That Seventies Thing

Part armored military vehicle, part dune buggy, Volkswagen's The Thing briefly blitzkrieged through American automobile culture in the Seventies, a wiggy antidote to the billions and billions of sensible Beetles sold by the German carmaker in the U.S. during the Sixties. Manufactured in Mexico, The Thing was first introduced here in late 1973, retailing for $2750. It averaged 21 miles per gallon, with a top cruising speed of 68 mph. VW hawked the rear-engine convertible as an "off-road" vehicle, suitable for both beach and highway. With its removable doors and plastic windows, its downwardly sloping hood, its fold-down windshield, and its eye-popping colors -- Sunshine Yellow, Pumpkin Orange, Avocado Green, or Blizzard White -- The Thing cut a quaintly bizarre figure before flaming out by the end of 1974, a total of 29,000 finding their way onto American roads before VW discontinued U.S. sales.

Don't spy many in South Florida these days, although Peter Seiler has one. "You see them once in a blue moon," allows Seiler, a Shenley Park resident who runs a travel agency, plays bass professionally, and operates a catering business. He confesses to having a thing for The Thing, spotting the car over the years in the Netherlands, in Germany, and, not surprisingly, in Southern California, where they continued to trickle in from Mexico even after VW terminated U.S. distribution. The dry climate there, of course, helps preserve them.

Passed on to him by his uncle, the original owner, more than a decade ago, Seiler's Sunshine Yellow '74 Thing now glows an iridescent green after he had it repainted following an accident. In keeping with the car's irrepressible quirkiness, he initially considered redoing it in a camouflage motif. "I was going to have it painted Afrika Korps colors," he quips. Which would have been entirely appropriate, given the fact that VW based The Thing on its Kubelwagen, the World War II light transport that the company manufactured for the German Army. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel very likely rolled across the Sahara in a Kubelwagen.

Instead Seiler has outfitted the rear window area of his green Thing with plastic ferns and other fake plants, wiring them to the frame's armature. During the Christmas/Hanukkah holidays he affixes bows and other decorations. All of which draw lots of grins and congenial waves from other motorists, plus the occasional unsolicited sales offer.

Last year Seiler entered his Thing in Volksblast 2002, an annual celebration of all things VW sponsored by the Palmetto Bugs Volkswagen Club and Wide Five Vintage VWs for the benefit of Habitat for Humanity. His car finished fourth in a field of eight Things, behind three utterly over-the-top competitors. "Those cars were simply manifestly in better shape than mine," he admits. "The guy who won must have spent a huge amount of money cherrying the car out, with chrome all over the engine -- something that ought not be done to a Thing."

He vows to return for this year's Volksblast. "I'm just hoping those guys won't show up again," he laments, "but they probably will."

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Michael Yockel