The Volkswagen Type 181 "Kurierwagen" (Type 182 in RHD form), popularly known in the United Kingdom as the Trekker, in the United States as the Thing and in Mexico as the Safari, was a small military vehicle produced by Volkswagen from 1969 to 1983, although civilian sales stopped in 1980. It was based in part on Volkswagen's Type 1 (Beetle), and was a continuation and improvement over the Kübelwagen, which had been used by the German military during World War II. The name Kübelwagen is an abbreviation of Kübelsitzwagen, meaning "bucket-seat car".
During the 1960s, several European governments began cooperating on development of a vehicle known as the Europa Jeep, a lightweight, amphibious four-wheel drive vehicle that could be mass produced for use by various national military and government groups. However, development of the vehicle proved time consuming and the German government was in need of a limited number of light, inexpensive, durable transport vehicles that could fulfill their basic needs while the Europa Jeep was being developed and put into production.
Although Volkswagen had been approached during the 1950s about building such a vehicle, and had subsequently passed on the proposition, the then-current management of the company saw the project as having some amount of potential as a consumer vehicle; Mexican customers were asking for something that could handle rural roads better than the Type 1, which was a large seller in Mexico at the time, and the popularity of VW-based dune buggies within the U.S. made executives think that a durable, fun, off-road-capable vehicle would become attractive to many buyers. VW could keep cost to a minimum and thus maximize profitability by using existing parts.
Like the World War II era Type 82 Kübelwagen, the Type 181 used mechanical parts and a rear-engine platform, manual transmission & flat-4 engine derived from that of the Type 1. The floorpans came from the Karmann Ghia, which itself was based on the Type 1, and reduction gearing from the Volkswagen Transporter was used through 1973 when platform upgrades eliminated that setup in favor of revised parts.
Civilian sales began in Europe and Mexico during 1971, and in the U.S. in 1972, but the model was dropped from the American lineup for 1975 as it failed to meet new, stricter safety standards. Notably the Type 181 was reclassified as a passenger vehicle, and thus subject to stricter safety standards. The Windshield Intrusion Rule of the 1975 DOT standard called for a greater distance between the front seat occupants and the front window glass.
The Volkswagen 181 was only supposed to fill in, until the time that the Europa Jeep was ready. From 1968 until 1979, over 50,000 Type 181 were delivered to the NATO forces. By 1979 the Europa Jeep project had fallen apart completely and was abandoned, and the German government began supplementing their consumption of 181's with the new front-engined Type 183 Iltis, which featured four-wheel-drive based on the mechanical system from a VW Golf.
Despite the German government's switch to the Type 183, European and Mexican sales of the civilian 181 continued through 1980, and several organizations, including NATO, continued to purchase military-spec Type 183 units through 1983, finding their reliability and low purchase and maintenance costs attractive.
Several region-specific variants of the 181 were produced during the vehicle's lifetime, including an Acapulco Thing, originally designed for the Las Brisas Hotel in Acapulco. Running boards, special upholstery and paint schemes, and a surrey top were standard features. The Acapulcos are most easily identified by their striped paint scheme and were offered in orange and white, yellow and white, green and white, and blue and white.