Jeepin’ Ute – Smyth Performance WJ Ute Conversion

Want a JT Gladiator but don’t have the money for one? A Smyth Performance WJ Ute Conversion Kit might be your ticket if you have time.

Let’s face it, the 2019 and up Gladiator is the truck to have if you want pure Jeep performance and looks. However, at nearly $35,000 MSRP – good luck finding one at that low of a price even as a 2WD. For some, a Gladiator might just be slightly out of reach. Another alternative would be trying to find an MJ Comanche but those are rare to find and command a premium price, too, along with the SJ Gladiator. What is one to do? Well, if you have time and minimal fabrication skills, a used WJ and a ute conversion from Smyth Performance could be your answer.

First, What Is A Ute?

Made popular in Australia in the early 1930s, the ute is a car based platform with a truck utility bed. Becoming a relic of the past, GM has abandoned the El Camino, Ford has left the Ranchero, even Holden in Australia has stopped production of their ute.

Why And Who Is Smyth Performance?

First, why a Smyth Performance kit and who are they? It is owned by Mark Smith, the original founder of Factory Five Racing. Smyth Peformance started nearly a decade ago with 1999 to 2004 Volkswagen Jetta ute conversions. He and his team have created more than just skins and a tub by engineering a full kit that does more than just turn your vehicle into a truck.

It is designed to add strength to the uniframe chassis with 1/8-inth thick aluminum panels. These panels are then riveted and bolted in to form the bed and structure of the rear chassis after the B-pillar. “The main structure in our design uses the floor area at the front of the rear seat,” says Smith.

Why A WJ Ute Conversion?

Jeep’s WJ platform enjoys a large aftermarket offering. Owners already upgrade these vehicles with off-road and performance upgrades. Additionally, the WJ is the last of the live axle Grand Cherokees. They are powered by a hearty straight 6 4.0 and even the 4.7 V8 on some models.  Jeep sold over a millions of these WJ and they are known for their comfort, ride and off road capability

“The design for the WJ –the last Grand Cherokee with live axles and the 4.0-liter straight-six – is that it followed nicely with the width of a Ford Ranger tailgate and Chevrolet Colorado rear window,” explained Smith. When put together, it all works like as if it was meant to be this way from the factory. “The uniframe construction of the WJ also allows for serious off-road use when combined with all our strengthening plates.”

The biggest advantages over owning a brand-new JT or finding a rare MJ or SJ are cost and availability. A Smyth Performance WJ kit is $3,390 minus shipping and comes with everything you need to basically install the kit. Used WJ Grand Cherokees in “outstanding” condition run about $3,500 for a 4WD with the V8. Add in some extras for sound deadening, paint, and small add-ons at about $1,500 to $2,000 and you’re still well under $9,000 all in. Yours could be cheaper if you haggle on the price of the donor vehicle. If you do everything yourself, that is.

Garage Build – Guy Gauthier

Let’s start with the experience of building one in your own garage. Smyth Performance was able to get us in touch with two owners and Guy Gauthier built his in the garage and doing nearly everything himself. “I did not know how to do paint, bodywork, or any of that,” Gauthier told us, “But I learned everything by watching YouTube videos and following the directions of the kit.” He considers himself a “wannabe car guy” because “this WJ was my first big project car. I picked it because it’s relatively inexpensive and, if it didn’t work, I thought “I would not be throwing away a lot of money.”

You can see the care and time he took was well spent with the end product looking very OEM. It is seriously something that looks like it came from Jeep brand new. “Everyone kind of looks at it and says ‘what is that? I have never seen anything like it,” says Gauthier. “Whenever people ask if I bought it, I tell them that I built it and that is nice to be able to say.”

How Long Did A WJ Ute Conversion Take?

The total time it took for Gauthier was about two months and everything was done in his home garage except for the paint. “In retrospect,” he says, “I would not (outsource the paint) again.” He also explained that he took his time with only a few days where he worked on it for a full day. “Being retired allowed me to do it at my own pace,” Gauthier explained, “It was also a great project to have during the first part of the lockdown last year.” The experience was so positive, he has purchased another kit but this time for a Volkswagen New Beetle. “One downside is the lead time,” Gauthier said, “this kit I’m getting was purchased from a buyer who was unable to use his.”

He would caution builders is to sound deaden everything. “When you do that, it’s quieter than my old Toyota pickup,” he happily stated. “I even added bedliner to the inside and outside of the aluminum panels before installing the fenders.” The only other piece of advice he gave was to finish the rear cap before installing it. As Gauthier states, “It’s easier to do before you install it.”

Shop Built – Ken VandenBussche and Hestermann Motorwerks

The next owner, Ken VandenBussche, decided he wanted his professionally done and contacted Andrew Hesterman of Hestermann Motorwerks. Despite living in Hawaii, VandenBussche purchased and shipped everything to Hestermann in Green Cove Springs, Florida. This included the aftermarket parts to set his WJ apart further than just the ute conversion. Parts installed were an Old Man Emu 3.5 lift, a set of lockers from Rocky Road Outfitters, an HK Off-Road bumper, and Goliath Off-Road Sliders.

Though, we’re sure you’re asking why cut-up a good WJ if you’re not doing it yourself. VandenBussche explained it was for two reasons. “I have always liked Jeeps and own two others – a 1984 CJ and a 2015 JK,” he said. “It was also a bit selfish and maybe some indulgence, but I wanted to make it how I envisioned it. A small truck that I could take to the beach, mountain trails and on the road, too.”

The Shop Builder Experience

This isn’t the first Smyth Performance kit Hestermann Motorwerks has built as they are very well known for their work with Smyth and Volkswagens. Particularly the diesel versions of the Jetta and Golf models. This was, however, their first Jeep build. Andy, who has direct and hands-on experience with VandenBussche’s build, was impressed with the experience of the WJ kit. “Very little fabrication is needed,” he explained. “There are a couple of spots where you must trim or grind to match everything cleanly. I also made little patch panels to help with some waterproofing for the cab but nothing structural.”

What was key for Andy was the B-pillar work, “I really like the double reinforced B-pillars on this kit compared to other Smyth kits.” He also mentioned the full-length inner fenders that “really add more rigidity to the kit. It is tough.” The only part he didn’t like was with the fitment of the stock tail lights. “It does work with a little modifying,” he explained. “It is tough to get them just right to look good.” Fortunately, that part is in the fiberglass bedsides and that isn’t too difficult to work with.

Andy also added, “You need to be very thorough and careful with water management. You must seal and channel the water through the drains. If you are not, you will end up with leaks and potentially a bad smell in the cabin. That is a major bummer if you do that to such an awesome looking truck.”

What Is Next For Smyth Performance?

For now, the WJ is the only Jeep conversion Smyth Performance currently offers but, “XJ and ZJ guys are screaming for one,” says Mark Smith. Nor is a four-door version of the WJ ute on the table. “The main structure in our design uses the floor area at the front of the rear seat,” Smith explains. “That bed would just look silly at less than four-feet, which is why a single cab will be my design choice.”

Where Can You Get A WJ Ute Conversion?

If you’re ready for a unique, but cost-effective build, you can get your ute kits directly from Smyth Performance. On top of the WJ, there are also kits for VWs, Subaru, Dodge, and Audi platforms. Check them all out by clicking here.

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About the author

Justin Banner

Justin Banner started as a freelance journalist covering Formula Drift in 2007. His passion for motorsports is unrivaled and if it uses propulsion and wheels, he’s into it. Justin writes and creates content for a variety of organizations.
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