posted on January 31st, 2019

It’s all about smiles per mile

Here’s a vehicle that makes a lot of “ugliest cars in history” lists. The Volkswagen Thing does not present an elegant image, it’s true, but its chunky design emanates an undeniable charm that makes us thankful for its strange existence.

The Volkswagen Type 181, as it was called internally, was originally commissioned by the Third Reich to serve as a German Jeep of sorts. It was produced for military use through the ‘50s and ‘60s (most went to NATO forces) until it launched for retail in 1969; consumer 181s were manufactured in Mexico, where it was called the “Safari.” It was sold as the “Trekker” in Europe, and the “Thing” in the US.

Though some don’t like it, “Thing” is the perfect name for this vehicle. It’s simple and wacky and the exact opposite of pretentious. It’s a car that’s impossible not to notice on the street, something that puts a grin on your face even if you have no idea what it is. It’s an absurd and fun piece of automotive history, which is why this 1973 Volkswagen Thing is our car of the month for January 2019.

This green Thing resides in sunny Venice, California, and belongs to Turo host Cory S. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it, I just thought it was too cool to pass up,” Cory says about first coming across the Thing for sale. “It happened so fast, I started looking into them and suddenly I had three.” That’s right, Cory has three Things — one green, one orange, and one blue, all available here on Turo. This one is his favorite.

Cory bought it from a guy whose girlfriend owned a flower shop called “Safari Flowers.” She used the Thing to pick up flowers from the LA flower market, and also to deliver bouquets to customers. So that’s the story with the sweet graphics.

Crazy California Cruiser

Besides the flower shop paint, the car is completely original. And it is as simple as a car can get. The “dashboard” has one single gauge, which indicates the speed, fuel level, and mileage. The rear doors don’t have locks. The windows are removable (they don’t roll down), the doors are also removable, and the windshield folds down over the hood. There are no interior panels, just bare painted metal everywhere. They say that people who know what they’re doing can take apart and reassemble a Thing in two hours. There isn’t even a proper floor — the original removable wooden floor slats are a rare find nowadays, and have the perfect vibe for cruising around Venice Beach.

Behind the wheel… let’s just say the Thing isn’t winning any J.D. Power awards. Being a 40-something-year-old Volkswagen with no insulation or damping to speak of, it’s got rattles and creaks and then some (though it’s been nothing but reliable, Cory is happy to report). And it is slow. Like, slow. The 1,584 cc engine comes from other Volkswagens of the era and its 46 horsepowers can apparently get the Thing up to 65 mph with enough road. Oh and the factory-claimed zero-to-60 time is 23 seconds. Which, at that point, why even bother timing?

But its slowness is its best (maybe only) safety feature. The Thing was classified as a “multipurpose vehicle” when it came to the States, which freed it from the tighter safety restrictions applied to passenger cars. In 1975, the Thing fell victim to Ralph Nader and his favorite hobby of destroying fun and interesting cars, when it was reclassified according to Nader’s new safety regulations and discontinued in the US.

And that’s a bummer, because the Thing is a joyous vehicle. What it lacks in amenities and comfort and performance, it easily makes up for with sheer entertainment. Everyone loves it. If you’re judging your driving experience by smiles-per-mile, there might be nothing that can beat this quirky, colorful beach buggy. When you book any of Cory’s Things, be prepared to receive a steady flow of waves, honks, and compliments.

“Modern cars are so polished and overbuilt that they leave you feeling disconnected,” Cory says. “The simplicity of this car really takes you back to its time, and it’s something you get attached to.” If that sounds as wonderful to you as it does to us, take the Thing for a spin and see if it doesn’t put a smile on your face.


Steven is an avid car guy and content maker at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.