In Praise of Moesha’s 1979 Volkswagen Type 181

Netflix recently announced it would be bringing a bevy of classic Black sitcoms to the streaming service, which has unlocked tons of forgotten memories for just about every Black millennial in America bored during the pandemic. There’s one weird, oddly specific thing from one of those shows I want to hone in on, though, and that’s a mysterious VW Type 181 that’s stayed with me for more than 20 years.

I didn’t think I would connect a ’90s teen UPN sitcom to a German military runabout, but here we go. It starts with “Moesha,” the first of the old shows to appear on Netflix. I haven’t watched a single episode since its six-season run that began in ’95, but there are two things that stick out to me the most: A plot twist in the middle of season five that ruined the whole show (if you’re binging this now, I won’t spoil it), and the aforementioned Type 181 which appears in the opening credits for two seasons.

Most people revisiting “Moesha” as adults have commented on the titular character’s, in hindsight, terrible displays of friendship, questionable relationship choices and now-frightening relationship with her stepmother, which all seemed so innocent when we were 11. I’m choosing to reminisce on a running gag involving the cars because this is Jalopnik and not The Root or The A.V. Club.

In season one, we establish that Moesha Mitchell’s father, Frank, is a Saturn salesman, one of the top sellers in Southern California where the family lives. Saturn is mentioned frequently throughout the series from this point; even Spring Hill, Tenn., where real-life Saturns were built, gets a shout-out. Real-life context matters here: Saturn was still very much a nascent brand in 1995, having only been around since the summer of 1990.

It was a fast-growing budget brand by that year, but “budget” is probably why Moesha, who turns 16 this season, has no interest in driving a car from a still-unfamiliar brand despite a family discount. She spends much of these episodes daydreaming of owning a Jeep Wrangler, which, if you were a teenage girl in mid-90s SoCal (see also: Cher Horowitz), was the must-have ride, and nothing less. (“Being seen in a bunk hooptie is like getting caught in a K-Mart buying a Jaclyn Smith ensemble to sit front row centre at a Michael Bolton concert,” Moesha quips.)

Screenshot: Netflix

Midway through the first season on Moesha’s 16th birthday, she’s gifted a perfectly capable red Saturn SC2 – with leather seats!– from her father, which she turns down. (It’s also this moment where many now-adults rewatching the show realise that Moesha was not the teenage role model we all thought she was, but actually a spoiled, self-absorbed brat.) She and her friend Kim instead go down to a Jeep dealer, and, in true sitcom fashion, discover that an actual Wrangler’s MSRP is way more than they budgeted for and leave empty-handed. The rest of the season is spent bumming rides across Crenshaw, fighting with her stepmom for the pettiest of reasons and making bad fashion choices.

Screenshot: Netflix

In the next season, Moesha vows to use her earnings to buy her own car, which she does. All she can afford, however, is a bunk hooptie: a 1979 Volkswagen Type 181 with a mismatched interior, a faulty gas gauge and bad brake lights. The worst part? It’s a stick shift, and Moesha herself can barely drive it. By the way, it’s never referred to by its American model name, the Thing, throughout the series. And we only know it’s a 1979 model because — in a strangely prescient for 2020 scene — Moesha and her friends are stopped by a police officer in Beverly Hills (there are allusions to driving while Black, but the episode doesn’t address it any further) who details the make and model.

Screenshot: Netflix

Why am I still obsessing over Moesha’s Thing 24 years later? Because it’s the first time I’d ever seen this funky little rascal on screen, and it’s rare for something like this to pop up at all. At 11 growing up in Michigan, the only other time I’d seen a Thing was buried in the pages of an Auto Trader, likely because such a car would rust pretty quickly in our harsh winters. To this day, even having lived in California for a year, I’ve never seen one in real life, they only exist in my mind as a B-plot in a UPN sitcom. But why, I ask myself now at 35, did they make fun of this car so much? I want one.

VW manufactured the Thing for different markets between 1968 and 1983. It was technically sold in the United States between 1973-74, in Mexico between 1970-80, and across Europe during its entire run. (It’s very likely Moesha’s ’79 Thing was a Mexican model that somehow made it over the border, which wouldn’t be unusual, if tricky, for Southern California, or it might have been a writing slip-up.) And as Torchinsky noted a few years ago, there may be some conspiracy involving Lee Iacocca as to why the Thing was only around in the States as long as it was.

(Editor’s Note: I think Aaron’s covered his bases very well here, but I personally think this is a U.S.-market 1974 Thing. The indicators are the big U.S.-spec ones, and those boxy air-intake duct things were used on ‘74 Things, and I think were less common on Mexican-market ones. Also, it’s not like finding a Thing back then would have been that hard, really. I don’t think they had to get a Mexican one over the border. I mean, it’s possible, but I think it’s just a writer’s mistake. I bet this is a ‘74. — JT)

The Thing might be wildly unsafe, completely impractical outside beach towns and slow as hell, but still. The fact that we didn’t get an episode where, like Eddie Winslow on “Family Matters” did with one of his dad’s old police cars, Moesha gives her Thing a proper restore and it becomes the coolest car at school and the envy of all the cliques was a missed opportunity. And when I look back at all the ’90s and ’00s pop kitsch of my youth, I can’t think of another time where a leading teen character actually drove a car within their budget that also could’ve been a blast to drive and stand out from the rest of the crowd in a nonconformist way.

Think about the wave of teen movies and shows from that era, and all the cars were Jeeps and fresh-out-the-showroom convertibles. Moesha’s closest equivalent would be, I don’t know, Archie’s jalopy? Which made perfect sense for a teen earning meager wages back then and was probably the most realistic element of the show.

I started to think of some other weird cars that popped up through ’90s Black sitcoms. There was Steve Urkel’s BMW Isetta, which was mocked for being notoriously slow and sadly plunged off a cliff, but wait – wouldn’t you want to drive one of these at least once?

And although never seen, the dim-witted Cole from “Martin” infamously drove an AMC Pacer, which, again, was thoroughly mocked throughout the show – and even growing up in real-life Detroit in the ’90s where “Martin” was set, I never saw a Pacer once.

As for procuring a Thing in 2020, a 16-year-old would have to cough up around $US20,000 ($27,922) or more for a good one, as we’ve since recognised its value. And Brandy, the singer-actress that played Moesha, hasn’t, uh, had the best luck with cars herself. But I’ll always have the memories of Moesha’s Thing, the most underappreciated part of an otherwise decent show.