It’s been 20 years since the first Mercedes microcar rolled onto the roadways
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).
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).
“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’.”
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.
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.1 comment