Introducing the Ranchetta, A VW Jetta Smyth Ute Donor

It’s no secret that I’m in love with the Smyth Ute. After getting the opportunity to drive one at a rallycross, I was convinced that someday I need one of these in my life. “Someday” will now be sooner rather than later. Last week I found a rough but solid 2003 VW Jetta 1.8T Wolfsburg Edition for sale on Craigslist at a price so low, even my wife told me to go buy it. Now it’s ours.

Craigslist ad

But it almost wasn’t. Overall, from the ad and the pictures, it looked like a well used but still decent car. It had a couple of issues, which the seller described honestly in his ad. I researched the procedure for replacing the blower motor, and unlike some other cars it’s extremely easy, nestled right behind the glove box. Both are easy to remove. It has some dents on the right side, but the front fender can be repaired or replaced for cheap, and the rear quarter panel damage will be covered by the fiberglass body panel of the Smyth Ute kit, so who cares? It also had my preferred engine – the 1.8T. The lowly 2.0 was for the bargain basement commuter cars. The VR6 is nice, and sounds awesome with an intake. But the 1.8T makes around the same power and weighs much less than the big six cylinder lump. In the past, the Wolfsburg Edition denoted that the car had actually been built in Germany, not Mexico like most American VWs, and simply had a higher standard of quality. That was no longer the case by the time the Mk4 came around. But despite being “hecho en Mexico,” the Wolfsburg Edition is a very nice trim level. It’s not a top of the line GLI, so no leather seats or super sporty options. But it has power everything, like the ad says, and though the seats are cloth, they’re heated from the factory. No aftermarket kit necessary here. So after doing some rapid research, I drove straight down to look at the car myself.

2003 Volkswagen Jetta

The car was pretty much as represented in the ad. I got a good vibe from the seller, who was honest about both the good and bad parts of the car. He told me that the HVAC problem wasn’t actually the blower motor, but the control module/resistor. That’s even cheaper and easier to replace. In fact I’d already gotten Michael Gallant of Smyth Performance’s input on this car. He said it was a great donor, and he could hook me up with a good part from one of their donor cars. Both side mirrors were damaged – the passenger side had cracked glass, and the driver’s side was held together with duct tape. The tires were fair. There was a large crack in the top of the rear bumper plastic, indicating it had been rear ended. Again, not a big deal – this will be replaced with parts from the Ute kit, and the damage didn’t seem bad enough to bend the rest of the car. The check engine light was on (of course – it’s a VW), but it ran and drove great. The shifter was pretty vague, but that’s just bushings. But we couldn’t get the car into reverse. The seller assured me that it was simply a worn bushing, a $20 part that he’d replace for me.

It seemed to be a great deal. Any car that works this well is a steal for $600. But I had to see it back up under its own power before I would buy it. Too many cars on Craigslist seem like great deals, but have a blown reverse gear in the transmission. I can handle the minor issues of this car, but I didn’t want to have a transmission replacement on my hands. I’ve already had one project get too big for me to handle, my Jeep Comanche from last year. I couldn’t get it into reverse, and neither could the seller. I was about ready to walk away from it, when a miracle occurred and it backed up three feet. That’s all I needed – the transmission was good, and I agreed to buy the car. My wife and I brought it home yesterday.

2003 VW Jetta rear bumper damage

Upon closer inspection, some of the bodywork around the rear bumper seems to have bent a little bit. In addition, the trunk lid is having trouble closing. It’s heavy enough to stay shut under its own weight, so I’ll probably let this issue slide since everything in this picture will be coming out of the car anyway.

The seller had been unable to replace the shifter bushing as promised due to a sudden death in his family. No harm, no foul. But I actually had no problem getting the car into reverse when we picked it up. Shifting became a little more vague as the engine warmed up, but even when I got home I could find reverse. These shifters need to be finessed, not manhandled. I did a little research online, and found this video from DieselGeek.com about adjusting the shifter cables.

I performed this procedure on the Jetta, and added a little grease to all of the linkages for good measure. It helped significantly, and best of all it cost nothing. One of my concerns is that this will be the car that my wife learns to drive stick on, since my BRZ’s shifter causes her pain. I want her to have as easy a time as possible on the Jetta, and that means being able to find the gears. One of the bushings looks pretty new, but I may replace the rest at some point to see if that helps some more.

Using DashCommand, I read the trouble codes from the ECU. They were misfires of various types, a “cooling system performance” error, and “Idle Air Control System RPM Higher Than Expected.” After recording this info I reset the codes. We’ll see if any come back.

Jeremy Clarkson has often said that you’re not a true car enthusiast until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo. That’s a difficult thing to do here in the US, but I might say the same thing about Volkswagen. They’ve had a huge following ever since the original Beetle came to our shores, and cars like the GTI, Golf R, Jetta GLI, and others have been true enthusiast cars. Of course these days VW has a giant black cloud of Dieselgate smoke hanging over their heads, but that doesn’t make these cars any less great. Though I grew up in the back seat of a 1974 Super Beetle in Torchinsky Yellow, I’ve never owned a VW – until now. It’s time for me to experience a whole new enthusiast community. This is also the first turbo car I’ve ever owned. Our Ford Flex “SHO Wagon” belongs to my wife. Though really, the Jetta, and especially the Ute conversion, will be a family affair. My wife has no problem getting her hands dirty. I’m sure even the kids will get involved.

Smyth Ute

It’ll be a while before the Smyth Ute conversion actually happens. For one thing, it’s winter, and here in New England that means it’s cold. I love my readers, but I’m not going to freeze my ass off for you, so the conversion won’t begin until spring at the earliest. Besides, I also want to work all of the bugs out of the donor car and have it in good legal running condition before making a Ute out of it. But I have already come up with a name for this project. Though the natural comparison is to the Chevy El Camino, the “El Jettamino” name has already been thrown around a lot. But Ford had their own car/truck offering – the Ranchero. And, the Smyth kit includes a number of Ford truck parts, such as the rear lights and tailgate. So I think “Ranchetta” is a more fitting name for this beast once it undergoes the conversion. Until then, it’ll pretty much be known as that beat up old Jetta in my driveway.

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