Cars We Remember / Collector Car Corner; ‘Ugly Duckling’ VW Thing and Studebaker Lark fleet sales

Cars We Remember / Collector Car Corner; ‘Ugly Duckling’ VW Thing and Studebaker Lark fleet salesThe Volkswagen Thing has roots back the Western Germany Army and made it U.S. debut in 1972 as a 1973 model. It was removed from U.S. availability in 1975 as the Thing failed enhanced government safety mandates and had poor sales. (Volkswagen)

VW Thing: ugly duckling or fun transportation?

Q: Greg, have you ever written about the Volkswagen Thing? (The ugliest car ever made.) What were they “thing”king? Stephen Van Eck, Lawton, Pa.

A: Stephen, until now I have never written about the VW Thing, but have written about some of Volkswagen rare offerings like the Volkswagen Transporter.

I guess I have to agree with you as the Thing was an ugly duckling but also a fun, low cost vehicle to own back then. I have to agree with you that it was one of the most homely vehicles on the road when I first saw one sitting at our area dealership back in 1973 with a base price of just $2,750.

Similar to the Jeep, which had roots back to World War II and immense popularity, Volkswagen’s Thing also began life as a military vehicle called the Type 181. However, unlike Jeep that evolved into a reliable, cult like 4-wheel drive vehicle, the Thing never offered 4-wheel-drive and was listed as a two-wheel-drive four-door convertible. It was offered by VW from 1968 through 1983 in other countries and here in the U.S. from 1973 to 1975 before being dropped from the U.S. lineup.

There were two reasons for it being removed from the U.S. Volkswagen lineup, specifically low sales and being unable to meet stricter U.S. safety mandates.

According to my research, including Wiki, the Thing was built for the West German Army as the Type 181 and then entered the civilian market as the Kurierwagen (“courier car”) in West Germany, the Trekker (RHD Type 182) in the United Kingdom, the Thing in the United States (1973), the Safari in Mexico and South America, and Pescaccia in Italy. Civilian sales ended after model year 1980.

Cars We Remember / Collector Car Corner; ‘Ugly Duckling’ VW Thing and Studebaker Lark fleet sales

Weighing in at just 2006 pounds, the VW Thing had removable doors and top and was powered by the VW Beetle mechanicals. It was always a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. The original price in 1973 was $2,775 and now they go from $15,500 in decent shape to near $30,000 in top restored condition at major auctions.

The Thing shared mechanicals with Volkswagen’s Beetle and the pre-1968 Microbus. The floor pan came from the Karman Ghia. Unique were the four doors, which were all removable and interchangeable so there was no worries about getting them mixed up. The windshield folded flat, and the convertible roof could be removed too. The interior was “plain Jane” because if you drove on the beach, water would surely get inside. It featured vinyl-covered bucket seats, painted sheet metal, drain holes and perforated rubber mats. A fiberglass hardtop and trunk-mounted auxiliary heater were offered as individual options.

The aforementioned Karman Ghia floor pan was wider than the Beetle allowing for more room inside and a wider track for better handling. A rear swing axle suspension with reduction gearing was utilized from the VW Transporter until 1973 when replaced by double joint axles from the Porsche. 

Civilian sales began in mainland Europe and Mexico during 1971, in the U.S. in 1972 and briefly in Britain in 1975, where it failed to sell well and were dropped fairly quickly.

Power came from the 4-cylinder Beetle style engine and the Thing ran on a 94.5-inch wheelbase. Not surprisingly, the Thing weighed only 2,006 pounds fully assembled, which means if you removed the doors and top you probably had a vehicle that weighed way less than 2,000 lbs.

There you have it Steven, a quick history of the VW Thing! Thanks for your email.

1959 Studebaker Lark fleet sales 

Q: Greg, I did a little research and reading up on the 1959 Lark you’ve written about. Production started in 1958, and was introduced as a 1959 model. Initially sales were decent as the Big 3 had not yet introduced their inexpensive compact models until 1960.

The compact Rambler sales were decent too, for the same reason as the Lark.

However, the company was plagued with financial problems and quite a few management changes occurred at the top.

Cars We Remember / Collector Car Corner; ‘Ugly Duckling’ VW Thing and Studebaker Lark fleet sales

In addition to the fleet sales to Connecticut, the New York City taxi business found that by 1961, there were more Larks running around the city than ever before. The car offered good run and fuel mileage, although it didn’t come close to replacing the Checker as taxi of choice. (Studebaker)

It seems that when Studebaker closed its U.S. plant and moved to Hamilton Canada, they had to buy engines from Chevrolet and it was the beginning of the end for Studebaker.

The State of Connecticut bought a huge number of Studebaker Larks for fleet in the early 1960’s in both station wagons and sedan models. All were delivered in the same color, black.

Eventually as those vehicles got older and had to be replaced they were disposed of at the State of Connecticut vehicle auctions, which are open to the public. At that time Studebaker had gone out of business and the vehicle values had tanked.

In other auto remembrances, these state fleet sales were similar to Pontiac, which sold a number of Pontiac G-6’s to the GSA. Further, before they stopped production. Saturn VUEs, were re-badged as Chevrolet Captivas, and not sold to the general public but only to fleet customers. Eventually the Captivas showed up in GM Factory Sales as former rental vehicles.

Cars We Remember / Collector Car Corner; ‘Ugly Duckling’ VW Thing and Studebaker Lark fleet sales

The 1959 Lark did well in fleet sales as the state of Connecticut ordered hundreds of station wagons and sedans for state service. All were painted black. (Studebaker)

Oldsmobile, once the hottest selling car in the early 1970’s, I believe lost their customer base, (snow tops and no tops), to males over 50.

Now the Big 3 have pretty much given up making sedans, turning that segment of the business over to Kia, Hyundai, Toyota and Honda.
John Hannon, Manchester, Conn.

John thanks much for your insightful auto information. John is a respected buyer and auction specialist in automotives living in Connecticut. Thanks again for the info on the Lark fleet sales.

(Greg Zyla is a syndicated automotive journalist who writes weekly on collector cars, auto nostalgia and motorsports. Contact him at with your questions or comments).

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