1998 Smart Fortwo: Volkswagen Killed it, Mercedes Revived it
In the early 90's the development of the Smart Car was moving fast, but in 1993 Volkswagen pulled the plug, leaving Mercedes to profit from the pieces
In the early 90's the development of the Smart Car was moving fast, but in 1993 Volkswagen pulled the plug, leaving Mercedes to profit from the pieces. This little car has a big history and it's all very interesting. So sit back, relax and enjoy the following tale.
Not a fan of reading long things? Watch instead. I got you brah.
As you can see above, small things can have big histories and impacts, but enough about Richard Hammond, let's talk smart car. All the way back in 1982 the then CEO of ociété de Microélectronique et d'Horlogerie (SMH, the parent company of Swatch Watches), yes the watch people, Nicolas Hayek was certain there was a gap in the market for a small, slick and stylish customisable city car. In fact he was so certain he used his own personal company, Hayek Engineering AG, to front the work for SMH. The car soon garnered the nickname of the "Swatchmobile" within the company and was a two seat car with a hybrid powertrain.
Soon though Hayek began to fear that if he tried to compete with current auto makers directly that he would not be able to compete as they would be threatened by the Swatch brand, so in 1991 he made an agreement with Volkswagen which would also relieve SMH of the cost of building out a full distribution network.
Nicholas Hayek, former CEO of SMH
Disaster struck though in 1993 when Ferdinand Piëch became CEO of Volkswagen and almost immediately terminated the agreement, as VW was already working on a 3l of fuel per 100km of range car and he believed their efforts would have more mass appeal than the "Swatchmobile". This car would go on to become the VW Lupo 3L, in case you were wondering.
Another famous Hayek
So Hayek began looking for a new partner to continue working on the car and finally, after being rejected by BMW, Fiat, General Motors and Renault, in 1994 he struck an agreement with Daimler-Benz AG the parent company of Mercedes Benz.
In March 1994 the companies joined forces and created Micro Compact Car AG which was 49% owned by SMH and 51% owned by Daimler, with Hayek's side of the company focusing on the power train and Mercedes using their California design studio to create the design of the car. Mercedes had to invest heavily in 1997 to produce the final car and increased their ownership to 81%.
The car gets its name Smart from a nickname given to it during development by the team working on the project, Swatch Mercedes Art. However by the time of launch Hayek was deeply unsatisfied by the car as Mercedes had decided against using a hybrid and instead made it a conventional combustion engine car, shortly after its launch in October 1998, Mercedes purchased the remaining 19% of the shares from SMH.
Unlike the old age of bubble cars which ushered in the Mini, this car came at a time when safety regulations were beginning to cripple small cars, in fact the Mini finally saw it's demise shortly after the Smart was released. There was the other safety pressure also from the fact that Mercedes prides itself with making incredibly safe cars and these two brands would be tightly linked in the minds of customers.
The car was built around the "Tridion cell", a hemispherical steel safety cell which enclosed the driver and passenger in the event of an accident and then the rest of the paneling was made of plastic which was easily interchangeable if customers wanted to change colours of damaged the small car. The rear of the car had a two part hatch, storage for small items and shopping could go in there behind the seats, sitting above the engine. This was needed as the front had very little space left over also.
The interior of the car had some personality too, there was a glass roof to let more light in, the clock and tachometer, along with the air vents, sat above the dashboard like they were staring at you "like the eyes of a dead clown" (Burnt, 2015). The ignition key hole also was odd, it was placed in the center console, very strange for a modern car. Finally the passenger seat moved back 15 cm more than the driver seat, so there's that.
It's small design also allowed it to be parked perpendicularly in spaces normally only fit for parallel parking, which was pretty cool.
Engine & Performance
The engine was a simple rear-mounted 599 cc, three cylinder engine, turbocharged engine which could be brought in three different tuning levels for 45 to 61 bhp depending on your needs. Interestingly the cars radiator was at the front and then it sends water to and from the back of the car to cool the engine.
The transmission was an automated manual transmission, meaning that the computer operated the clutch while the driver could change the gears manually like a normal six-speed manual car. However the system could also be switched to full automatic, so it seems like a kind of pointless edition unless you've got the Brabus tuned Smart car that came later.
This car wasn't quite the technical marvel that Selma, sorry Nicholas, Hayek wanted it to be but it was still very influential on the car world and up until the last few years they sold well throughout the small cities of Europe. If it weren't for this car I doubt that Fiat would have bothered with the new 500 because BMW probably wouldn't have bothered with the new Mini.
I personally think this car is historically significant for cars, what do you think? Let me know in the comments or in the poll below.