HomeThe MarketSmart car: Future classic or dumb idea?

Smart car: Future classic or dumb idea?


Technically, it takes 25 years before a car is considered to be a classic. But there’s no such time restriction on “future classics,” a category we enjoy exploring and showcasing here at ClassicCars.com.

Thus I was struck by a recent news release from Daimler noting that July 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Smart car (officially, it’s smart, all lower case, but just as we don’t accept HEMI in all caps, as Fiat Chrysler prefers, neither do we accept smart, in all lower case, albeit while making an exemption for for Audi’s quattro drivetrain but otherwise saving such a construction for the revered poet, e e cummings).

Smart car, Smart car: Future classic or dumb idea?, ClassicCars.com Journal
The typical Texas Longhorn outweighs a smart car by more than 200 pounds

The idea for the car traces to the early 1980s and to Nicolas Hayek, maker of the Swatch, the line of popular, inexpensive but customizable Swiss wristwatches. Just as he thought Swiss watchmakers were focusing too much on the wrong end of the market, he thought automakers similarly were ignoring a huge market — small cars designed for tight urban quarters and younger buyers.

Like his watches, the Swatchmobile would have interchangeable components (plastic body panels) so owners could customize their cars with variously colored fenders, doors, etc. The cars also would have environmentally friendly hybrid powertrains, and they would be small enough to be parked nose-first rather that longitudinally into a parallel parking place. 

Hayek realized he couldn’t do this car on a large scale on his own and, after a flirtation with Volkswagen, he did a deal with Daimler-Benz to establish the Mico Compact Car company. Soon, however, Hayek was out and Mercedes launched its own design, the gasoline-fueled smart city coupe, later known as the smart fortwo (by the way, that’s fortwo as in for two, not fort wo).

Smart car, Smart car: Future classic or dumb idea?, ClassicCars.com Journal
Coupe or convertible? Or both since you can put two Smarts side by side in a single parking place

“20 years on it is apparent that the idea has caught on in a big way,” Daimler proclaimed in its news release, noting that more than 2.2 million smarts have been sold to date. 

“The smart has become a cult car,” the automaker touted. “And smart remains true to its pioneering role: smart is the first car brand with its sights set on a clean-cut switchover from combustion engines to electric drive.”

Although still powered by 3-cylinder gasoline engines, all smart vehicles (including a convertible and even a 4-seat version) are available (since 2017) with electric power.

“Despite its young age,” the automaker concluded, “there is no disputing that the smart fortwo with its unique character is already a classic automobile. While still in production, a smart fortwo was the only vehicle to find its way into the permanent collection of the world-famous Museum of Modern Art in New York as a ‘contemporary design classic from the final decade of the last century’.”

Smart car, Smart car: Future classic or dumb idea?, ClassicCars.com Journal
Cool concept, and even a smart idea: Smart Vision EQ could be recharged by solar cells

While the Smart car makes perfect sense for European urban environments, and even for the narrow streets of rural European villages, my experience with one of the cars a few years ago here in the United States convinced me that the Smart is dumb, at least for most of the driving done by the typical American (although I do like Hayek’s original idea of the interchangeable colored body panels).

The exception might be those living in San Francisco; well, at least those challenged with parking in the City by the Bay, and that’s only if the local police allow you to park nose-to-curb and thus put a couple of Smarts into a standard parking spot. 

The Smart that I tested for a week was the convertible model. Youngish women living on my street seemed to love the vehicle, and even asked to go for rides, but driving the tiny car in regular American traffic and especially on freeways, and at freeway speeds, was pretty much a terrifying experience.

Smart car, Smart car: Future classic or dumb idea?, ClassicCars.com Journal
Another concept version, the Smart Crossblade

And it’s not that I’m against small cars. Once upon a time, I lived with a 1964 and then a 1974 VW Beetle, and I really enjoyed the week I spent in the tiny Scion iQ. And there’s a Brabus-tweaked smart car that might change my mind were I able to drive one.

But for now, I think the smart is dumb. Of course, someone probably said the same thing about the Fiat Jolly and the Amphicar, and they’ve both become six-figure collector items.Smart car, Smart car: Future classic or dumb idea?, ClassicCars.com Journal

Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


  1. I’ve got to agree with Larry, it’s a dumb idea. It’s an ugly little beastie on the level with the Aztek. As also noted, it’ll probably be worth six figures in time, hopefully after I’m dead and gone. John

    • Well I disagree with John. I’ve driven my convertible Smart cabriolet from NW Florida as far as New York City including the Poconos mountains 4 times roundtrip, passing whoever- including 18 wheelers at 90mph…without any problems… I’m sure they’re impressed as I go by without fear… Only if I could fully recline at rest stops is my peeve.

  2. Totally wrong. Smart is the smartest car idea ever. From eurepan point of view stupid is driving pickups, trucks and unusable and so called SUV vehicles. Taking space with huge vehicles in crowded towns to transport one or two person is what I called stupid.

  3. I find it funny that some men who ride motorcycles say that driving a smart on the freeway would be terrifying. It absolutely isn’t! People with terrible driving skills in their mammoth SUVs, purchased in hopes that all of that capability will compensate for their driving incompetence, now that’s terrifying!

  4. Hmm. I bought a used 2015 smart ED (electric drive) as a lark (my new home had an EV charger) and it has since become my daily driver. That’s because it’s only six miles to my work, eight miles to church, and less than two miles to any of three convenient grocery stores. In my case, I’m at my destination before my internal combustion engine (ICE) powered car has warmed up.

    When it’s in my driveway, it’s plugged in. So, I almost always have a full charge when I leave, and friends are amazed at how roomy the car is (I can fit two guitar amps and two guitars in their cases when I fold the passenger seat down). It does suffer some wind buffering on the highway, but most of my driving is suburban, so I’m not bothered. And, when I’m asked how fast it will go (it’s electric, so it’s killer from a standing stop), I say the same thing I’d say to a policeman: What’s the speed limit?

    I’ll drive mine until the wheels fall off or the battery dies. Whichever comes first.

  5. I’m on my third Smart Fortwo as a second car .. guess wich one gets used the most ?
    Well made and reliable !
    In Rome every second car on the street is a Smart fortwo . It’s brilliant


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Recent Posts