January's Feature VW

181 With 675

I own a 1974 Volkswagen Type 181. Volkswagen sold this model as the 'Thing' in the United States but used different model names for the same car sold in different international markets. From model introduction to now I have always found the Thing moniker to be unfortunate.

I think the manufacturer tried and failed to resonate with what it must have felt was a trivial and unserious 1970s consumer in the United States. Of course that wasn't how we were. All we were presented with in the mid seventies were diminished fun, lower power and decreasing build quality vehicles in new car show rooms. We weren't trivial or unserious. We were just tired of being bored.

I always refer to my vehicle by its internationally uniform model designation of Type 181. The car is surprisingly capable, is well built and is everything but weak and trivial in spite of its misguided naming. You don't learn that from contemporary cutesy marketing. You learn that from owning the car.

The original owners of my 1974 Volkswagen Type 181 car were a husband and wife who purchased the car new from Triangle Volkswagen in Durham, North Carolina on June 20, 1975. True to the poor marketing this car sat for ten months from assembly to initial sale. In that interval, despite the onset in 1972 of sustained inflation in the economy, Volkswagen had to slash the MSRP of Type 181s in the United States just to clear them from dealer lots.

The couple which bought my car took it with zero options. There was no radio or even a cigarette lighter installed on the car. I bet the car was purchased at deep discount and the owners must have felt they stole it.

I was told they bought the car as an 'extra' vehicle specifically due to its high clearance for winter driving in town and on the farm. Of course the opportunities for snow and ice driving in North Carolina were few and far between even then so the car didn't get much of that kind of work.

Ultimately the owners made spare use of the vehicle as a tailgate vehicle for their beloved UNC Tarheels at football games in Chapel Hill (probably not when Clemson came to town given the car's pumpkin orange color). The round trip from their home to Kenan Stadium was about 12 miles.

They used the car that way from 1975 to 1981 putting about 100 miles a year on the vehicle. Tragically the husband died young. The car was registered in North Carolina until February 15, 1981. There is an oil change sticker in the engine bay dated February 16, 1981 showing only 675 original miles on the odometer! After losing her husband the surviving owner had a nice car and beautiful memories but instead of continuing to use the now truly extra vehicle she parked the car in her dusty but dry garage where it remained frozen in time for almost three and a half decades. The woman who clearly associated the vehicle with her deceased husband couldn't drive the car and she couldn't sell it.

Finally in 2015 to raise funds the owner confided to a neighbor her intention to sell the vehicle. The neighbor is a member of a local Chevy club of which I am also a member. The neighbor sent out a blast email to the club membership with a few photos inquiring for interest indicating the seller was not willing to advertise the car publicly.

I was 2100 miles away at the time, at the AACA Grand National car show in Tucson, Arizona (with the Chevy) and responded I was interested and asked my fellow club member to ask the seller to wait until I could return to Chapel Hill to look at the car.

In the mean time at least one other club member went to look at the car but was unable to close a deal. When I returned to North Carolina about three weeks had passed since the email. Over several visits and phone calls I got to know the seller.

Basically she told me her goal was to get the most money possible for her car. I told her if that was her goal she shouldn't sell the car to me because I couldn't overpay for a non running car in need of at least full mechanical rescue. By the way 34 years later that oil changed when storage began was still clean as new as I confirmed pulling the dip stick during my initial inspection of the vehicle.

As an alternative I offered to help her get the car running and to get it sold for her as an operable vehicle. I estimated the cost of getting the car running to be about $5,000. I suggested to her the value of her vehicle in running condition would probably net her more than I was willing to pay for the vehicle in the condition it was in when I first saw it.

She didn't want to take on that risk. We negotiated a fair purchase price and I purchased the Type 181. When I took possession of the vehicle in April 2015 the odometer still showed the same 675 miles that it displayed when stored in 1981. I was able to resuscitate this remarkably well preserved vehicle for a little less than I had estimated.

After getting the car safely running again, for good measure, we performed the car's factory recommended 600 mile service in April 2015 as there was no evidence it was ever performed. The only cosmetic items which needed replacement were the rear window which had fried to an opaque rust color during storage and the driver's seat cover which ripped due to the deterioration of the under padding. Not too bad for a 44 old!

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