Do you have a dropcloth handy? Good. Because, air-cooled Volkswagen dorks, geeks, and fetishists, I’m about to blow your minds, and it’s going to be messy. Look at that picture above there. The one you thought was a VW Thing. Look again. Count the doors. That’s not some one-off custom job, it’s a VW Pingo. Aren’t you glad you had that dropcloth?
Loyal readers of this site and in particular, articles about my obsession with obscure VWs, won’t be surprised to hear that this car is from Uruguay, the world’s leading country in the automotive field of taking a familiar car and then doing weird things to it with fiberglass.
Now, I know I said that the car that looks like a shortened, two-door VW Type 181 isn’t some one-off, and that’s true, but not by much. Only 12 VW Pingos were actually made, but the intent was to make an actual production vehicle. And that intent seems to have come from a man named Julius Caesar Lestido.
Around 1973, Lestido wanted to build, in Uruguay, a car to compete with the Citroën Mehari. Obviously, he was inspired by the official Volkswagen Type 181, which most of us here in America know as “The Thing.”
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The Thing was built, in Mexico, on a Karmann-Ghia chassis: this is essentially the same as a Beetle chassis, but the floorpans are a bit wider, due to the Ghia’s more modern (well, compared to a Beetle) full-width bodywork.
In Uruguay, they were only able to get chassis and drivetrains from Brazil, which only offered the more narrow Fusca (Beetle) chassis. Undaunted, Lestido contacted the company Montrago, who built for him a narrower, one-piece fiberglass body for the Beetle chassis that looked almost exactly like a VW Thing.
Almost like a thing, but not quite. Because of the more flexible nature of fiberglass, the four-door design of the Thing just wouldn’t work, so
Montrago had come to a new designer, Daniel Barreto, who decides two radical changes to solve these problems, first only two doors in order to minimize body twisting and second to narrow 25 mm each fenders (that were salient) without modifying the measures of the passenger compartment and achieving a better aesthetic effect.
This designer, Barreto, also came up with the name “Pingo,” which seems to be a sort of Spanish word for “devil” that you’d only use to scold a kid. It also may be a Spanish slang word for “penis?” Either way, great name.
This new slightly shorter, two-door body, made the almost-unknown Pingo the coupé version of the VW Thing, a car you probably never even realized you wanted so much. It’s also interesting in that, being made of one big fiberglass tub, the Pingo is much more similar to the Mehari than the actual VW Thing, at least in how it’s constructed.
Plus, there’s no worry about rust with a Pingo, or the constant fear of being abducted while driving via a huge magnet.
The car was advertised during a large soccer game in 1974, but in the end only a dozen were actually built, perhaps due to pressure from Volkswagen who weren’t thrilled that there was essentially a knock-off of their car being sold. To the Pingo builder’s credit, though, they didn’t include a VW badge for the front, they just provided a little space for one, exactly where it would be on a Thing.
So, while this one isn’t really a true factory Volkswagen, it’s another case of Uruguayan automotive ingenuity, and I’m always a sucker for that. Plus, I think a two-door thing looks pretty great.