Sports cars and pickup trucks are at two ends of the automotive spectrum. One is the king of the everyday, utilitarian vehicle, designed to be used simply to move things around. The other is completely selfish, only benefiting whoever drives it as they use it for its intended purpose, dominating curvy roads and race tracks. Their purposes balance each other in harmony, like yin and yang, creating the ideal two-car garage. However, separately, they leave more to be desired; their designs for their specific tasks ruin them for each other. So what happens when you combine the two? Well, the Aussies are the closest to it with their Holden and Ford utes, and America did have something close with the El Camino and Ranchero, but those are closer to muscle cars than sports cars. For a true dual-purpose sports machine built by the factory, look no further than the Bavarians.
Back in the mid-eighties, BMW was going racing in DTM, the German Touring Car Championship. To meet the regulations and build a championship-winning car, BMW came up with the original M3, a wider, faster, and lower version of the E30 3-Series. While it did win a championship in 1987, the most special “M3” created by M Division was never released to the public and remains a one-off to this day. M Division’s base in Garching, just north of Munich, needed a transport vehicle in 1986 and had an excess of available resources, including spare M3 development parts, an E30 cabriolet, and hungry, young engineers looking to gain experience. Jakob Polschak, head of vehicle prototype building during that era at M Division, saw the opportunity in front of him and began developing an E30 parts transporter.
A convertible E30 chassis became the basis of the project for a couple of reasons. First, the extra floor bracing made it ideal for the lack of roof structure present in a ute. Second, M Division just so happened to have an E30 convertible at their disposal. They got to work cutting out the rear seat section, opening it up to the taillight panel. A bulkhead with a window was fitted behind the two front seats, and diamond-plate steel was fitted as the bed floor and walls. Initially, powering the ute was a 2.0-liter, Italian-spec engine, though that was removed in favor of the standard 2.3-liter. Lastly, the rear suspension was fitted with components suited to carrying loads of parts rather than some passengers. Its initial usefulness was never questioned, and the fully road legal transporter saw regular use until BMW retired it in 2012.
The E30 M3 ute proved its usefulness throughout its 26-year service life but eventually began to wear beyond practical means by the early 2010s. Knowing that retirement was around the corner, BMW needed another vehicle capable of hauling parts as a replacement. What they came up with was… another M3 ute. It worked so well the first time; why not again? This time though, a true E93 M3 chassis was used. Like its predecessor, it was based on a convertible chassis for its extra bracing. The standard M3 body with its bulging flares and aggressive bumpers provided the basis, and it made use of a fold-down tailgate made from the original trunk. Also staying was the 420 horsepower, 4.0-liter V8, and six-speed manual transmission. The only non-bed-related modification was a rear suspension capable of a 450kg payload to prepare it for its role as a parts transporter.
Hoping to have more public fun with the E93 than its predecessor, BMW began to tease the public about a possible production variant of the ute M3. The public wasn’t aware of their intentions to use it as a parts transporter, so when they took it to the Nurburgring for testing, spy photos of it hit every automotive media outlet and spread like wildfire. On April 1st, 2011, the Bavarians released a very authentic-sounding press release that several media sites ran as breaking news. However, down in the last paragraph, BMW made clear their intentions to use it only as an in-house transporter. Today, it’s still running around Garching, a proof of concept built on the proven capabilities of its predecessor.
Although they were never sold to the public, BMW’s M3 utes proved just how capable a sports car turned pick-up can be. They were the first European manufacturer to produce and keep the concept around, using it as intended. However, they weren’t the first to take a European sports car and convert it into a ute. That distinction goes to some Americans; the Aase Brothers, and the coachbuilder Troutman. What started as a crazy idea became a mid-engined ute complete with a Targa roof.
Handy and Home Built
In the mid-seventies, you went to the Aase Brothers Porsche salvage yard if you needed parts for your Porsche 914 in California, so that’s exactly what Dick Troutman did. Dave and Dennis Aase, when they weren’t racing, owned a Porsche dismantler just north of Anaheim, breaking apart used and wrecked examples for parts. Dick Troutman was part of the Troutman and Barnes duo responsible for building the Scarab race cars of the fifties and early sixties. Their paths intertwined when Troutman was looking for a 914/6 to build. His search led him to Dave Aase, with whom he shared his grand idea; to take a 914/6 and convert its rear trunk into a truck bed. Aase liked the idea so much he commissioned Troutman to build a second car for him, though this time based on the 914/4.
The 914 was Porsche’s entry-level model between 1970 and 1976. It uses a two-seat, mid-engined chassis with a removable Targa roof panel which stores in the rear trunk; the front trunk carries the spare and fuel tank. As opposed to the BMW utes, the 914 needed much less fabrication. Its mid-engined layout meant a rear bulkhead already existed, separating the interior from the engine compartment. Once the cars arrived at Troutman’s workshop, he, his son Bill, and Peter Miles, the son of legendary racer Ken Miles, set about building the utes. They threw away the rear decklid and taillight panel of the 914, extending it and raising up the sides to form the bed. The stock rear bumper remained but with the taillights from an Opel, frenched into it. In place of the original tail lights was a fold-down tailgate.
Their respective owners used the 914 utes for several years after creation, and not just as showpieces. Troutman used his 6-cylinder for personal use, eventually upgrading the engine to a larger, 2.2-liter displacement with camshafts from the 911E for a better mid-range punch. The Aase Bros. 914 received their logo on both quarter panels and was used as a parts delivery truck for around ten years. Upon completion, the Troutman 914s found themselves in two different magazines, VW Trends for the 914/4 and Porsche Classics for the 914/6. These days both cars are still accounted for. The Jeannette family, of Porsche building and racing fame, are the current owners of the 914/6. They took the Troutman car and converted it into a period-correct 914 race car. GT flares now protrude off the original fenders and Troutman quarters, and a twin-plug 2.5-liter engine currently resides in the engine bay; it is full vintage race spec. According to the Jeannette family, it was done up to look like what a 914/6 ute support car would look like if used during the 1970 Marathon De La Route; a grueling 84-hour race last run in 1971. The Aase Bros. car currently lives a much quieter life. Now living in Ohio with its owner, Myron Vernis, the 914/4 ute remains very original. Unlike its sibling, it hasn’t gone under any extensive modification, instead only being repainted red from the original brown. It remains the last mid-engined, air-cooled pickup produced and probably will be forever.
So what about a European ute for the masses? It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see anything like that from any manufacturer. The crossover SUV body has become the top seller and it doesn’t seem as though that is going to change anytime soon. Deviating from that crossover is just another opportunity to lose money on something many talk about but few will actually buy. However, it’s the manufacturer’s reluctance to build one for us that led one engineer to take on the challenge himself.
For nearly the last ten years, the former CEO of Factory Five Racing, Mark Smith, has been designing and building ute conversion kits for the B6 & B7 A4/S4, Mk4 & Mk5 Golf/Jetta, and New Beetle. The kits are sold through his current company, Smyth performance, and come with every piece needed to convert your VAG product into a ute with a near factory finish. Smith used 3D CAD software and his background designing the chassis for FFR when he began to flesh out the kits.
That engineering background sets his kits apart from anything else, as they’re designed with crash safety in mind. The kits all include 1/8" thick aluminum B-pillar reinforcements and bedsides to add rigidity and structure lost from removing the back half of the roof. The reinforcements are also designed to distribute the forces of an impact evenly, minimizing the damage. The rest of the kit includes all you need to finish the car; new fiberglass exterior panels, an aluminum bed floor, interior trim, and the new windows. These are meant to be used as functional utes, not just for show, and are made with parts intended for tough use.
The sports car-based pickup may not have been the biggest hit, but those that exist do so with a purpose and serve that purpose well. BMW did so in an official capacity, while Troutman and Smyth Performance took it upon themselves. They saw their opportunities to build the ultimate haulers and went for it, creating unique and useful vehicles more capable than their original designs. Next time you’re deciding to be practical or fun, maybe consider both in one. Life’s too short to drive boring cars anyway, so what would you choose for a ute conversion? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.