Need a compact pickup? Build your own from a VW Jetta

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

So Mark Smith was running his big, fast Scarab boat on 100 percent biodiesel fuel (and thought it was funny that those with sailboats were filling the engines in their supposedly clean, green machines with petrol-based marine gasoline).

Anyway, he needed a shop truck and wanted something small that also would run on biodiesel. Problem was, he couldn’t find such a truck among the millions sold each year in the United States. So he decided to make his own.

In 1993, Smith founded Fast Five Racing, the Massachusetts-based kit car company, which he sold to his brother and co-owner in 2012. Smith, who also helped launch Phoenix-based Local Motors, then started Smyth Performance to develop a mid-engine sports car, the G3F, powered by Volkswagen’s turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder TDI diesel engine, or, for those still addicted to gasoline, VW’s normally aspirated VR6.

To create the small pickup he needed, Smith and engineer and Flint native Michael Gallant took a used VW Jetta, made a cut here and another there, and — voila — his version of what the Australian’s call a “ute,” or perhaps you’d prefer to think of it as a small, modern version of the classic, car-based Chevrolet El Camino or Ford Ranchero.

Regardless, for $3,500, Smyth Performance will sell you the materials to turn a used Jetta sedan into a compact pickup with a 6-foot bed. Opt for the diesel and you can average 40 mpg on the highway.

By cutting them apart, Smith found 1999-2004 VW Jettas were built like “a bloody tank”: The structure of the Jetta was some 300 pounds heavier than the typical compact sedan.

Slicing through the B pillars to remove the rear section of the roof and body revealed four layers of steel. They also unearthed a 3-inch boxed frame section beneath the rear of the car to support the pickup bed.

The platform is “still very rigid with the top cut off,” Smith said.

Because it’s based on a VW Jetta, the “ute” can be gas- or diesel-powered, with a manual or automatic transmission.

The Smyth Performance “ute” kit includes fiberglass left and right quarter panels, fiberglass rear window surround, rear slider window, steel roof/B pillar reinforcements (sort of a semi-roll cage), aluminum/steel inner structural bed sides, aluminum center bed floor, center fiberglass rear roll pan/bumper cover, plexiglass rear quarter windows, stainless and sink-plated fasteners, steel OEM (Ford Ranger) tailgate with hinges and latches and tail lamp assemblies and wiring and bulbs (from a Ford Explorer).

Put it all together and “it looks like it came from the factory,” Smith said.

Speaking of putting it all together, Smith said skilled do-it-yourselfers can start with a Jetta and end up with a truck in a couple of weekends.

“Guys are building them with their kids,” he said, noting that used Jettas can be acquired for $2,000 or less. “They can do it in a weekend or two, maybe a month for a rookie, and when they’re done the kids get to drive it.”

Smith said air bags and other safety systems remain in place.

Now that they’ve created a kit for 1999-2004 Jettas, Smith and Gallant are working on a similar conversion for the newest version of the Jetta. Smith’s thought is that someone could buy a base Jetta for around $16,000, do the conversion for around $20,000, and have a brand new pickup with all the latest technologies and driving aids.

For more information, visit the website.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Smith named the company Smyth, it’s because “you never name a company after yourself because if you sell, you’ve sold your name,” he said.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at