LOS ANGELES—My nostrils are filled with the scent of old vinyl and gasoline, a smell I’ve long associated with air-cooled Volkswagens. I’m sitting behind the thin-rimmed plastic wheel of a 1973 Type 181, also known as the Volkswagen Thing. It’s a car loaned to us straight from VW’s heritage collection, a museum piece that really should be relegated to gentle outings to weekend car shows, but today I’m embarking on a 100-mile, day-long tour of Los Angeles. I know of no other city that boasts so much variety within its borders, and this 1973 Volkswagen Thing seems like a great way to see it all.
Per the owner’s manual, I crank the engine while slowly pushing the accelerator toward the floor, and the 97-cubic-inch boxer engine (that’s 1.6 liters to you kids) bursts into life. I let it warm up and take in my environs, but there’s little to see: The Thing is basically a shiny yellow sheet-metal bucket with seats.
Getting to Know the 1973 Volkswagen Thing
I begin my tour in downtown Los Angeles, which seems like a good place to get used to the 1973 Volkswagen Thing’s controls, particularly the tightly-packed pedals with their abruptly short travel. Steering is of the Armstrong type, as in you need strong arms to turn it, and the non-assisted drum brakes must be applied with conviction.
DTLA, as the locals call it, is also a wonderful place to drive al fresco—an eclectic assortment of modern skyscrapers, old barrios, hills, tunnels, and the last proper train station built in the U.S. The variety before me is reminiscent of the Volkswagen Thing, which is itself a strange smorgasbord, with its floor-pan borrowed from the Karmann Ghia, and engine and suspension bits from the Beetle and the Bus. The body panels are ridged for rigidity, and the doors and windows are interchangeable front-to-rear. And yet the stand-alone fenders and elephant-foot taillights make for an unmistakable Volkswagen family resemblance.
Trying the 1973 Volkswagen Thing, Top Up
It’s chilly and gray—rare in L.A., but it happens—so I decide to erect the Thing’s cantankerous top, which is an approximate fit at best. I’ve had to wiggle poor-fitting convertible tops to get them to meet the windshield, but this is the first time I’ve wiggled the windshield to meet the top. The window frames fit into the doors on small pins, and I’m amazed at how little metal actually holds them in place.
I’ve heard horror stories about driving a 1973 Volkswagen Thing with the top up, so of course I hop on the 110 freeway to give it a try. I expected the wind to try to blow the top off the car, but in reality the roof assembly is so porous that the slipstream gets little purchase. The top doesn’t keep out the wind, but it sure keeps in the gasoline fumes from the frunk-mounted tank.
I head through Chinatown, crossing the concrete L.A. river on one of its many beautiful concrete-arch bridges, and cruise into El Sereno, one of many lovely industrial neighborhoods seemingly overlooked by most Angelenos. It’s home to amazing street-art murals and small factories. (Yes, we still manufacture things here.)
Why a 1973 Volkswagen Thing Has Seat Belts
It’s also low on the street-maintenance priority list. The Thing’s ride is smoother than I expected, but every bump is a calamity, the interior a cacophony of rattles and clanks. I cross some railroad tracks in second gear and am nearly thrown out of my seat—only the lap belt holds me in. So that’s what it’s for! The Thing is so sparsely constructed that slamming a door makes the whole side of the car shake; I assumed the seatbelts were little more than unfounded optimism.
The morning fog is burning off and the gasoline fumes are making me dizzy, so I stop to wrestle down the top and don my silly sun-hat. This 1973 Volkswagen Thing is the only convertible I have ever driven that gets quieter inside when you put the top down. My Thing’s boxer engine is amplified by a set of aftermarket headers, and as I drive past tidy palm-shaded ranch houses, I try to keep the revs and the noise down. This turns out to be a bad idea. Lug the Thing’s engine and it bucks and misses. Race it and it cries like a wounded animal. Get it just right and it purrs contentedly. There’s no tachometer, just red hash marks on the speedometer—I, II, III—that indicate the top speed for each gear. Shift by the marks and you’re golden.
1973 Volkswagen Thing: 46 HP, 72 LB-FT, No Waiting!
As I head into hilly Los Feliz, I am grateful for the Thing’s low gearing. Horsepower is a mere 46, but torque is a stout 72 lb-ft, and the car climbs steep grades with gusto. Traffic is building, and with some refinement in technique, I’m able to keep up: A couple of blips on the throttle before easing-in the clutch, then work the engine hard in first and second gear. It takes everything the Thing can deliver, but no one behind me will be late to work.
I turn right on Vermont Ave. into Griffith Park, and it’s as if someone hit the city’s mute button. Griffith is not like Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London, those scar-like interruptions of the cityscape. It’s a complete change, a preserved segment of the natural beauty into which L.A. is carved. I cruise up twisty, hilly roads past Griffith Observatory, then I park, shut off the Thing’s noisy engine, and enjoy the song of the birds and the beautiful view of downtown below me. Does any other city in the world have anything like this? If so, I’ve yet to see it.
Out of the park and into Hollywood, it’s time to play tourist. I cruise past the Capitol Records building, where Frank Sinatra once kept an office, and enjoy looking at a structure designed to look like a stack of records with a phonograph needle atop. I turn right at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, tracing the Walk of Fame past Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the El Capitan. COVID has cooled the tourist trade, but there are still a few visitors mingling with the street folk, and the bright yellow Thing elicits waves and smiles from all. “Cute car, honey,” yells an aging Goth, “but it’d look better in black.” She should read my Model T story.
I take my first quick detour out of the city limits and into West Hollywood which, unlike Hollywood itself, is not part of L.A. The traffic lights on Santa Monica Boulevard are relentless, and while I’m not normally one to complain about driving a stick shift, every stop-and-go means a trip through the gears to third. By the time I pass the Troubadour, where Guns N’ Roses played its first show and Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying “schmuck” on stage, my left knee is singing the blues. There’s no space in the cramped footwells to stretch my legs, and my legs aren’t even that long.
Cruising Sunset in the 1973 Volkswagen Thing
But I’m determined to cruise the Sunset Strip, which is technically in West Hollywood; Los Angeles begins just behind the buildings. I pass the Rainbow Grille, the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, and the Viper Room, where River Phoenix died on the sidewalk. I still remember that day—I was living in New York, and California seemed like a far-away fairy tale land. Now here I am, cruising the Strip in a beautiful old 1973 Volkswagen Thing. L.A. really is the city of dreams, and I’m living mine today.
I wind my way up Laurel Canyon Boulevard, muscling the heavy steering through the curves and cruising past the Canyon Country Store where Jim Morrison bought cigarettes and munchies. Much of my favorite music—Joni Mitchell, Carole King, CSNY—originated right here, and the thrum of an air-cooled Vee Dub blends right in.
Laurel drops me down into the San Fernando Valley, which I refer to as the New Jersey of L.A. Westsiders hate the 818—hot, bland, no beaches—and only go “over the hill” when they can’t avoid it. Me, I’ve lived in the Valley for several years and have come to love its suburban-industrial vibe.
I drive the wide, arrow-straight boulevards past mini-malls and auto repair shops and banquet halls and some of the best hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants in the world, through Sun Valley and into Granada Hills. Here lies what may be the City of Los Angeles’ biggest surprise: Horse country! Imagine someone telling you they lived in Paris or Chicago and had horses in a pasture. You’d never believe it. But in this part of L.A., you’ll find horses, ponies, goats, alpacas—so many that the City of Los Angeles keeps a fleet of trailers to help evacuate them from brush fires. Here I am, well within the confines of America’s second-largest city, and I can smell hay and horse shit. Is there any finer felicity?
Tackling Hills and Canyons in the 1973 Volkswagen Thing
The 118 freeway traces the city’s north edge through the Santa Susana Pass, a long, steep, fast climb that has me concerned—air-cooled VWs can’t boilover, but they can still get too hot. The VW Thing is perfectly happy at 60 mph, 8 short of its alleged top speed. Granted, the steering goes light and vague, the column vibrates over bumps, and the body sways gently to-and-fro with the breezes, and yet I find it strangely relaxing. Despite my misgivings, the Thing sails up the steep grade in fourth gear without breaking a sweat.
I leave the freeway at the top of the pass and head for Box Canyon, a beautiful, boulder-strewn backwater that has no business in a teeming metropolis like L.A. All of a sudden, the drive gets a lot more difficult. Box Canyon Road is narrow and twisty and steep, good fun in our Four Seasons Hyundai Veloster N but sketchy and chancy in the Thing. It’s too fast of a road for second gear and too slow for third. I choose the latter, which means a constant stab-and-release on the stiff brake pedal—you don’t want to ride drum brakes, because when they get hot, they simply check out.
The brakes don’t fade, but they do lock with reckless abandon, and I white-knuckle through 15-mph curves with the narrow tires squealing. I’m not quite holding up the Prius behind me, but I can’t shake it, either. The canyon opens up into the aptly-named Valley Circle Drive, which runs down the west side of the Valley. It’s a dull drive, but I need the time to recuperate.
The Santa Monica mountains lie between me and the Pacific Ocean. Getting to the water’s edge while staying within L.A. proper would mean a long detour through more narrow canyon roads, so I cheat and hop just outside the city limits to Topanga Canyon Boulevard. After my experience in Box Canyon, I’m surprised at how much the Thing likes Topanga’s broad, fast curves. I brace my left leg on the firewall and get two firm hands on the wheel, and by the time I reach the ocean my arms are aching but my face is smiling.
Finding the 1973 VW Thing’s Spiritual Home
Much of what should be L.A. ‘s high-priced shoreline has been snatched up by other cities—Malibu, Redondo Beach, Santa Monica. This last one blocks my progress south on Pacific Coast Highway, so I detour inland, up the twisty turns of Sunset Blvd., through tony Brentwood, past 879 Bundy Drive where O.J. insists he did not kill anyone. I cruise down Venice Blvd., over the canals—yes, this Venice does have them—to Venice Beach.
This is the public face of L.A. so often seen in movies, and as compelling as it looks on the big screen, it’s even better in person. Of all the places I’ve visited today, it is perhaps the one where the VW Thing is most at home. It’s the perfect place to end my tour.
We’ve traveled 100 miles during seven hours, the 1973 Volkswagen Thing and I, and while I haven’t seen all of my adopted hometown, I’ve certainly shown the Thing the variety to be found in the City of Angels. The Volkswagen Thing, in return, has proven to be the perfect machine in which to explore it.
1973 Volkswagen Type 181 Thing Specifications
|$3,150 (when new)
|1.6L OHV 8-valve boxer-4/46 hp @ 4,000 rpm, 72 lb-ft @ 2,800 rpm
|4-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD convertible
|L x W x H
|148.8 x 64.6 x 63.8 in