any dash or door panels. And then the fact that the Thing has a “frunk” (class VW speak for “front trunk”) without any mats or coverings (or “spatter paint” like some classics used) that all needs painted entirely in body color as well and the same goes for the entire engine bay in the back.

    To do all above, the body should be removed from the “pan” (VW speak for “floor with frame”) and that is easy enough as Thing body in itself is fairly light and well constructed to not need bracing). This will make all that body work and paint much easier for yourself or your shop doing your work. A rotisserie is optional but there is no easy way to attach a Thing body to one so it is just as easy to set the Thing body on two well constructed “saw horses” (which I made more “box shape” then also connected together front to back and put on strong caster wheels) so that Thing body’s “inner wheel arches” sit on them. Making the “saw horses” a little taller allows the sides of the body to be at the level that windows on a typical car would sit (remember, the Thing has no window frames or roof and the fold down windshield will be removed with all other removable panels such as doors, hood, decklid, fenders, etc) which being at that level makes it much easier for doing body and paint and even allows you or your shop to duck under sides to access inside of body surfaces (interior, “frunk”, engine bay in back) for body work and paint. This “saw horse” on caster wheels allows the body to be rolled around as needed by you or by your shop doing your bodywork and paint.

    So while the body and paint is being done then it is best to do the “pan” as well by blasting it down and repainting it underneath as well as on top which will be the interior floor that will be seen as there is no carpet in a Thing and only perforated floor mats (stock) for drainage or wooden slated “duck boards”.

    Keeping track of the costs to this point? And luckily my Thing was a “southern survivor” that I brought up to Pennsylvania but despite that hopefully you now know why my project took 15 years, especially since this is just my hobby and so family, work, and other things in life take precedence in time and money.

    Luckily the mechanicals of a Thing are simple and similar to a VW Beetle, but there are still many mechanical parts that are “Thing specific” and as such cost a little more than off the shelf classic VW Beetle parts which are even available through Rock Auto. But luckily there are a few great and helpful vendors out there (such as the Thing Shop in Chandler, AZ) that cater directly to Thing enthusiasts and have nearly all the parts you need for your Thing but they do add up in cost including the shipping costs.

    As far as the parts not available (or too expensive for new ones) then let your scavenger hunt begin!

    For 5 years (after the purchase of my Thing “project”) on my daily work commute I drove by two Things sitting outside a mobile home along with a bunch of other “junk”. Before I bought mine, I had thought about inquiring about them but I sought out the “best example” I could for mine, and these were not “good examples”. One Thing was rusty and crusty and the other Thing was smashed in the front (like this one). But after I bought mine, I did stop to “look” and found they were complete and had many parts I could use including a VW OE rollcage (which many did not have but I wanted for mine) and Thing specific “low back seats”. So I would stop twice a year (Spring and Fall) to inquire about buying parts or the whole car and the old man in the trailer would be friendly enough and I would show him photos of my own project but tell me each time that he planned on making two into one “some day”. Then one day I drove by and there were dumpsters outside the trailer and the Things were gone! I stopped and nobody was home at trailer. So I asked a nearby neighbor and they said the old man passed away so I asked if they knew if there was any “estate” in charge of the trailer and stuff outside and they said no. Then I asked about the Things and they said a flatbed hauled them away right before the dumpsters were dropped off that morning but when I asked if any name was on the flatbed truck they could not recall. So left a note and number on the door of the trailer with hopes somebody would call. Eventually I got a call and found out the flatbed was a scrap yard so then I called the scrap yard and inquired (mind you this was when scrap prices were at a peak) and eventually found out that the cars had already went through the crushes at the scrap yard! Ughhh!!!

    Over past 15 years, I eventually found correct front seats (mine had Beetle high back seats a previous owner swapped with the original lowback seats and probably tossed the originals away – I can hear the “gasps” from the Thing community) about two hours drive away in a Thing sitting in a field so I brought them home only to about 5 years ago discover they were rotted under the seat horsehair, foam, and coverings. Duh! I should have figured the “donor” Thing that I pulled the seats from (along with pulling some minor “spare parts”) was sitting in a field for lord knows how long and that the seats would have had water logged horsehair and foam up against the steel frames of the seats which in turn rotted them out. So those scavenged lowback seats ended up scrap (after pulling off usable parts) and luckily two years ago I found an online video of how to “convert” highback Beetle seats to lowback seats so that saved the day by using my existing seat frames modified to lowbacks and recovered with Thing specific seat coverings.

    Original wheels are Thing specific too (due to setbacks in rims) and like the seats, a previous owner of my Thing decided to add aftermarket wheels to the Thing at some point in the late 1970s and likely tossed the originals away (“gasp”). The owner of the Thing that the seats above came from was not willing to part with the wheels as he said he wanted to be able to move the Thing at some point of need be but to be honest that Thing was already stuck in the ground and I would not be surprised if that Thing is still sitting in that field where it was when I was there years ago to take the seats and some small parts.

    My Thing’s bumpers are okay but not perfect and luckily just needed a fresh coat of black paint. But I have never found better donors and I have yet to save up enough or be able to justify new ones from the Thing Shop but more so the cost two ship them across the country. But I know I should bite the bullet someday and acquire them.

    Sorry for the long story here but that has been my Thing project and I am sure many out there have experienced similar experiences with their own projects for other classic cars.

    I will say if I could go back 15 years I am not sure if I would do it all again but rather maybe I would have instead bought one that was in original condition or one already restored and enjoyed it the past 15 years of my life. But at least with mine I have the stories and experiences and in the end I know how all the work was done on mine and it was to my expectations.

    As far as this Thing, it seems like a lot of work and cost, especially given the front nose damage. But like any old car, it can be done with time and money, depending on how much of either one has. This Thing has the fiberglass top but at that it has issues with it that need repaired and many Thing owners, including myself, want to easily drop the top and not have to lift off a fiberglass top. And I would be curious as to if the roll bar is the desirable OE VW roll bar.

    Thanks for reading as it is the stories just as much as the cars that make our classic car hobby so great!

    Like 12
    • Skorzeny

      Erik, that is by far the longest post I have ever seen on BF, but I applaud you for it. I have become interested in 181’s and you have provided much information. Later I will save your post on my PC. Thank you!

      Like 8
    • alphasud Member

      The factory style exhaust was obscenity expensive when I worked on them at the first shop of my automotive career and that was back in the 80’s. The thing is no Beetle but actually extremely tough using bus suspension components, beefier pan, I believe type 3 rear brakes from memory. When you bought one it was not much different than the military vehicle.

      Like 1
  7. Rabbit

    Not a single engine photo? As my brother said, that muffler would leave one to believe the motor’s not stock. At least we know it’s back there…But in what state?

    Like 1
  8. Christopher Gentry

    Some one mentioned the gas heater , my uncle had beautiful orange THING back in the 80s. Every time that gas heater was turned on you heard a very small explosion …. Whoooppp. Scared heck outta us Every time. But it sure was warm.

  9. steve

    The top looks like it is cracked in the center, the motor lid looks like it has a broken hinge or is bent, the hood is not an easy repair, flat tire , no pics of the floors or motor, price is a little high for a frame-off to get running, also brake drums only fit the thing so if those are bad good luck. anyhow at $2000. it would be priced to sell , might be a Cal. dude will show up … Body parts are not cheap. If you live in Montana and drive in the winter better gear up on warm clothing as these cars have no insulation, and leak air like a sieve

  10. chrlsful

    “…15 years…”?
    I (unfortunately?) got 38 yrs in on this one (not a Thing, but MY thing).
    aahahahaaa

    Like 1
  11. Jim

    I test drove a slightly used thing in the mid 70s. Not fair to call it a vehicle. Rough,loud.underpowered, and not even a radio or heater. Save your money and buy a nice new to you bicycle!

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