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The Volkswagen Thing Is Slow, Poorly Equipped and Unsafe -- and I Love It

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author photo by Doug DeMuro October 2016

I recently had the chance to drive a Volkswagen Thing, an absurd vehicle from the 1970s that has absolutely no apparent safety equipment, amenities or engine performance. I loved every second of it.

Interestingly, the Volkswagen Thing I drove wasn't just any old, regular Volkswagen Thing. It was a rental car. I borrowed it from a place called Morrie's Heritage Car Connection, which is an exotic-car rental business operated by an excellent car-dealership group in the Minneapolis area. But instead of your typical exotic rental offerings, such as a brightly colored Lamborghini with mismatched tires and a rebuilt title, Morrie's has... a Volkswagen Thing. A couple of old Land Cruisers. A rotary-engined Mazda pickup.

Remember this the next time you have to fly into Minneapolis for a convention of the International Scotch Tape Distributors' Association. You don't have to rent a Chevy Impala with both sets of keys looped together so that they take up roughly the same amount of space in your pocket as a small dog. You could rent a '73 Ford Bronco from Morrie's.

Anyway, the Volkswagen Thing. For those of you who aren't Thing experts, here's the history: It was initially commissioned in the 1960s as a military vehicle by the West German government, which makes it the second military-sourced vehicle I've driven, after my Hummer. But while my Hummer could ford a stream up to 3 feet deep, the Thing is a 2-wheel-drive convertible with 46 horsepower. You have to wonder, when the Thing was designed, what enemy the West German government thought it would defeat. The Teletubbies, perhaps.

Volkswagen Thing

By the 1970s, Volkswagen was selling the Thing in North America. U.S. models were built in Mexico -- and in Mexico, the Thing was called the Volkswagen Safari. But since the Pontiac Safari was already being sold here in the States, Volkswagen had to come up with a new name for American versions. So they presumably gathered together all of Volkswagen's top executives, marketers and public-relations professionals into one giant "what should we name it?" strategy session, and they came up with the Thing. That, or they simply asked random people on the street.

Either way, it's called the Thing, and it has absolutely no amenities. And I don't mean "no amenities" in the way that 1970s cars often have no amenities. I mean there are no amenities even by 1970s standards. For example, the windows don't roll down. Instead, you have to physically remove them. The windshield-wiper motor is connected to only one wiper, which is then attached to the other wiper with a metal rod. And there are precisely two things you can control on the entire dashboard: the radio, which is in the middle, and the hood release, which is on the passenger side. There is no climate control. There is no glove box. There is no infotainment system. The best thing you can direct a passenger to do if he or she becomes bored is to play with the hood release.

And it's likely your passenger will get bored, because the Thing isn't exactly sporty. The rear-mounted 46-horsepower engine -- mated to a 4-speed manual transmission -- is capable of propelling the Thing to approximately the same top speed as a moving walkway.

Volkswagen Thing

But the low top speed is actually a good thing, because it's the Thing's lone safety feature. I'm serious. Of course, there's no traction control, anti-lock brakes or any of that stuff -- par for the course in a 1970s vehicle. But there's also absolutely zero side-impact protection. You have doors that are approximately as flimsy as a credit card and one single pillar that connects the body to the roof: the A-pillar, which can be folded down along with the windshield if you want to drive with extra wind in your face. In fact, I'm quite certain the Thing didn't originally come with any seat belts, as an aftermarket company supplied the belts in the one I drove.

So on paper, the Thing seems like it would be quite bad.

In practice, I loved it.

Here's the thing about the Thing: Once you get moving, you forget the lack of amenities, the intensely slow acceleration and the fact that it's rather unsafe, and you just start smiling. Actually, you start laughing. Here you are, looking out over this bright-orange hood, driving along at a snail's pace, with the wind in your face and unobstructed visibility on all sides, and it just feels so fun.

Really, it's impossible not to giggle as you cruise around, knowing that everyone is seeing you as you drive this 1970s pseudo-military vehicle, painted the most ridiculous, attention-grabbing color possible, named the most absurd, stupid name they could imagine. When you drive the Thing, you know that in spite of all its objective flaws, you are absolutely having more fun than any person in any modern car, even if they think they're really cool because they have one of those systems that will transcribe text messages they dictate.

And so, if I were asked my opinion on the Thing, I would say you should not buy it if you're interested in equipment, luxury, safety, performance or comfort. But if you're looking for a thrill, very few other vehicles provide one like the Thing. And none of them do it with only 46 horsepower.

Volkswagen Thing

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Volkswagen Thing Is Slow, Poorly Equipped and Unsafe -- and I Love It - Autotrader