Volkswagen played by its own rules and stayed with its bold and quirky rear-engine layout from the Beetle to the Type 181

Trying to please everyone is an exercise in futility. You can't be all things to all people. Most of the time, doing your own thing is the right thing to do, however odd it might seem to others. But by being yourself, you might be unwittingly inviting criticism, even ridicule. Producing a car whose butt was where its head should have been, the Volkswagen (VW) was steering clear of something more common. Criticism probably came couched as a word of caution ("A rear-engine layout can cause serious handling problems; it is unsafe to be in such a car"), but VW stuck to its strength. It did not use a different platform for a long time. The Beetle, the Kubelwagen (called the Type 82) and the Karmann Ghia were the shape of things to come. The multi-purpose vehicle, theType 181 (1969-83), dubbed `The Thing' in the United States, has an engine at its rear end just like the other three VW machines. The Karmann's floorpan is comparable to the Type 181's. But the Kubelwagon enjoys more affinity with it, both being military vehicles. It is interesting that a Chennai-based collector, Dr. Rampradeep owns a huge piece of Volkswagen history — he has owned a Beetle and a Karmann Ghia for a long time now and over a year ago, a Type 181 joined these in his garage. The Thing is actually VW's way of saying that a terrific idea will never go stale if you dress it up differently every time. But if a list on www.cars.com is an indication, VW was the butt of jokes because of `The Thing'. For Tom and Ray Magliozzi, known as `the click and clack Tappet Brothers' and famous for their `Car Talk' on the Washington-based National Public Radio, `The Thing' is one of ten wierdest things on the road. According to them, it can scare `onlookers' out of their wits. But during its active working life, the Type 181 served the purpose for which it was made. We travel fastest when we travel alone. But sadly this is a lesson we can appreciate only after spending almost a lifetime moving about in packs.In the 1960s, a few governments in Europe realised that despite their differences over many issues, they were agreed about a need for a machine that could tackle all kinds of terrain and even wade through water at a pinch. It was expected to be of help during war and when peace returned, ferry government officials. This four-wheel drive, multi-purpose vehicle was going to be called Europa Jeep. But probably because every step in the development of this vehicle had to be taken after consultations between various teams that spoke various languages, a Babel-like confusion prevailed and the joint effort even seemed destined to fall under its own weight. While the other countries were willing to wait, Germany was engulfed by a sense of urgency. It wanted a machine to fill in the gap — even something that delivered half of what the Europa Jeep promised, would do. The VW seemed to meet expectations when it came up with the Type 181. Although meant for the Bundeswehr (the federal army of Germany), it was not off-limits for the civilian population. Within a year, VW branches around Europe and Mexico were teaching their salesmen how to pitch the Type 181. VW began to export the Type 181 to the United States in 1973. The Type 181 was called the `Safari' in Mexico and VW preferred it to be called by the same name in the whole of America. This was not possible because Pontiac station wagons were known as Safari. For reasons that are mystifying, VW-America settled in favour of "The Thing". In the United Kingdom, the Type 181 was actually Type 182 (because of its right hand drive) and popularly called "Trekker". In the car lover's mind, the Type 181 is a vehicle with a soft top. But a minor percentage of Type 181 came with a hardtop. The Type 181 did not continue in the United States for long, because it failed safety tests meant for passenger cars (In the US, the Type 181 came under that classification). It is believed VW tried to popularise `The Thing' title outside of America. Put it down to the British prejudice against Americanisms in language, VW's dealers in the United Kingdom rejected the idea out of hand. Meanwhile, the Europa Jeep project was given up as a lost cause. And all of a sudden, the German government seemed to have woken up to the need for a four-wheel drive. The Type 181 was no good anymore. Volkswagen's answer was the Iltis (also called Type 183), a machine with a front engine that was launched in 1978. The Type 181 was alive and kicking until 1983. But after the advent of Iltis, it was for all practical purposes a `Thing' of the past.

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