I’m a fan of alternative history fiction. What if the Confederacy won the Civil War? What if Germany won World War I or II? What if Volkswagen never stopped building the Rabbit Pickup? While the answers to most of these questions can only be answered in our imagination, Smyth Performance has created real life examples of what the Mk. 4 and Mk. 5 Jetta Pickup might have been. And thanks to them, you can also build your own with the Smyth Ute kit.
These “El Jettamino” truck/cars (or more accurately “utes,” since they don’t have a separate bed like a truck) came not from a wormhole to a parallel universe, but from the mind of Mark Smith. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s also the man behind Factory Five, famous for their Cobra replicas, and more recently the 818. These are awesome kit cars, but at Smyth Performance Mark has switched his focus to simpler kits that are easy for the average enthusiast to build. Smyth’s first such kit is the Ute for the 1999.5-2004 VW Jetta and Golf. The Mk. 4 Jetta is as common as dirt, and about as cheap, too. Craigslist is filled with 2.0 liter cars in decent running condition. With a little more digging you can find affordable sporty 1.8T and VR6 examples as well. The kit is designed so that the average shadetree mechanic can cut the car and install the kit in 20-40 hours without paint. Surprisingly, no welding is required, which opens up possibilities to people like me who don’t have welding skills or equipment. Don’t believe me? Then watch for yourself.
At $3,500, the kit will likely cost even more than the donor VW. This may seem like a lot. But keep in mind that most of what you’re paying for is the engineering, rather than just the parts themselves. The reason the kit can be assembled by an average enthusiast with average mechanical skill is all of the work that went into designing the kit to be exactly that. Anybody can throw a bunch of steel panels at you to weld together yourself, but to design a kit that requires no welding after cutting 1/4 of the car away – that takes some serious brains.
Many of those brains come from Michael Gallant, who works with Mark Smith to engineer the Smyth Ute kits. By an insane coincidence, I met him at the MassTuning Trackfest event at Canaan (NH) Motor Club last month. He had hoped to bring his own Ute to drive on the track, but he wasn’t able to get it into trackworthy condition in time. So he brought his Scion FR-S instead, which is the silver car ahead of me in this video.
At this point, I need to fully disclaim any non-biased journalistic integrity. I’ve been interested in this kit since I first heard about it. I’ve seriously considered buying a Jetta and building one of these for myself, even before I met Michael. I live close enough to their factory to go there and pick it up myself. I even spoke with Mark Smith on the phone about visiting their facility at some point, but then life happened and I never followed up. My bad.
And so I met Michael, played with him and our Toyobarus on the track, and even hopped in his car as an instructor. I mentioned in passing that there would be a NER SCCA rallycross at that same track the following weekend, which led to him getting hooked on rallycross. Conversations continued, one thing led to another, and suddenly I find myself not only looking at, but co-driving his Smyth Ute at another rallycross tomorrow. We’ll be in exhibition class, since cutting away a big chunk of the car is illegal in any regular class. I don’t care. Look for more details about Michael’s Smyth Ute and how it drives in the dirt soon.
Earlier this year, Smyth Performance introduced a new ute kit for the 2005-2010 Mk. 5 Jetta. This was a smart move, as the Mk. 4s are getting a little long in the tooth these days, and let’s face it, they weren’t exactly known for their reliability either. The Mk. 5 is a good improvement, more modern, and more refined. These two kits together give us a good look at what hypothetical VW Jetta Pickups might have looked from the factory in both of these generations.
Are Volkswagens not your thing? Would you prefer a ute more in the style of the Chevy El Camino, with a V8 up front and drive wheels in the back? You won’t have to wait much longer. Smyth’s next project is a ute kit for the Dodge Charger, which will be available sometime this month. That’s mighty tempting.