VW 181. From army vehicle to cult car

ER Classics Desktop 2022

Take the platform of the VW Karmann Ghia. Add drivetrain and suspension engineering elements from the first generation of VW buses. Use the proven air-cooled boxer technology of the VW Group. Equip the car spartan and make sure it can be driven both open and closed. See there the ingredients and conditions, from which Volkswagen composed its new car for the Bundeswehr. In 1969 the world was introduced to the VW 181.

The development of the new Volkswagen was prompted by the fact that the DKW Munga was taken out of production. The Bundeswehr was diligently looking for an equivalent replacement, and commissioned Volkswagen to develop the successor. The fact that a structure had already been developed in Australia for a VW VW, was an important starting point for the client. In addition – and this was regarded as remarkable – Volkswagen could suffice with the application of rear-wheel drive. A large degree of ground clearance was also considered – because of the possible terrain use

Debut at IAA Frankfurt

In 1968, Volkswagen built the first sixteen copies of the new 181. After the official presentation at the IAA in Frankfurt in 1969, VW started series production of the car, and the VW 181 soon found a place in the consumer catalogs. As mentioned, full use could be made of the extensive parts stock within the VW group when building the car. What was particularly special was that the 181 transmission reduction boxes were fitted to the rear axle. This rare application stemmed from the VW Transporter T1. Furthermore, the 181 was equipped with a number of features of the VW (Beetle) 1500. The instruments, the front axle, the steering system and the engine all came from the Krabbeldier. The 181 also got a parking heater and was optionally equipped with a differential lock.

Family member with a face of their own

The 181 therefore had many family characteristics, but had its own face, which was reinforced by the presence of the removable fabric hood, the windshield that can be folded down and the removable doors. From 1971 onwards, VW also installed the diagnostic connector, an application that was also used by family members.

Modifications from 1970

Meanwhile, in 1970, an important change had taken place. The 1493 cc engine was replaced by the 1584 cc engine that also found its way into the VW 1970 S and LS from 1302. For the 181, the power was kept at 44 HP. In addition, Wolfsburg decided to export the 181 to the United States. Not as a whole, but as a kit. In any case, it was a good move, because the 181 quickly enjoyed reasonable popularity, especially in California. In 1973 – a year after the 181 also started production in Mexico – important changes were made. The pre-heater heating is replaced by air heating, the power of the 1584 cc engine increased to 48 HP and the pendle axle construction made way for a rear axle construction with sloping wishbones. Visually, the 181 no longer had slots above the rear wheels from model year 1973, but box-shaped ornaments to ensure an optimal air supply. Finally, the 181 was fitted with a four-spoke safety steering wheel.

On the way to the end

Thus 1973 became the most important modification year. Later, the valve stems were further strengthened and a version with injection (and 50 HP) became available for the American market. After this, the career of the VW 181 was dominated by production relocations and an ever closer farewell. North America was the first to give up on the car, which gained name and fame there as The Thing. During the 1978s, German production moved from Wolfsburg to Hanover, and Emden became the last production site. The last Europa-181 rolled off the production line there in 181. It was not the last 1980, as production of this cult VW ended in Mexico in XNUMX.

Cult object

In total 140.768 copies of this multifunctional VW were built. And the army vehicle had turned into a beloved vehicle, used for many leisure purposes, and today it has become a true cult object.

VW 181


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  1. Great story again, yes some more photos.

    I think dump dealers are already sold out with regard to these jeeps.

    Like I said, nice story.

    Regards Hans

  2. I think the 181 kubel is a nice car, I myself had 1 from 1971, that was also one of the German army. I can see that Henk does not like Volkswagen . I think that the Beetle and VW bus are terrible is the greatest nonsense. I'm a fan of the Ford Taunus globe myself, but that doesn't mean I don't like other oldtimers

    • I can imagine that there are people who like the beetle and/or the bus, after all they are funny things. To each his own.
      But as a car they are terrible in that sense, since they have bad road holding, are under-engined, are gas guzzlers, cramped inside, uncomfortable, difficult to access, too small luggage compartments and so on. The enthusiasts step over those drawbacks and that is only beautiful. In true love, you also like the drawbacks of the object of adoration.

  3. cult status?? Isn't that a bit exaggerated? I get the idea that VW wants to make an 'icon' of every model. Well, at most that terrible beetle and bus, but that's about it. Apart from a few 'connoisseurs' there is no dog that (re)knows that (ridiculous) thing?!

    So, that's what I wanted to say.

    (I am not particularly fond of the inheritance of one AH and his indirect descendants).

    • Third generation war trauma, Henk? And would you mind posting this as a comment? Apart from that: VW does not make a car an icon; that is what the buyers/owners do. Or they don't and then it's called a flop.

    • This does not affect Henk, you are mixing up two different things!
      This site reflects the 'classic' world – not the then world stage.
      Indirect descendants – where are Mercedes, Opel, BMW and Zundapp then?
      Not only the German automobile industry contributed to the Occupation Force!

    • That "legacy" of one AH also includes 'rent subsidy', 'child benefit' and 'motorway' Henk…
      Things that I think you are confronted with on a daily basis.
      To help you further from the dream; the 'Beetle' is not from AH, or from friend FP who only adapted the design….but (completely in the spirit of the times) stolen from Josef Ganz.
      But in addition to German-Hungarian, Josef was unfortunately also Jewish… well… and that hurt a lot at the time.

      • The Beetle is also not entirely by Josef Ganz, but also by Hans Ledwinka. The Tatra V570 could be a forerunner of the Beetle. And if you want to go back even further, you come to Béla Barényi, who has several “Beetle sketches” to his name, as far back as the 20s.

      • Autobahn is not an invention of AH, it already started in the 20s. Rent subsidy? Probably, but was only introduced in the Netherlands in 1970. According to Wikipedia, the child benefit comes from France (late 19th century). How about myth building. Just sayin.
        I know the story of the KdF all too well, including the wonderful books by Schilperoord.
        And I don't confuse two things, at most I extend my gaze a little longer (backwards) than others. To each his own. But as I said, I don't like that 'former' Nazi troop.

  4. Unbelievable that all that fun finally came from the KDF idea. The fact that the occupying forces saw something in Volkswagen and instructed someone to try and make something of it eventually took an incredible flight.

    • I understood that this cart was officially not allowed to be called a (Bundes) Kubel, because this would refer too much to the (Wehrmacht) Kubel from WWII… which is also very sought after and wanted among enthusiasts..
      Type 181/ the Thing has cult status.

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