Smyth Performance Will Turn Anything Into a Ute
A behind-the-scenes look at Smyth Performance, and a preview of what's to come.
After co-founding the highly successful kit car company Factory Five and dabbling in Local Motors, Mark Smith took a cue from Monty Python. “And now for something completely different: a Jetta with a pickup truck bed.” Mark started his own company, Smyth Performance, specializing in kits that convert any four-door car into a small pickup truck, or “Ute” as the Australians call them. Lately Smyth Performance has been rapidly expanding their product range beyond the Volkswagens that first put them on the map. I recently visited their shop to talk to the guys, look at some of these works in progress, and see how they design and build these Ute kits.
We may yearn for the rebirth of the Chevy El Camino, or wish that GM would import some Utes from Australia. But most people don’t want such a strange mashup of car and truck. That’s why crew cab pickups have become so much more popular in recent years. So why did Smyth Performance decide to focus on this niche market? The four door sedan is dying. More and more people are ditching their old sedans for fancy new crossovers and SUVs. Additionally, the small truck is already dead in North America. Yes, the Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon, and Nissan Frontier exist, but they’re mid-size trucks, and their dimensions match those of full size pickups from just a few years ago. They’re not going to fit into a tight parking space. The Chevy S-10 is long gone. Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda have all quit selling their small trucks here. And even though the Ford Ranger is due to return, it’s bound to be a mid-size competitor to the Colorado, not the small truck last sold here in 2011.
So why not meet two needs at once? The used car market is flooded with cheap sedans these days. Smyth Performance started building Ute conversion kits for VW’s Mk4 Jetta/Golf platform. This is about as different from the Factory Five Roadster as you can get, and for good reason. When Mark Smith sold his share of Factory Five to his brother Dave, he signed a non-compete agreement that prohibited him from working with any car but the Jetta/Golf for five years. They designed a kit for the Mk5 platform during that time, but this year the non-compete agreement expired, allowing Smyth to expand and design kits for any car they want.
The cars Smyth chooses to Ute – the Dodge Charger, the Audi B6, the BMW E39, and more on the way – go for a dime a dozen these days, which is why people throw them away instead of fixing them up. But turning an old sport sedan into a Ute gives it a second life. Rather than a car fit for the junkyard and little else, it’s a unique build that seriously turns heads. It makes these old sedans worth fixing and keeping on the road instead of throwing away. They also have strong enthusiast bases, with a large aftermarket for repair and upgrade parts. They don’t just look good – they’re also functional, with a payload capacity around 750lbs. That’s not a lot compared to a “real” truck, but it’s enough to do most truck things that most truck owners do in the real world. Yet it’s still as comfortable and drives as well as the original car. You can have the best of both worlds for not a lot of money, including the both kit and the donor car.
Chop The Top
Smyth Performance recently started developing a Ute kit for the BMW E39 platform. The first step of the process involves cutting the trunk, C-pillars, and back half of the roof off the donor car. Then Mark and engineer Michael Gallant can figure out how to design a kit specifically for that chassis. The general concept is the same for every kit they design. An aluminum bed replaces the back seat and trunk area of the original sedan. A standard tailgate goes on the back, and fiberglass body panels match both the bed and the lines of the original car.
Each car presents its own unique challenges. For example, the E39 lacks frame rails in the unibody, making it particularly flexible after cutting off the top rear quarter of the car. But the aluminum bed will replace the original structure’s rigidity. Removing the back seat, trunk, and surrounding metal provide the access to the donor car necessary to design the kit. At this point you can also start to imagine how the completed Ute may look, with the roof and C-pillars gone but the doors and rear quarter panels still in place.
Build The Bed
I had my doubts about how strong Smyth Utes are until I co-drove Michael’s own Mk4 VW Jetta Ute at an SCCA rallycross this past winter. Even Michael told me he’d never torture tested a Ute that hard before. Yet even under those extreme conditions, the Ute felt just as solid as the original car before it went under the knife. I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d experienced it myself, but it’s true.
The key is that the bed and its supporting panels reinforce the structure of the car when the C-pillars and back half of the roof are gone. Thick aluminum plates connect the bed to the car’s B-pillar with numerous rivets. (No welding is required for any of Smyth’s kits, making them accessible to builders who lack welding skills and equipment.) This ties it in with the rest of the car’s structure, which is unmodified from the B-pillar forward. The idea is similar to how the Honda Ridgeline’s bed ties into its C-pillar. As a beneficial side effect, this also means that your car retains its legal identify for registration purposes. No Certificate of Origin is necessary - a Jetta Ute is still a Jetta, and a Charger Ute is still a Charger, thanks to reusing the same floorpan, running gear, and VIN. This eliminates a major hurdle in some states that make it difficult to put kit cars on the road, such as Smyth’s home of Massachusetts. It also means that most of the same modifications already available for the donor car - power upgrades, suspension, brakes, etc. - will also work on the Ute.
The day I visited, Michael was assembling a nearly final revision of the bed for the upcoming Audi B6 Ute kit. Michael designed the numerous aluminum components in CAD, created prototype aluminum panels, and test fit them to the donor car. This version of the kit fit almost perfectly. Almost. Notes written on the B-pillar panel showed where to trim a little bit off here, or add a little more material there, to match the body contours perfectly. A couple of holes in the bed sides were a couple of millimeters off from matching up perfectly. But these are minor details that will be fixed in the next revision, before production. After bolting it together, adding the tailgate, and mocking up the tail lights, everyone was quite happy with how it looked and fit. The tailgate’s forward slant is unique, and should look great with body panels to match.
Styling The Sides
A single piece of fiberglass stretches from the B-pillar to the tailgate on each side. These cover the aluminum bed structure and the original back door openings, and accommodate the original wheelwells, fuel door, and such. Mark matches the original body lines to the new bed as best he can. Though the back doors are removed from the Ute to save weight, they help provide the basis for the side panel design, as well as the molds used to create the production body panels.
Another important design choice is the tail lights. They need to be compatible with the Ute design and not look out of place, which the sedan’s original lights usually do. Though the Charger Ute gets Dodge Caravan tail lights, the donor source doesn’t matter if the lights look good. The Mk4 Jetta uses lights from a Ford Explorer Sportrac, for instance.
A roll pan replaces the factory bumper, fitting below the tailgate – an off-the-shelf replacement part for a Ford Ranger – and matching up to the side panels. Finally, there’s a new panel for the back of the “cab” that fits between the bed, B-pillars, and original roof, including a new back window.
While Michael generally focuses on designing the aluminum bed and structural reinforcements, Mark focuses on how the final product will look. While I was there, Mark focused on what the BMW Ute will look like while Michael worked on the aluminum bed for the Audi. There’s certainly some overlap, but for the most part they can each stick to the areas they do best.
Cutting The Kit
Outside the design area, two large tools dominate the shop. An automated plasma cutter takes the designs from CAD and cuts them out of large aluminum sheets. Everything from bed panels to small filler pieces get cut this way. This is how Michael created his prototype panels for the Audi. Once the design is finalized, the machine can cut as many identical copies as needed to fulfill product orders.
After the panels are cut, they are bent into shape on a giant press brake. Every angle on every part is recorded and bent into shape manually. The plasma cutter may be automated, but the press brake is not, so it takes some time to get each Ute kit’s aluminum panels ready to ship to the customer.
Meanwhile, the fiberglass bed sides, roll pan, and rear cab surround come together. These panels for the Mk4 Jetta Ute still need their edges trimmed, and holes for the wheelwells and back window cut. This is also a manual process, though thanks to the molds the results are the same every time.
Finally, the kit components are packed up. Smyth doesn’t keep inventory on hand in their small shop. When an order comes in, they create a new kit for each customer. What you end up with is all the aluminum and fiberglass panels, the off-the-shelf parts like the tailgate and tail lights, and all the fasteners, bolts, and rivets required. As Smyth’s web site says, it’s “Everything you need but the donor car.” The kit is then ready to ship worldwide, or to pick up at their shop in Wareham, MA, which is the option I plan to use to get my own kit since I only live about an hour away.
With the demise of the small pickup truck, the proliferation of cheap unwanted sedans, and the market for a kit car that practically any hobbyist can build, Smyth Performance fills not only a unique niche in the kit car market, they also provide a way to get a small truck that drives like a car for the same price or less than a used pickup truck in good shape. To see exactly what's involved in building a Smyth Ute in the real world, watch this space. I'll be documenting my own Mk4 Jetta build in detail.