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.
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.”
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.
“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.