Trucks are the most popular cars these days. But what a truck gains in utility over a car, it loses in performance, fuel economy and ease of parking — and maneuvering. The heaviest loads many trucks carry these days is taking the kids to soccer practice, or bringing the occasional lumber or large appliance home from the store. Still, when I bought a house last year, I soon realized how useful having a truck would be — but trucks are mostly boring, and they’re usually no fun to drive on the street. So I decided to build my own out of a VW Jetta.
I should point out that I’m not some master mechanic or experienced fabricator. I don’t even know how to weld. But that’s OK. Smyth Performance has already done the work for me. The small company out of Wareham, Massachusetts, specializes in kits that will turn a Volkswagen Jetta, Audi A4 or a Dodge Charger into a pickup truck, or technically a “ute,” since the cab and bed are one piece. The founder of Smyth Performance is Mark Smith. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s also one of the founders of Factory Five Racing, a company well-known for its Cobra replica kit cars and other models. In contrast to the high-end kits of Factory Five, Smyth’s kits are designed for the average shade-tree mechanic. Smyth claims that the average person with moderate mechanical skill can build a ute in their garage with basic tools in 20 to 40 hours, not including paint.
The donor car was a 2003 VW Jetta 1.8T Wolfsburg Edition sedan that I picked up for $600. It was far from perfect, but it ran and drove well. It had a little bit of body damage, but the Smyth Performance kit would fix the damage in the back, and a $50 fender took care of the dents in front. After I made it roadworthy to the auto inspection standards of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I got the kit and went to work.
The first steps were to strip out the interior behind the front seats, as well as the back doors, trunk lid, bumper, and tail lights. I measured several times, then cut twice — first, a cut across the roof just behind the B-pillars, then cuts through the door frames, rear quarter panels and across the back just above the rear bumper. One of the few steps for which you actually need a second person’s help is to lift the top rear quarter section off of the car and set it aside.
The bed is made of thick aluminum panels that tie into the car’s B-pillar, providing the structural integrity that is lost when you cut off the top rear quarter of the car. I built the aluminum bed from front to back and installed the provided Ford Ranger tailgate. I had to rewire the rear lighting to accommodate the Ford Explorer SportTrac tail lights that come with the VW Jetta kits. Finally, I installed the fiberglass body panels, which enclose the new structure as well as the passenger compartment and make the final product look good. Everything either bolts, rivets or bonds together. No welding is required. In the end, I successfully transformed my Jetta from a sedan into a ute in about a month’s worth of weekend — plus some weeknights, minus paint, just as Smyth Performance predicted. Once the weather warms up, I’ll do some bodywork and eventually Plastidip the entire car to finish it off.
It’s true that for the roughly $4,000 I spent on the donor car plus the Smyth Performance ute kit, I could’ve gone on Autotrader and found a cheap small pickup truck. But what pickup truck still drives and handles like a German sedan, and gets 30 miles per gallon? And what pickup is this cool and unique?
How does it work as a truck? The ute’s bed has a payload capacity of about 750 pounds. That’s not much by truck standards, but it’s all I need to bring home lumber or appliances. I can pick up hay and chicken feed at the farmer’s exchange without messing up the interiors of my other cars. I can even tow a small trailer around to haul my motorcycle, or a riding mower, or other equipment. All in all, it can do most of the truck things that most people end up using their trucks for in the real world.
Yet it still drives like a Volkswagen Jetta. Its 1.8T engine makes satisfying whoosh and choo-choo turbo noises. After replacing the bushings, its manual transmission is slick and precise — not clunky and vague like a truck transmission. It hauls everything we need it to, and it’s fun at the same time. With that said, I have to admit, some of the most fun I have with it is seeing the funny looks I get from people who don’t know what to make of a modern Volkswagen truck.