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The manufacturer offerings were very diverse. Powerplants ranged from 4 to 8 cylinders. The number of driving wheels were also diverse. Some were 2 wheel drive, others 4 wheel drive. Even more differentiation could be found in how the manufacturers decided to pursue the utility portion of their vehicle by providing either a unibody architecture for improved mileage, or a solid chassis for extra load bearing capacity and better towing ratings.
Here's a brief (not comprehensive) production history of ute history in the United States...
- Chevy El Camino/ GMC Caballero: 1959-1960 then 1964-987
- Dodge Rampage/ Plymouth Scamp: 1982-1984
- Ford Ranchero: 1957-1979
- Subaru Brat: 1978-1987
- Subaru Baja: 2003-2006
- Volkswagen Rabbit Sportruck: 1978-1984
That brings us to 2017. Trucks are huge sellers for manufacturers. However, miles per gallon ratings are huge concerns for those same manufacturers. So, automakers are looking to increase the efficiencies of their products to make them more palatable to the increasingly green conscience buying public. Enter a ute revival. A reborn unibody ute would meet that need as it would have the mileage numbers more closely tied to a car than a truck.
It seems that I'm not the only one thinking this way. Hyundai has identified the emptiness of this car truck niche, looked at its own portfolio, and recognized the lack of pickup trucks. Fixing that emptiness is one of their concerns. So, they have viewed the active traditional pickup market, while also watching the unibody Ridgeline sales over in the Honda camp and determined that the niche needs to be filled with their own twist. They are rumored to have green lighted the 2019 Hyundai Santa Cruz for sales beginning in 2018. Hyundai's twist however, is that their vehicle would be based on a crossover chassis, possibly the Tucson. Remember, this is a rumor. So, it could change to a red light from the manufacturer or just as easily change to a Genesis chassis overnight.
The market for utes doesn't end there. There are others looking at this niche. Smyth Performance, for example, out of Wareham, Massachusetts, has taken a different path and started offering conversion kits a few years ago. Those kits are based on VW Jetta, and now also in the form of a Dodge Charger donor car kit. An Audi kit may be launching soon as well.
Mark Smith, the owner of Smyth Performance, gravitated to the ute market because, "I saw really good 4 door sedans that were basically being thrown away after 10 years. Cars like the diesel Volkswagen Jettas, Police Dodge Chargers, Audi A4/S4s, BMW 540I's...". He believes that by providing a project that people can finish inside of month or two it can give people a reason to fix their vehicles and an opportunity to end up with an eye catching end product. In the case of the Jetta, "I started with the Jetta simply because of TDI Diesel...I mean really,...a 50 mpg truck. What fun!"
"What we find exciting is the rebirth of the home built project. People are just in the habit of buying whatever they want instead of building what they want. What we do is help people start with a pretty simple project that really really is special when they're driving down the road and basically costs under 10 grand." Smith notes that the donor cars are typically found for under $5,000. So, it's economically feasible for so many people.
I asked him what kind of response Smyth Performance has been receiving at car shows with the utes.
"It's kind of wild! Anything different in this country is cool by default. But, the utes really get amazing attention. Smyth conversions really do get kids to lean out of their cars and take pictures on the highway. I don't think people are used to seeing unusual cars these days. Everything is so incredibly bland and when they see a car turned into a truck professionally, with good engineering, and good design I think they really like it. The key is that it is attainable and a great first car project."
It didn't hurt that Smyth Performance had a television celebrity pick up one of the Jetta kits. So, I asked Mark Smith, "How did your run-in with Rutledge Wood affect Smyth Performance?"
"Rut is one of those rare guys in the TV world that just has a heart of gold and combines it with a great work ethic, and being a real car guy. He saw the Smyth Jetta ute two years ago at SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show when we were exhibiting with Local Motors. He decided he just had to have one. His TV show helped a lot. There's really no substitute for reaching 5 million people with one segment on a popular TV show. Overall, he's a friend and a true car enthusiast."
I asked Smith how he felt about the possibility of Hyundai possibly entering the ute market in 2018.
"If we can play a part in getting the ute category to grow, and follow a larger company in the market in the United States, that would be great! I have not seen real car based utes yet from the big guys, but they are coming. Hyundai is not exactly a performance brand. So our core buyers of utes will not be interested. But, if FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) or BMW enthusiasts get an OEM offering, that would be great! The performance cars do well, I think."
Smith and Hyundai aren't the only ones recognizing the ute market is empty. Buyers are starting to lift the resale values of old El Caminos and Rancheros. Mid 1980's Chevrolet El Caminos are commonly found in the mid-teens right now on Ebay.com and ClassicAutoTrader.com.. Not many vehicles over 20 years old can still command a $15,000 price tag. The Ford Ranchero doesn't appear to be to be as loved though. There are fewer available on the websites and their prices are averaging $5,000 for a late 1970's models. But, the pricing for both of them could change quickly if one of the mainstream manufacturers announces a revival.
In the meantime, don't be surprised to see restored utes, or Smyth Performance ute kits show up in car shows near you, or even on more television shows. Richard Rawlings for example, from Discovery Channels show Fast N Loud, recently showcased an El Camino project. It became a two episode wonder that sold for $50K. Granted it was a custom car with television provenance. Still, there was obviously enough of a market to justify that selling price.
All this information paints the picture that utes are an underserved market ready for a comeback. It's a market that Smyth Performance currently has a big head start in should the other manufacturers eventually decide to join in. Although manufacturers tend to keep tight lipped about their future concepts, Hyundai is seemingly the only one with any vision in that direction, but in crossover form, which no doubt will leave Mark Smith to enjoy the economical car base ute kit for a lot longer. For now, It's easy to see every day shade tree mechanics, families eager to start a project, and school auto technology programs giving Smyth Performance a call. For example, the pictures of the red Smyth Performance Jetta conversion are the result of a father and son project by Tim Cleland and Kyle Lascano, a duo that wanted something cool to drive and not beyond their abilities to accomplish.
Here's a couple more images for your enjoyment.
Smyth Performance, Inc.
8 Kendrick Road
Wareham, MA 02571