Every single time I encounter some strange air-cooled Volkswagen variant I hadn’t previously been aware of I’m hit with the same, powerful sensation that the world is a vast, rich, nearly unknowable thing, and that’s both terrifying and beautiful. This time the air-cooled VW weirdo is my favorite kind: a peculiar yet official factory-built thing, an adaptation of a car we all know: the VW Type 181, known as the Thing to us Americans. This time, VW tried to turn it into a truck for farmers.
Everyone, please allow me to introduce you to the Safari Pick-Up, possibly one of the strangest and most awkward pick-up trucks ever built by a major automaker.
The basic Type 181 was known as the Safari in Mexico, where it was built for many years, and, just in case you’re not familiar with these, was a sort of more modern re-interpretation of the old wartime Kubelwagen, a two-wheel drive, rear-engined, rugged go-anywhere car that was designed to be used sort of like a Jeep.
The Thing/181/Trekker/Safari was a fun car, and it was built on the same basic platform as the Beetle (though it actually used the slightly wider Karmann-Ghia chassis, but it was basically the same). As a rear-engined small four-passenger car, it wasn’t ever really designed to be a truck, at least not in the conventional sense.
VW knew how to build rear-engined pickup trucks, since they’d been doing that with the Type 2 for years, and in Mexico they were even building a front-engined pick-up truck called the Hormiga that used the standard air-cooled flat-four engine just flipped around at the front of the cab.
(Correction! While the Basistransporter did have the engine ahead of the drive wheels, flipped 180 degrees, the Hormiga kept the usual layout, but was positioned behind the front seat to drive the front wheels from a front mid-engine configuration, if we’re being technical.)
I mention all this just so you realize that Volkswagen wasn’t desperate for a work truck design—they already had two separate options for this sort of truck, with one, the Hormiga, being specifically developed as a low-cost work truck for the Mexican market.
Knowing this just makes the existence of the Safari Pick-Up even more baffling.
That calf doesn’t look as excited as I would be for a ride in that Thing...thing.
As you can see from the ad, the Safari Pick-Up kept the basic Type 181 body, but added a single-cab roof (I think it was fiberglass?), gutted the already spare interior, added a flip-up forward bed floor section and a metal-and-wood high rear enclosure for the bed, with the existing rear side doors providing what appears to be the only access to the cargo bed.
The amount of loadable space created in the truck is actually pretty impressive: there’s the bed area itself, big storage bins under the front part of the bed in the former rear seat footwells, and the front trunk. The drawback is that it doesn’t seem like you can load this thing from the rear at all, and have to use the relatively small rear side doors.
I’m fascinated by the Safari Pick-Up. Some sources suggest only around 500 were made, and given the hard, workhorse lives most of these likely were subjected to, I can’t imagine too many are still around, though it does seem there are a few survivors:
I’m still amazed that I’ve never encountered this before; with all the absurd effort I spend looking out for air-cooled VW oddballs, how did I miss this one? Hell, I was even at VW Mexico’s secret heritage collection, and there was zero evidence there that these even existed! How can that be? How does VW Mexico not have at least one restored example of the Safari Pick-Up? I’m appalled.
Well, let the gloriously strange Safari Pick-Up no longer languish in obscurity! Let us let the world know about this most difficult of pick-up trucks, and let it revel in its slightly lessened obscurity!
Also, it should at least get a little attention since that new Tesla Cybertruck has pretty much the same wheel arches.