Volkswagen Type 181

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Volkswagen Type 181

1970 - 1973
Flat 4.
1500/1600 cc
4 spd. man
Top Speed:
Number Built:
2 star
Volkswagen Type 181
Volkswagen Type 181
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 2


While the Karmann-Ghia represented the sporty, elegant side of the Beetle family, another member, the Type 181 diametrically opposed it. A strictly utilitarian vehicle, the 181's design echoed that of the wartime Kubelwagen. It went into production at the Hanover factory in 1970, and though initially 1500cc powered, the engine was soon replaced by the 1600cc unit. The Type 181 became known as the Trekker in Europe, as the Thing in the US, and as the Safari in Mexico.

A War-Time Resemblance

At first take, there will be some that recognize the similarity of the Type 181 with the Afrika Korps Kubelwagen. Mechanically speaking the 181 was not too dissimilar to the Kubelwagen either. At a time when the Dune Buggy ruled the California beaches, the 181 was essentially a metal tub set on top of transporter suspension, gearbox and engine, the latter being 1600cc and of the twin-port-head type. Ground clearance, already generous, was further improved by fat off-road tyres and the traditional VW twin tailpipe exhaust extending through the sturdy rear bumper.

So that the vehicle had a modicum of creature comfort, there were side-screens that fitted snugly into the doors, the top folded to be held down by straps, the windscreen folded as well, and there was even a petrol heater positioned in the front compartment, leaving not all that much room (with the large spare tyre) for essential goodies.

Volkswagen knew the Type 181 would eventually find its way off-road, so they fitted rubber mats that could be lifted out so that the interior could be cleaned with a hose if necessary. And in Teutonic tradition, everything was sturdy and well made aside from the top clips on the windshield, which many owners complained about in their "letters to the editor". The doors locked but the side-screens didn't, likewise the rubber hood release was right inside and there was no other way of locking the front compartment.

The engine compartment was prone to get dusty and, while the transporter air cleaner was fairly large, we assume those intending their 181 to see a reasonable amount of off-road would have replaced it with one of the tractor type popular with dune buggy's of the era. Despite its utilitarian nature the seats were reasonably comfortable, being covered in black vinyl. The only problem was the colour, which was not ideal given the heat they could build up when under the sun. Owners also complained that they were prone to become sticky as there were no moulded air channels or breathing holes. The seat-belts were lap type, as the door pillars don't exist.

On the Street

As far as street usage was concerned the 181 was not such a bad ride, and for the cars sold in the USA it would have been even better had the engine not been Naderized. It would start willingly enough from cold (with the usual vapour lock when hot; which was usually overcome with plenty of cranking) but the automatic choke let the engine build up into a dull toneless roar. There was a dashpot, of the type then found in atmo transmission cars to keep everything from shutting off on sudden stops, in the linkage, and this resulted in the rpm staying up between shifts. That was OK when speed shifting but took some getting used to when only wanting to amble along. Allegedly the engine was prone to flood and emit too much pollution when when suddenly shut down, hence the dashpot. Owners soon realised that it could be easily backed off in its adjustment.

The Type 181 would happily do 70 mph on the freeway, so long as you could ignore the erratic behaviour of the side-screens, which were apparently never designed for these types of speeds. With top up and sidescreens out the 181 was draftfree in the front seats anyway. And for many markets where the 181 was sold, and especially America, it had been a long time since people had access to an open 4-door touring car. We have been told by many Moke owners that this is the most pleasurable form of motoring. On twisting roads, oversize tyres helped provide good road-holding even though a slightly individual note was lent by the independent rear and the offroad tread making mungeing noises underneath.

On the Road

One problem on the road was that Volkswagen left the transporter springs and shocks pretty much as they were - despite the 181 being considerably lighter. All could be easily fixed if you had three fat mates ride with you - but driving solo, the experience was not so good. It is likely Volkswagen engineers did not adjust the suspension too much because they needed to ensure the car would not bottom out too easily when off-road. Dune Buggies from the time usually sported soft suspension with a lot of movement - the owners using tyre pressure to adjust for off-road work.

Off the Road

Something common to cars of this ilk was severe scuttle shake. TC MG owners had grown to love it, so they probably thought the 181 a perfect drive. But if you could ignore the shake, and the windows, the 181 was a very capable car. There were of course better off-road options, if that was your thing. With a normal differential there was effectively one-wheel drive, should the other lose traction, and that limited what you could climb, especially in loose stuff, as the right rear would start to spin and any hope of traversing a steep hill would be dealt a body blow. Applying motorcycle practice, the sooner 2nd gear was engaged the better but there was not all that much low-down torque low down, not helped by the sizable gap to 3rd.

The brakes were adequate given they were drum all-round, but we have read some stories where, for serious off-road work, some owners set the brakes to operate on the rear wheels only, or even one rear at a time as the steering lock was not as good as it could have been. But even in stock guise, the 181 was still a lot of fun in the dirt. If you believed what VW were saying about the 181 at the time, it was "designed to compete with the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Jeep but is lighter and cheaper than both". Not sure that would have washed with the buying public - perhaps they should have claimed it to be "a lot more fun than a Land Cruiser or Jeep, only cheaper!". But then, we are not in marketing, so what would we know. Whatever the case, the competition had 4-wheel-drive, while the 181 did not even have a limited slip diff.

Despite the marketing hyperbole, the 181 was an immensely capable vehicle, proven by the Africa Korps. It had been decades since the original had seen service, and for many it seemed the 1970s version had only added a radio. Occasional off-road work was well within its ability even though there wasn't too much storage space for extended trips away. The 181 wasn't serious enough for really serious off-road use and it would have cost too much to make it suitable given you could buy the Land Cruiser or Jeep off the showroom floor with brilliant ability. But perhaps the biggest thing counting against the 181 was that it sold for considerably more than the normal VW Beetle - when to our mind it should have sold for less.

The price was always going to make it a big ask, which was a pity, as the 181 was plenty of fun. In 1973, production transferred to Mexico, and the car officially was imported into the US. Because of its military-like appearance and high ground clearance, 2000 were actually built for the German army in 1970. Some also went to the Belgian and Dutch armed forces.
Volkswagen Type 181 Dashboard
Volkswagen Type 181 Flower Power
Volkswagen Type 181 The Thing

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