The Mercedes-created Smart, for all its tiny charm, isn't a great car and it sells horribly. I think I have a solution to both problems: turn it into a dune buggy.
I remember as a kid, even in my relatively boring central North Carolina neighborhood, there was always a neighbor or two turning an old VW Beetle chassis into a kit car of some sort, most often a dune buggy. Maybe some were actual Meyers Manx kits, but I think most were likely knockoffs. It didn't really matter, though— they were fun. I remember timorously walking up driveways to see what was going on, irresistibly drawn to the funny wheeled-flying-carpet look of a bare VW pan and the exciting-looking fiberglass body nearby. I haven't seen that scene happen in many years.
It's not like I lived in some special neighborhood of mechanical geniuses. It was just a regular mid-size town's residential, middle-class neighborhood, and this same thing was going on all over the country. The kits were relatively easy to work with, and cheap VW Beetles that had used up their first lives as somebody's everyday car were common. And that's the root of the problem we have now: there's no good donor cars for dune buggies anymore. The simple and plentiful original Beetle chassis are no longer so plentiful, but I have an idea for a good replacement: Smart cars.
Look, hear me out. I know it seems an unlikely candidate, but the Smart actually has a number of traits that could make it a workable successor to the old VW-based dune buggies. I don't think the Smart will end up with the competitive legacy of VW-based Bajas and sand rails, but for a fun, built-in-a-backyard toy, it'll be great. I'm thinking long-term here–-this is a way to repurpose older used Smart cars.
Here's why I think it'll work:
• Rear engine. Traditionally, this is the way to build a dune buggy. Almost all dune buggies, whether they're VW-based or not, use a rear engine/rear drive layout. It works. The 80 HP turbo three in the Smart should be more than adequate for some mild dune hooning.
• Integrated roll cage. Smart's surprisingly good safety ratings come from what they call a "tridion safety cell" (named after Trideous, the Latvian god of not dying in a tiny can) which is essentially a stiff roll cage that forms the main structure of the car. This should make for a pretty good dune buggy body.
• I think used ones will be cheap. Now, I like the idea of Smart cars, and I think they're a decent design solution to many urban driving problems, but, let's face it, they're not perfect. The semi-auto transmission is widely agreed to be crude and jerky, and both the price and gas mileage just aren't quite good enough to make many people choose one over larger rivals, like the Honda Fit. Bad news for Smart, but great news for us possible buggy-builders, as I suspect in a decade or so they're going to be sold on Craigslist really cheap. I think they're built and engineered well enough to last, I just don't think many people will want them. Which is just what I want.
• Body panels pop right off. The Smart's non-structural, plastic body panels will make very easy replacement for more dune buggy-style panels with cutaway fenders and doors, expanded wheel arches, etc.
• I'm not the only loon who thinks this way. Smart themselves have danced around the idea of a rugged, fun Smart, and there's already companies out there making lift kits and beefier suspension parts and all that good stuff. I can easily see a clapped-out Smart to fun dune buggy kit from some company like this.