Home » Why The Volkswagen ‘Thing’ Might Be An Even Better Safari Vehicle Than A Jeep

Why The Volkswagen ‘Thing’ Might Be An Even Better Safari Vehicle Than A Jeep

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I just returned from Indonesia, where I partook in the less-steamy parts of my brother’s honeymoon; among them was a ride around Bali in a Volkswagen Thing, which isn’t dissimilar to the VW Kuebelwagen that went toe-to-toe with the Jeep during World War II. VW and Jeep have competed ever since, as the two brands have had a larger influence on global car culture than any two others (go to any country on earth, and you’ll find a VW or its derivative; ditto with Jeep, especially if you consider that the Land Rover and Land Cruiser both started off life as Jeep imitators — millions of folks have had to choose between a Jeep and a Volkswagen). As someone who has extensive Jeep experience and limited VW experience, what did I think of the Thing? Well, I think in many ways it may be superior to the Jeep.

Let me begin by saying that my flight back to the U.S. landed last night, and in addition to ending up sick, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. So this blog is likely going to have some flaws. But let’s get into it. At first blush, it may seem odd to compare a rear-wheel drive, air-cooled VW to a four-wheel drive liquid-cooled Jeep, but go to the remotest parts of the world, and those two are often the only choice: It’s either a VW or some form of a Jeep. And while “some form” often includes Land Cruisers and Land Rovers and Mitsubishi Pajeros and Suzuki Jimnys, for this comparison, I’m just going to talk about the true Jeeps that I’m used to — vehicles vastly superior off-road than pretty much any VW not named Iltis. But just because Jeeps are better off-road, does that make them better for, say, island safaris? As I came to find out, the answer is a firm “no.”

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The drive began at our hotel just outside of Ubud. It’s a town nestled in the jungle about an hour and a half inland from the airport, which sits on the southern shore of the island. Folks typically travel to Ubud to relax, drink coffee that originated in a cat’s poop, do Yoga, explore beautiful waterfalls and rice terraces, and get massages. It’s further proof that I, a former oil-covered Detroit junkyard-warrior, have gone soft. But also, I was here to hang out with my brother:

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I’d been expecting Jeeps, which is why when a pair of VW Things showed up, I was a little bummed. But in short order, it became clear to me that these Things are much, much better than not just the Jeeps I’m used to, but certainly the “Jeeps” running all around Ubud. These Suzukis:

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The reason why is simple: Even though the Volkswagen Thing, which is largely based on the Beetle (but with a wider pan) and inspired by the WWII Kuebelwagen, is significantly less advanced than Jeeps in terms of powertrain and drivetrain (the Jeep has a liquid cooled engine and four-wheel drive, while the VW is an air-cooled motor with two-wheel drive), the body is significantly more advanced than those of Jeeps — namely, VWs were unibody and open-top Jeeps have aways been body-on-frame.

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What does this mean practically? Well, for one: SPACE.

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A unibody vehicle uses the body itself to carry all the loads that go into the vehicle from the road (braking, accelerating, steering, hitting potholes, etc), whereas a body-on-frame vehicle needs a separate frame to handle loads. The result is that adding the frame creates bulk, which becomes especially noticeable when you sit in the VW Thing.

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“I feel like this thing is too low to the ground to be good off-road,” my girlfriend said to me while comparing the riding experience to my Jeep Wrangler YJ. “Well actually, we’re sitting low, but actually the ground clearance is quite good. You see, the unibody construction of this — yadayadayada (this is where my girlfriend tuned out).”

Case in point, check out this giant pothole:

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The Thing soaked it up without issue:

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More impressive than the good ground clearance/low center of gravity combo is all the storage the unibody construction affords. I mean, look at this frunk:

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And check out behind the second row:

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Speaking of the second row, look at all that space! You can easily fit three people across in the second row, and the legroom isn’t bad!:

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What’s more, check this out — the seats fold!:

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If you’re not impressed, you need only look at the lack of space in a Jeep like my 1991 Jeep Wrangler. That’s this:

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Jeeps like this have been the go-to rental cars on islands like those of Hawaii, but if we’re being honest, these machines are a bit miserable. I mean, look at how little storage space there is behind the rear bench (and this is the only cargo storage the Jeep has):

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Look at how narrow the rear bench is, and look at all that useless space to the left and right — that flat surface above the wheel wells is a complete waste — if you drive around with something sitting on top, it will just slide off and end up in the footwell:

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Speaking of the footwell, the legroom behind the front seats is awful:

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You may be wondering: “Why are you comparing a 1970s VW to a Jeep YJ?” The truth is, it doesn’t really matter — the YJ, if anything, is on the bigger side. Compare the Thing to the old CJ5 from the early 1970s, and you’ll see that old CJ was even more cramped:

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And the Willys Surrey — a vehicle specifically meant to haul people around resorts? It was also really tight in the back seat, and wasted a lot of room trying to clear drivetrain components that didn’t exist (the Surrey was rear-wheel drive but shared the body of a four-wheel drive CJ-3A):

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The truth is, unless you’re going off-road, Jeeps aren’t really the best runabout vehicles. And even if you are going slightly off-road, the VW Thing can hang! The engine sits close to the rear axle, weighing the driven wheels down; along with a suspension that travels quite well, this gives the Thing confident traction:

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I’d also like to note how sweet the folding windshield is:

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The release clamp isn’t unlike a Willys Jeep’s:

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But instead of a tie-down strap to hold the windshield against some big wood blocks, there are little rubber sockets meant to fit the metal balls integrated into the windshield:

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It’s clever stuff. Quick and easy, and apparently good enough to keep the windscreen down at moderate speeds thanks largely to the sheer weight of the thing. The view out of the front is phenomenal!:

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My coworker Jason tells me that some of these “Type 181s” came with portal rear axles, but the models I was riding in — presumably late 1970s models — appear to have featured semi-trailing arms with torsion bars:

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I also have to give a shoutout to the doors, which have an inner and outer panel, with the space between used for storage (but I assume primarily there to give the door stiffness):

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Overall, I have to hand it to the Type 181 “Thing.” There’s a reason why in some markets it’s called the Safari: It is, in some ways, the ultimate. It’s got tons of room, it’s good enough off-road, the lack of pillars and the easy-fold windshield makes for amazing visibility, the VW powertrain and drivetrain is bone-simple and incredibly easy to find parts for. If you’re not doing crazy off-roading, the Thing is better for the driver and for the rider — it is an absolutely fantastic package, and a whole lot of fun.

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Jeep gods, you may now strike me with your wrath.

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Usernametaken
Usernametaken
3 months ago

Has not a single person commented on DTs zip off cargo pants?

Clearly a sign that LA has taken him. A hardened Midwesterner wouldn’t have taken long pants to Bali.

FleetwoodBro
FleetwoodBro
3 months ago

I learned how to drive in a VW Thing on a muddy farm. It was bone stock except for some narrow little mud tires and never got stuck going to the back pasture. An FJ60 Land Cruiser, a 1978 Jeep Cherokee with Quadratrac! (this system seemed engineered to insure that only the one wheel with no traction would turn), various 4wd pickup trucks, and a CJ-7 all got stuck up to the axles at one time or another. Not the Thing! It also rode over bumps much better than any of those vehicles.

LTDScott
LTDScott
3 months ago

This brings back fond memories. Back in the ’80s when I was a kid my dad was general manager for Garuda Indonesian Airlines at Melbourne airport, so I got to travel to Indonesia many times, and my dad would borrow cars from local friends while we were there. I still very clearly remember bombing around the jungles of Bali with young me in the back seat of one of these.

Last edited 3 months ago by LTDScott
MegaVan
MegaVan
3 months ago

Seems like a Willys Jeepster would be a more apt comparison than a Wrangler. Not sure how those were on space though.

Why not a VEEP?

http://www.ewillys.com/category/veep/

LactoseTheIntolerant
LactoseTheIntolerant
3 months ago

I currently have an 81 Jeep CJ-5 and my last project car was a 70 VW Type I (beetle)

I think this is an apple to pear comparison. Both are simple to repair, both are fun in their own way. Growing up, we had a neighbor who had two Things. They are weird, quirky, and reliable.

Daily driving, the Beetle is just better. 4x4ing, the Jeep can be modified slightly to do more for a low cost $300 for an Aussie locker in the front or rear axle and it now has 3 wheels engaged. Oddly, with full soft doors the heater is equally terrible as the Beetle’s using the engine heat.

Honestly, I think the AMC 4.2 is more reliable than my old Beetle. The oil cooler would leak no matter what I did to stop it. The same was almost true for my Jeep’s valve cover, until I figured out the magical gasket to stop it.

Bummer about the Covid, David! I hope you feel better, soon!

The Clutch Rider
The Clutch Rider
3 months ago

David, are you ok? 🙂

The Clutch Rider
The Clutch Rider
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

sorry to hear about the covid. Good luck with the recovery

This would be the first time I have hear that something might be better than a Jeep

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
3 months ago

David just needs some rest with a cat on his lap ????

Taylor Marshall-Green
Taylor Marshall-Green
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

gross

Sklooner
Sklooner
3 months ago

Cousin in Norway had one of these on his farm, he said better than a jeep because lighter- his had the portal axles as it wasn’t actually a thing but a basterdized kubelwagen- neighbor had a kettenkrad with the front wheel missing that he used to pull his boat out of the water and small farm duties

James Wallace
James Wallace
3 months ago

I really never got why you needed a super duper off road vehicle in the first place. I started using a VW Squareback for my off road and ski adventures. Off road in the Mojave Desert, it was king. I would go out to some god forsaken place and end up in the capital of nowhere and there would be a Land Cruiser FJ and some CJ something jeep. They would be astonished I was able to make it. Well it was kind of a goat. No, really would not rock crawl in it, but really there is no super good reason to that in the first place, unless there is some kind of body part measurement taking place. For skiing it was great in the snow and you could sleep in the parking lot inn the back. Its major shortcoming would come out; a complete lack of effective heating. My Squareback was a vehicle we had when we lived in Switzerland, acquired off the European delivery system. Drove it all over Europe for a few yeas before it was handed down to me to thrash.

While not a Thing, it had most of the effective good features and handling off road and in the snow. I ended up becoming a geologist, much to the dismay of my NROTC commander, since they sent me to be a pilot. I sold the Squareback in favor of a Land Rover Series IIa. It did do better off road, not by much. It was also a box of noisy brain damaging noise on the highway. You do have to go some distance on highways to get to the off-road part. There have been times I missed the medium noise of the VW purr on the highway. I ended up driving Land Rovers, like forever. On my ninth, with a new Defender in the garage. I would have likely gotten another rear engined VW to go to the field with, except VW abandoned them after the Vanagon, which I tried a VW Vanagon Syncro Westfalia for a bit. It was too delicate for any off road of consequence. It lost the “simple” aspect of previous rear engined air cooled ones. You also had to maintain AAA membership, preferably Platinum level, so you could get it home about 1 out of 20 trips.

I was engaged to the VW distributor’s daughter for a while at UCLA. He told me the Thing was conceived to be upgraded, but the market share in the US would never justify the engineering cost to give it crash and emissions standards to meet the CARB rules and front impact standards. It would have had to have the Rabbit engine and a radiator to give it any hope on emissions and all this would have more or less made it a non-Thing after they beefed up the front. That and the Rabbit engine would hang down below the pan a bit unless the doghouse for the engine got a lot taller.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago

I am a thing fan. However if memory serves these dumpsters on wheels were discontinued do to horrible safety ratings?

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

I think they were discontinued at the same time as most other air cooled vws in favor of higher horsepower, newer, more efficient, and I’m sure safer Golfs.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Not to disagree but Wikipedia mentions in NA they were unable to meet 1975 stricter safety standards. But yeah they certainly were not high powered.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

They rust immediately, which is probably why David likes them.

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

The screen folds down for great visibility. “The view out of the front is phenomenal!:”

Rollover protection (if you can call it that) not so much.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago
Reply to  My 0.02 Cents

I do wonder if it is possible to rollover a thing based on turnover alone?

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

I suspect you’d really have to try, but at the same time you wouldn’t want to succeed…

Engine Adventures
Engine Adventures
3 months ago

What exactly do you store between the outer and inner door panels? It appears to be some sort of white powder wrapped in green plastic wrap.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
3 months ago

Congrats David’s brother. David, also glad to hear you had a great vacation with your family and friend(s).

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