I suppose it’s possible that you weren’t aware that it was Thailand’s National Army Day on January 18th—that may explain why I didn’t get a card or a call from you or anything. That’s okay, I’m not mad, because I’ve just learned that Thailand is still using a good number of beautifully-maintained Volkswagen Type 181s (we called them Things here in the U.S.) in their military.
These 181s aren’t just some behind-the-scenes workhorses hauling around laundry or boxes of equipment—these are parade-ready vehicles, impeccably clean, with their VW badges replaced with some sort of national or military insignia.
In fact, these Things are important enough that they’re the vehicle used by the Kingdom of Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was also head of the Royal Thai Army until he used that army in a coup that took over the government in 2014.
I should probably mention that this is in no way intended to be an endorsement of the current Thai government or Chan-ocha, who has imposed martial law on the country, does not allow the press to criticize the government, has significantly restricted civil liberties, and said that “...women are like candies or desserts which should be wrapped nicely...” So, you know, screw that.
Of course, that can’t stop me from admiring what could possibly be the largest and best-maintained collection of VW Type 181s anywhere in the world.
Looking carefully at these 181s, we can see a few minor adaptations from stock: there’s a special cover over the rear cargo area, the soft top has been deleted (along with the doors, at least for parade duty), and the turn indicators seem different, with clear lenses instead of amber and, possibly, without the chrome outer cover.
There’s at least five army-green Things in use, along with some dark blue presumably Thai Navy Volkswagen 181s. The cars also appear to have added-on larger running boards and oversized passenger-seat grab handles, both likely additions to make them more adapted to formal parade duties.
You can see the 181s in action in this video of the whole parade; the link should take you right to 2:03:32, when the 181s show up, but if you want to sit through a two-hour Thai military parade, here’s your chance:
Volkswagen Type 181s were built between 1969 and 1980. They were intended to be a stop-gap vehicle for European military use while a more complex and expensive ‘Europa Jeep’ was being developed.
The Europa Jeep project was eventually cancelled, and the basic but very useful 181, based on production Volkswagen air-cooled mechanicals and very much a somewhat modernized version of the WWII Kubelwagen, ended up being used by militaries all over Europe, South America, and sold as civilian vehicles all over, which is how we got the Thing here in America.
They were produced in Germany from 1969 to 1972, after which Mexico took over, producing them until 1980. Some were made from knock-down kits in Indonesia, which, being fairly close to Thailand, could be the source of these Thai 181s?
That means that the absolute newest any of these could be is 38 years old.
Also, the presence of Chan-ocha in one as a State Car of sorts puts him in a very small class of world leaders that still drive in air-cooled Volkswagens—after Hugo Chavez’ death in 2013, that only leaves Chan-ocha and Uruguay’s president, Jose Mujica as the only world leaders to use air-cooled VWs (also very likely any air-cooled car at all) as a State Vehicle.
They’re also about as diametrically-opposed as two Heads of State can be, and yet they have this one, strange thing in common. We should get these two together, in their air-cooled VWs, and just see what happens.