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Mark Smyth is an engaging, "mad scientist" kind of guy who turns used VWs into green roadsters. (Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail)
Mark Smyth is an engaging, "mad scientist" kind of guy who turns used VWs into green roadsters. (Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail)

The Green Highway

On recycling's cutting edge Add to ...

Here's a recipe I like. Get yourself a used VW Jetta or Golf TDI and a Sawzall (a large-bladed reciprocating saw used in demolition work). Slice your Jetta/Golf in half just behind the front seats and set aside for later use. Wait to see if Mark Smyth's latest creation actually works and if so, bolt parts to his reinforcing frame. Serve with remaining kit parts attached to produce mid-engine sports car that looks like a Lamborghini and is good for 140 mph and 60 mpg on bio-diesel.

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Smyth is an engaging, "mad scientist" kind of guy working alone in a dreary industrial mall about an hour south of Boston. But this guy has some cred. He is the founder of one of the most successful kit cars companies ever - Factory Five. Mark Smyth left the management of that company to his brother Dave in order to turn his attention from high-end 500 horsepower performance cars based on Mustang or Corvette parts to a "green" roadster based on a humble and used VeeDub.

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Smyth says he's moved to tuner cars and green cars. "A tuner car is a car that already exists as a titled car like a VW Jetta," says Smyth. "You might re-body it and move things around a bit but insurance-wise, crash-wise, you keep all the safety features to keep it legal. You keep the heating and air conditioning. You keep all the things that make it a production car and make the most of those pieces."

In this case, the pieces from the front wheel drive, five passenger sedan turn into a mid-engine rear wheel drive two-seater. "I don't know anyone who wants a front wheel drive car," says Smyth. "So I take that engine out and put it in the back. I take every piece of that Jetta I can - the suspension, the brakes, the interior, the carpet - all the pieces that I used to spend time engineering as a kit car guy, and instead move the existing parts around to make something special." He also removes more than 800 pounds of weight in the process.

I own a VW TDI as my daily driver and like it as a sensibly priced diesel sedan - but I'd hardly think of it as the basis for a mid-engine beast like an Audi R8 or even a Porsche Boxster. Smyth insists it's the best option, in fact his only option. "For me I had no choice," he says. "I could have modified other cars but they didn't have the diesel. The only way in California you're going to get a diesel, 60 mpg car, is to take an existing VIN and chop it up but keep the emissions controls, keep the computer, keep the stuff that makes the car legal. It's not a cheater car, it's legit. If you want a diesel there's one car to choose from in the U.S. or Canada and it's the VW Jetta or Golf even though it's the wrong car for a sports car. So once I realized I was trapped with a Jetta - a four-door economy car with 90 horsepower - I worked on it for a year. Once I'd made the commitment that those were the pieces for the car - the rest started to follow."

Smyth's working alone but he's getting plenty of input from car buffs on the Facebook page for his company, Smyth Performance Inc. He says he has 25 orders already from people who know him and who have built cars from Factory Five. I'm not ready to start sawing my VW in half and wonder if a project like this isn't too much for a typical backyard mechanic.

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Smyth responds, "It sounds crazy but the magic of the Big Three and companies like Volkswagen is that these cars go together from components, in sub-assemblies. What looks complicated in pieces is very simple in assembly. A front-wheel-drive car has an engine with an integral transmission right next to it and two drive shafts that come off the sides. The entire unit is installed with five bolts. So going in reverse you undo those bolts and the whole thing rolls out and you roll it around the back. My job is to provide you with those same little holes in the back that you had in front so that when you drop those bolts in the drive shafts line up and there will be a wiring harness that you just clip in."

He says the G3F should cost about $20,000 (U.S.), $10,000 for the used TDI fixed up and $10,000 for the kit. As you can see from the pictures, Smyth is "under the gun" because he has to produce something the mould makers can use in the next two weeks. He hopes to sell his first 25 beta-test kits this fall. I'll go back to see him again in about six months to let you know how this story turns out. In the meantime Smyth says his place on The Green Highway is solid. "We're taking a VW Jetta at the end of its service life and instead of making it shredder fluff, we're re-invigorating this product into something exciting and giving people a reason to re-use the thing for another 100,000 miles on bio-diesel. There's so much green here it's ridiculous."

 

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