Cruising USA With “The Thing”

If you want to get to know the USA, take a road trip. And if you want your vehicle to stand out, you’ll choose a car that could hardly be more purist – a Volkswagen 181.

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A 181 is actually driven with the top down, regardless of the weather: author Stefan Grundhoff crusing the American South.
Americans love mighty V8s, spluttering pickups, high-end European models, and SUVs. The 181, originally a military vehicle officially known as the Kurierwagen (courier car), is rarely seen outside the sun-drenched states of Florida and California. But those who spot it give it a thumbs-up or call out its American nickname, the “Thing.”

The 181 is known as “the thing” in the USA.

And what a thing it is. The technical basis for the 181, which was presented in 1968 and produced as of 1969, is the Beetle, which may well enjoy an even more legendary status in the USA than in Europe. It is topped by a corrugated steel body – to put it bluntly – whose aesthetic qualities are only appreciated at the third or fourth glance. Yet the Thing is generally considered to be easy to repair and indestructible. The tank in this classic holds only 40 liters so you often have to stop for gas – despite the relatively good fuel economy of just over ten liters. And because the gas gauge is just as faulty as the odometer, you tend to stop more frequently than needed.

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It’s easy to fold back the PVC top, which is practical, because the 181 is actually driven with the top down regardless of the weather. Then all you need to do is remove the four windows from their mounts, stick them behind the two artificial black leather seats, and head west – avoiding highways and fast roads. Because anything above 50 miles an hour will start getting uncomfortable.

Small roads, great pleasure

The smaller the road, the greater the driving pleasure. Many bikers are out near the coast as the 1.6-liter flat-four engine chugs bravely along. Harley riders on their two-cylinder mounts look quizzically over at the yellow Thing. Then they laugh and nod, and do so again when they see the two aluminum suitcases secured in the back with bike locks.

DB2019NR00267 smallTwo classic cars: an old campervan and the 181.

The same thing happens upon pulling up at gas stations, nameless supermarkets, or rest stops along the coast. Generous portions of fish are served at Fathoms Steam Room in Apalachicola. The owner comes running from the kitchen to ask who’s driving the yellow Thing, because she’s never seen one before. A few minutes later her boyfriend shows up and wants to buy it. The next day we head off toward Pensacola, past one of the largest flight schools in the USA. Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc here in October of 2018. For hours the coastal route is lined with ruined houses and flattened forests.

DB2019NR00264 smallIt’s useless to lock the 181. And the bike locks on the suitcases will hardly deter thieves.

At just ten degrees Celsius, it is no longer as warm as on the first day. The coast seems deserted. Fog has rolled in, and a functioning heating system and comfortable seats are both noticeably lacking. But one practical advantage of the artificial leather seats is that it’s easy to wipe off spills following a break for coffee or sandwiches.

DB2019NR00270 smallLunchstop in Appalachicola, about 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee, Florida.

DB2019NR00265 smallIts foggy and damp on Santa Rosa Island, at the coast of Pensacola, Florida. A working heater was missing.

DB2019NR00266 smallCheck the interior: The thing is as pure as can be.

You’ll search in vain for mountains around here. But the 1.6-liter flat rear-mounted engine with its modest 32 kW/44 hp pushes the car up and over the steep bridges at river crossings. And on highways as well as byways, the utilitarian vehicle from 1973 does manage to break the 60 mile-an-hour mark. Its official peak speed is slightly more than 70 mph.

An automotive type of voodoo

The car heads on toward New Orleans through the swamplands of the South into the gigantic Mississippi Delta, along the seemingly endless coast- and waterline. It is difficult to distinguish between the sea and the lakes.

DB2019NR00268 smallFortunately, we did not need it: Spare wheel and tool kit under the front hood.

In New Orleans, the colorful heart of Louisiana, every evening is a party. As the Natchez paddlewheel steamboat sets off down the river at sunset, the vibrant nightlife around Bourbon Street also picks up steam.

But even here, among pleasure-seeking tourists and local partygoers, the Thing makes a splash. New Orleans delirium leads the occasional passerby to take the 181 for a type of automotive voodoo. The hotel parking valets, not wanting to drive a stick shift, let the car stand at the entrance, which ensures yet more attention and unusually quick access to the vehicle.

The next day again sees endless swamplands inhabited by alligators. I drive along US 90 toward Erath and Abbeville before turning off on highway 82. When the 181 sputters out of gas in Louisiana no-man’s-land right in front of Booth’s Grocery near Grand Chenier, I make the acquaintance of its owner Temea.

DB2019NR00271 smallNobody wanted to bother with the manual gear box, so the car was left parking right in front of the hotel entrance.

“I’ve had the store since 1957,” says the spry senior, and immediately offers a rice and sausage dish that’s a local specialty.

Celebration during evening commute

After filling the spare canister, it turns out the tank had not been empty at all, but that the gas pump had given out after a distance of nearly 1,000 miles. Two hours later it’s back in service, and I drive the next 60 miles at lower speeds and with ears pricked via highway 82 to the town of Lake Charles, where people for whom Las Vegas is too far away like to party.

The trip’s final destination is Houston, but I don’t take the direct route. Instead I head toward the southern coastline via highway 27 to 82. On the final leg of its tour, the old car gets lots of attention during the evening commute. Here the yellow oddball is even more celebrated than before.

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For awhile, the thing was assembled on Bali, Indonesia. It is still on duty there, as colorful shuttle for tourists. About 140,000 units were produced, altogether.

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