The VW thing that came after the Thing

Iltis off-roader had a short-lived production run but its influence continues

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VW Iltis
The Volkswagen Iltis won the 1980 Paris-Dakar Rally and despite a short-lived production run, it's technology was quite influential | Volkswagen photos

Seemingly everyone remembers the Volkswagen Thing, the ungainly looking, convertible-topped, off-roady civilian vehicle based on the World War II-era Kubelwagen. Sold for only two model years in the United States, the Thing remains quite popular with collectors.

But the question for today is: Do you remember the thing that replaced the Thing?

Probably not. Volkswagen produced only 9,000 units of the Iltis, beginning in 1978 with the military model and a year later with a limited run of civilian examples.

“While not produced in huge numbers, one short-lived Volkswagen earned itself an outsized place in brand history with an impressive Dakar Rally performance and boasts influence across the Volkswagen Group: the Volkswagen Iltis,” the company said as it recounted the Iltis’ history.

“The Iltis was built to be a homegrown utility vehicle for use by the German army. It went into production in 1978 at Audi’s Ingolstadt facility, with a civilian model run beginning in 1979. All told, Volkswagen would build just over 9,000 military and civilian examples, skewed heavily toward military. 

“Though branded as a Volkswagen, development was handled mainly by Audi: the Iltis was essentially a reworked and updated version of the DKW Munga that Audi had been building throughout the 1960s.”

Officially designated as the Type 183 in VW nomenclature, the Iltis development was led by Ferdinand Piech and was based on parts from the Munga and other Audi vehicles, as well as those from the VW’s Golf and Beetle.

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Power was provided by a 1,741cc engine that provided 70 horsepower through a 4-speed manual transmission with a “G” (gelande) low gear for rugged terrain. 

“The most interesting bit of the Iltis was its drivetrain,” VW notes, “a mechanical four-wheel drive setup that could run as rear-wheel drive until the driver engaged the four-wheel system as needed.”

The second Paris-Dakar Rally between the capitals of France and Senegal was staged in 1980 and VW knew a strong performance in the off-road rally would draw attention for the Iltis. 

“Specifically, Volkswagen hoped to achieve two goals,” it said. “First, to impress the French military in particular — hence, entry in the Paris-Dakar — and secondly to generate interest from the general public in the civilian model, which faced an uphill battle within the emerging segment that would come to be known as the high-end SUV.

“Modern Dakar Rally vehicles are purpose-built, with many only bearing a superficial resemblance to the road models they’re based on. In the early Paris-Dakar years, however, competition vehicles were surprisingly close to stock: Driver Patrick Zaniroli claims that the only modifications Audi made to the Paris-Dakar prepped Iltis’ were the addition of a larger carburetor and a different camshaft. 

“Another difference in those early Paris-Dakar years was the lack of ‘chase’ teams of mechanics servicing vehicles at stops throughout; teams ran with what they had, and if something broke, those onboard either patched it up by hand or were out.”

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Although an underdog in a field of bigger and faster vehicles, the VW was reliable and all four cars finished, and they not only finished but they finished in 1st, 2nd, 4th and 9th places, with Freddy Kottulinsky and Gerd Loffelmann in the winning vehicle.

“This impressive Paris-Dakar performance bought the Iltis a couple more years of life under Volkswagen, but its high costs hurt it in the civilian market: while production would continue through the end of the 1980s at a trickle in Europe and under license internationally, the last Iltis rolled off of the Ingolstadt production facility in 1982.”

Though gone, the Iltis was not forgotten.

Iltis’ 4wd system evolved into Audi’s quattro setup

“In Sweden,” VW notes, “Audi was using an Iltis as a support vehicle while vehicle testing in the snow when it noticed that the Iltis’ four-wheel drive system handled the weather better than anything else, regardless of power. 

“An idea sparked: what if the Iltis’ four-wheel drive system could be modified and placed into a road car?”

After a couple years of development it was. You may not remember the VW Iltis, but everyone recognizes Audi’s quattro.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi,
    Nice little article. I’m unsure about the use of the Iltis in Sweden but in Canada it was our ‘jeep’. Canada is a large nation north of the US of A. The Iltis was not well loved as it did not stand up well to operational uses. Then there were the excessive casualties from IED in Afghanistan and how the cloth armour and sheet metal was unable to protect our soldiers. Perhaps add this in a future article about this um, collector’s vehicle.
    Robert

  2. Ibid to Robert’s comments above. Per Wikipedia, Bombardier produced the Iltis under licence from 1984 to 1988 making 2,500 for the Canadian Army and an equivalent number for a handful of other countries. Comparable but not equivalent o the US Army M151 disposable Jeep-like vehicle for the Vietnam conflict, the Iltis was a better fit as a civilian vehicle and could not stand up to the rigours of Army use.

  3. Third to Rob & John. Was a P-D rally fan from the beginning, was serving as an American advisor in the Middle East for the ’80 win and have seen many of the military versions, original and licensed, owned by different governments in my past travels.
    Never saw a civilian version, tho’ that’s for which it was best suited. This was an inadequate military vehicle, but the spec made it a great primitive SUV- too bad VW marketed this to government procurement; it’d been a rippin’ Outback before Subaru got there.
    Used to have a “Thing”, with an aftermarket Mendeola 5spd. & built 1835cc, “Baja bug” suspension mods. Great in snow but no heat whatsoever, and would go anyplace a Jeep CJ5/CJ7 would, save deep water (flat four, no snorkel, unprotected engine electrics); have wondered if a Subaru engine conversion, MattTracks on the rear, and front skis wouldn’t have made it the perfect winter toy. Long gone, no budget. Sigh.
    VW used to make such interesting stuff…

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