Volkswagen Type 181: A Stop-Gap Utility Vehicle

by Hanno Spoelstra

During WW-2 the KdF or VW factory produced two highly successful military vehicles, the Typ 82 Kübelwagen and Typ 166 Schwimmwagen ("Typ" means "type" in German- they write nouns with capitals), but it was not until 1969 that a contemporary version of the type 82 went in production. So how come it lasted almost 25 years before a highly successful product was continued upon?
In the first place, KdF/VW only built military versions of their "people's car" during the war to keep alive. It was never the intention to build military vehicles, but in wartime Germany it was the only type of vehicle for which production was approved.
Then in 1954, the newly formed German Bundeswehr (Federal Army) invited the German car industry to submit pilot models for the new Army's Lkw 0,25 t gl (Lastkraftwagen, 0,25 ton, geländegängig, or truck, 1/4-ton, off-road capable). As the Brundeswehr would have liked to procure a further-developed variant of the Type 82 Kübelwagen, Volkswagen was also approached to get involved. but Dr. Heinz Nordhoff could not really be interested in what - for VW - was a small-scale production of four wheel drive field cars: they had their hands full on civil car production.
Eventually, Auto Union's DKW Munga was selected, of which the Bundeswehr procured about 28,400 out of a total of 46,750 built between 1956 and 1968.

In the 1960's France, West Germany and Italy started a joint project for a new 500 kg (4x4) amphibious vehicle which became known as the Europa Jeep. Awaiting the arrival of this vehicle the Bundeswehr decided to procure a stop-gap vehicle to replace the DKW Munga, which was really getting outdated near the end of the 1960's. This time VW could be interested to build a vehicle, and from 1969 they built 15,200 VW 181s for the Bundeswehr as a temporary substitute. It was largely based on commercial VW vehicles to keep development and production costs down. This resulted in what was in effect a contemporary version of the WW-2 type 82. As the original it had rear wheel drive only (with optional self-locking differential) because of which it had a limited off-road capability. It was however, perfect for liason duties etc. and was classed as Mehrzweckwagen (multi-purpose vehicle). In 1976 the 'Europa-Jeep' project was finally cancelled, and VW got an order for 8,800 4x4 vehicles with a cargo capacity of 500 kg both on and off roads: the VW 183 Lkw 0,5 t gl, alias Iltis.

The type 181's rated payload for military use was 400 kg, and being a general utility vehicle, its uses included command, patrol, dispatch and radio vehicle. standard military equipment included an axe, headlamp blackout covers, military lighting system, map light, radio suppression, four rifle mounts, spade, starting handle, towing eye, towing hook and a wheel chock. Radio vehicles had an additional 24V, 756 Watt dynamo fitted.
Once VW had tooled up for this utility vehicle, efforts were made to sell it to other military users as well. These included the armies of Austria (Bundesheer, federal army), Belgium, Denmark, France (units stationed in Germany), Morocco, The Netherlands (Luchtmacht, air force). Since 1981 more than 9,000 German Bundeswehr type 181's were struck off charge by the German government, being sold on the open market as well as being donated to the Greek and Turkish army. In 1992 an estimated maximum of 4,000 type 181's were still in service with the Bundeswehr.
An effort was made to sell the type 181 on the private market also. In Eurpoe, it was labelled as a vehicle for forestry services, hunting, etc. and simply named VW 181. In sunnier climates it was marketed as a fun vehicle: in the USA, it was sold as the THING (including an 'Acapulco' version), in Mexico as the Safari. Even a right-hand drive version, The Trekker, was built for the UK market.
All VW 181's were basically the same, differences being made in lighting, emmission controls etc. to comply to local regulations. The biggest change was made in the 1974 model year, when the rear axel lay-out was changed: the swing-axel transmission was replaced by one with double-jointed axels with constant-velocity joints.

Between 1969 and 1972 the VW 181 was produced in Germany. From 1973 until 1980 production took place in Mexico, kits also being assembled in Indonesia. Sadly information about production figures is contradictive to say the least. Numbers range from 70,495 to almost the double at 140,768. One thing is sure: VW sold more of them than they ever hoped for!