Earlier this week, Smart announced that it was pulling out of the North American market, and if we’re brutally honest, that was just fine with the North American market. Smarts never really caught on in America, but that shouldn’t be too shocking; after all, this was a car born for ultra-dense European cities with tiny roads and insane traffic. Sure, in some American cities, like New York or San Francisco, the Smart carved itself a niche, it was never really a car for America. That’s sort of a shame, because it blinds people from seeing what a triumph the Smart was for at least one significant thing: it was a microcar that wasn’t a deathtrap.
The Smart’s history is nice and strange, too, because it didn’t start with a car company, but a watch company.
Smart got its start from Swatch, the Swiss watchmaker that took the world’s wrists by storm in the 1980s when they began selling all-plastic watches with bold, fun designs.
As a kid of the ‘80s, I remember these extremely well. I even remember how you could twist one of those rubber bracelets girls wore into a cheap knockoff “Swatchguard.”
See, I’m old AF.
Anyway, Nicolas Hayek, the man behind Swatch, had an idea for a small, environmentally friendly city car. He had the initial concept way back in 1972, as you can see in this patent,
but didn’t really get things moving until the 1990s, first trying to partner with Volkswagen, then moving to Mercedes-Benz, with whom he started a collaboration to build something they’d call the Micro Compact Car.
The goal was a city car that would be easy to drive and park and use in ultra-dense European cities. It could be parked nose-to-curb, allowing three to use a single parking spot. Hayek wanted it to be electric or at least hybrid, but the technology wasn’t really ready, and he was disappointed the result was a conventional gas car.
Even if the car wasn’t quite what Swatch wanted (they sold their shares to Diamler-Benz in 1998) I think the fundamental design of the Smart was really quite inspired.
The fundamental design was a one-box, with a rear-mounted underfloor engine. The Smart, I think, was the first all-new, clean-sheet rear-engine design in decades: there were still Volkswagen Beetles and Buses and Porsche 911s and Tatra 700s and Fiat 126s being built with butt-engines at the time, but all those basic designs were decades old.
The use of space in the Smart was good—it was only just over eight feet long, but allowed room for two people and a reasonable amount of luggage, and was capable of being driven in a city, or even highway speeds if needed.
Remember, they were essentially building a microcar, something that had been built in Europe for decades—think Isetta, Messerschmitt, Scootacar, Goggomobils, and so on. Almost all microcars had clever design elements, but they also were terrifying to drive on highways and, most significantly, tended to be deathtraps.
That right there is the Smart’s greatest technical achievement: they made a tiny microcar that wasn’t a total deathtrap.
I’m not saying it’s the safest car in the world, but it’s actually not bad at all. The IIHS gives the car surprisingly good ratings for the most recent design, and the Smart has always done far better than its small size would suggest, as you can see in this 2008 video:
The key to the Smart’s remarkably good safety ratings has to do with a crucial element of its design, something Smart called the Tridon Safety Cell.
This was, essentially, a tough steel cage that cocooned the occupants of the car, and protected them far better than its diminutive size would make you think.
Sure, they bounced around a lot in wrecks, but that cell hardly ever deformed, and as a result these microcars were not deathtraps. Again, let me re-iterate how big a deal this is on something this small. Remember, the Smart was the only non-Japanese car to be able to meet (with some factory modifications) Kei-car regulations.
Smarts had their share of issues, of course, not the least of which was the awful semi-automatic transmission they were originally saddled with (later they gave you a real manual or auto), and many of the promises, like body panels that could easily be swapped, nobody ever really seemed to take advantage of. The same goes for the nose-to-curb parking, which was illegal in many cities, too.
The fuel economy was decent, but never quite as good as the size sacrifices would seem to suggest, and it always seemed like you could get a much larger car like the Honda Fit for about the same money, and with about as good fuel economy.
In the Smart’s favor was the fact that they seemed to be willing to have some fun, and not take themselves too seriously. There were Brabus go-fast versions of the little gumdrops, and, in Europe at least, a very cool roadster:
So, look, my take on the Smart is that, yes, it likely wasn’t a great match for America, but to just dismiss it as a tiny little wad of crap certainly isn’t fair. The Smart was a genuinely clever bit of engineering, and I think the fact that they managed to make a microcar-sized vehicle safe is absolutely worth a good bit of redemption.
David Tracy’s Take
I first saw a Smart car when I was a kid living in Germany, and I can tell you that in a European, high population density-environment, this car was a big hit in the early 2000s.
I probably wouldn’t want to drive one on the Autobahn for too long, but in the tight parking garages and small city streets of Bavaria, people liked it for its practicality, which—along with overly technical-sounding things like “Tridon Safety Cells”—is the unlock code for any German’s pocketbook.
In the U.S., the car doesn’t work so well, in part because there’s plenty of space here, because American buyers are generally not fans of tiny cars, because there are vehicles out there that offer better fuel economy for at around the same price, and for a number of other reasons.
But none of this detracts from just how unique the car is, both from a functional and aesthetic design perspective, and none of that detracts from how big of an engineering feat it represents. For something that small to offer so much room, and to score as well as it does in crash tests, is simply remarkable. The Smart is tiny, fun, and different, and will go down in history as a positive contribution to car culture.
Also: Remember, this thing is rear engine, rear-wheel drive, and has proven itself as the perfect candidate for a Hayabusa engine: