The Volkswagen Type 183, more commonly known as the Iltis (German for the European Polecat), is a military vehicle built by Volkswagen for use by the German military and under licence by Bombardier for the Canadian Forces and Belgian Army. Although the two vehicles were briefly offered simultaneously, the Type 183 effectively replaced the Type 181.
The German military had been part of a cooperative effort beginning in the late 1960s to create what was dubbed the Europa Jeep, an amphibious four wheel drive vehicle that could replace the small all-terrain transport vehicles being used by several of the participating governments. With development taking longer than expected, the German military requested that something inexpensive be built in small quantities to fill their need for additional small transport vehicles while the Europa Jeep project was still undergoing design research.
Volkswagen responded to the request, designing an updated version of their Kübelwagen and designating it the Type 181. But by 1976 the Europa Jeep project had fallen apart completely, the victim of skyrocketing costs and a difficult development. Needing a suitable four wheel drive vehicle to take over the spots that had been designated for the Europa Jeep, the German government issued requests to several manufacturers to design and build prototype vehicles to be considered for military use.
Prior to the advent of the Type 181, the German military had purchased several thousand vehicles of the Munga, a light jeep manufactured by DKW, but production of the Munga ended in 1968. VW consolidated the former Auto Union marques into a single company, re-using the Audi name to designate vehicles manufactured by the company rather than continuing to manufacture vehicles under the names of the various brands that had made up the original Auto Union.
Wanting to begin immediately making use of the technologies they had acquired in the Auto Union purchase, VW chose to participate in the competition to provide the next new German military vehicle by creating an evolution of the Munga jeep, which had been out of production for several years by this time. The resultant prototype combined old technologies with new, and executives decided to badge the product as a VW rather than as an Audi in the hopes that this would help promote positive linking to the existing VW military designs and give them a "leg up" over the competition.
The vehicle featured a variation of the Munga's platform with newly modified suspension components, a four wheel drive system based around components from the Audi 100 and a 1.7 litre four cylinder Audi engine producing 75 horsepower. The design of this four wheel drive system provided the basis for Audi's Quattro system, which debuted four years later in 1980 on the original Audi Quattro. Earlier that year, Freddy Kottulinsky and Gerd Löffelmann had won the Paris-Dakar Rally in an Audi-prepared Iltis.
The Iltis, as VW was now calling it, passed the German government's tests with ease, and was chosen over the equally competent but more expensive Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. Production began in the summer of 1978 and the first 200 units were delivered in November; by late 1979 approximately 2,000 units had been delivered with 310 units sent to the Luftwaffe and 20 sent to the German Navy. Although most of the units produced were four-doored with open tops, ambulance, anti-tank, artillery survey, command and field communications units with varying bodystyles were produced in small numbers. A civilian model was also offered in Germany, but found even fewer takers than the 181 had, largely due to price.
The Iltis-based Citroën
In the late 1970s the French government decided it was time to replace their aging fleet of Hotchkiss Jeeps and like Germany they called out for offers. No French company had a fitting vehicle on hand and designing one from the ground up would have been too expensive so they worked with the manufacturers that did have something to offer. Peugeot teamed up with Mercedes, put a 504 engine in the G-Wagen and called it the P4, Saviem put a Renault 20 engine in Fiat’s Campagnola and dubbed it the TRM500 and Citroën built the C44, a Volkswagen 183 powered by a CX engine. In the end the P4 was awarded the contract and the other two projects were scrapped but a team entered a C44 in the 1981 Paris-Dakar. It did not finish the race.