Big, luxurious cars show the world that you’re a success. The limousine market is dominated by the Germans worldwide, in the form of the BMW 7 Series, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the recently revealed Audi A8, and if you want to go next level, there’s the newly revealed Rolls Royce Phantom.
Pictured: Recently introduced eighth-generation Rolls Royce Phantom.
But let’s be honest, if you live in a tight city area, a car like that isn’t going to be practical. What most people, and especially women require, is a small car that can be easily threaded through gaps in traffic, is inexpensive to maintain, reliable and goes easy on fuel consumption. And it doesn’t get much smaller or more economical than the Smart car.
Pictured: Current generation Fortwo, introduced in 2014.
When people think of a small car, they think of the Smart car, whose real name is actually the Smart Fortwo. But how did this microcar prodigy come into life? What went on before it dominated tight city streets around the 46 countries where it’s marketed? Well, it’s an interesting story, so all of you fans and owners might want to read on.
Back in 1982, CEO of SMH, otherwise known as Swatch, Nicolas Hayek began tossing around the idea of an automobile that would be manufactured using the same techniques and practices that are used to manufacture Swatch watches. His design company began designing the car, which was known as the Swatchmobile at the time.
The first car brand he approached with this idea was Volkswagen, but when Ferdinand Piech became CEO of VW (the same person who was behind the failed luxury model, the Phaeton) shunned the project saying that Volkswagen had already been working on their own “three-litre car”, a car that would consume 3 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers travelled, which translates to around 78 miles per gallon, the eventual Volkswagen Lupo 3L.
And anyway, Piech stated that their car was a much better business plan, since it had more cargo space and could carry 4 people. After failing to put the project through with Volkswagen, Hayek began approaching other brands, and after getting shunned by BMW, GM, Fiat and Renault, a deal was finally settled with Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz.
At a press conference in 1994, Mercedes-Benz announced a deal to open Micro Compact Car AG, consisting of two plants, one of them in Renningen that would build the car, and another, then-unnamed one in Stuttgart that would build the idealized hybrid-electric powertrain for the car. The company eventually had set up an office in Switzerland in mid 1994.
These two you see here were the first concepts for the Smart car:
Presented in 1993 by DaimlerChrysler (Daimler also owned Chrysler at the time) called the eco-sprinter and eco-speedster. You can clearly see the resemblance to the eventual production Fortwo in these two vehicles.
The actual name of the car was tossed around for a while as well. SMH wanted to use the internal development name, Swatchmobile, or even Swatch Car, but Mercedes disagreed and instead decided on a neutral name: Smart, which in fact stands for Swatch Mercedes ART.
Owners, better go out and buy a Swatch watch so it can match your car.
In May of 1994, a month after office was set up, 74 possible assembling plant locations were considered, and eventually, the final decision was Hambach, France. The plant was finally opened in October of 1997, with the ceremonial ribbon cutting done by then French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Helmut Kohl.
And that same year of 1997, the Smart Fortwo was finally introduced.
Pictured: First generation pre-facelift Fortwo introduced in 1997.
The Smart Fortwo changed the way we look at microcars forever. A ton of innovations were brought along with the introduction of this vehicle. The major of which is the “tridion safety cell”, as Smart themselves call it. This is the Smart’s defining feature, and it’s designed to withstand an intense impact where the rest of the body panels couldn’t, the reason being that the rest of the body panels were made of plastic. On the first generation models, the cell came in either black or silver, but with the latest generation car, you can get just a little more creative. Other innovations included the key-operated hood vents on the front to allow you access to the fluids, and the afforementioned plastic body panels that might have been fragile, but their construction made them easy and cheap to replace.
The engine layout of the Fortwo was also unique: the engine was below the trunk floor in the rear end, while the cooling setup was routed towards the front. The Fortwo is also rear-wheel drive, but don’t get excited, as there really isn’t enough power to drift this car, and the semi-automatic gearbox might get in your way of doing that too.
You see, another defining feature of the Fortwo was its 6-speed semi-automatic gearbox, manufactured by Getrag. It became a 5-speed in the second generation, but regardless of whether or not you’re in automatic or manual mode, the whole car jerks forward on every gear change and it takes a while to change gear. The brakes were also intimidatingly sharp, so if you brake too hard, you might want to hold in your breath.
The Fortwo was facelifted in 2001.
The only visible difference being the new, double oval headlights.
This car was, and still is offered as a convertible, featuring a sofftop roof with manually removable roof pillars, and also distinguishable thanks to its single-piece taillights, compared to the three-piece design on the hardtop.
The first generation Fortwo was introduced in Canada in 2004, but was never officially sold in the US until the second generation model in 2007.
This model maintained the same basic shape as the car that preceded it, but introduced new, sleeker headlights, new wheel designs, two piece taillights across the range, and a feature the first one didn’t have: a glovebox, along with navigation and other creature comforts that weren’t on the previous car like being able to put the windows up and down on the driver’s door instead of there being one control on each door.
Other than knocking out one ratio on the gearbox leaving 5, the Fortwo was mostly the same car, with the same power, cornering abilities and appearance. It still was a Fortwo.
The third generation model was introduced in 2014, and it represented a fairly big change.
Unlike the previous two models that remained largely unchanged between each other, the latest and current generation car took on a whole new but still recognizable aesthetic. Rather than a flat front end, it has a more car like extended hood. And of course, it’s the first ever Fortwo to offer a manual gearbox option in select markets. The platform that underpins the new car is also a major difference compared to the predecessors, as the platform is shared with Renault’s current generation Twingo, and the bigger cousin to the Fortwo, the Forfour is pretty much the same car as the Twingo, only difference being that the Twingo is not sold in the US and Canada.
And there you have it, a brief history of the Smart Fortwo and how it all came to be. Are you a fan or perhaps an owner of this car? Share your thoughts in the comments!