The smart story: 20 years of smart

Jun 27, 2018

In the early 1970s a radical idea took root in the minds of Mercedes-Benz developers: they believed that the "car of the future" must question and examine all existing ideas about cars. The first sketches dating back to 1972 already indicate a new, seminal approach. The concept for an ultra-compact car with a length of two and a half metres was subsequently developed by Mercedes-Benz. Johann Tomforde was responsible for the project, a studio engineer at Mercedes-Benz in those days working in the field of cars for "future traffic systems".

Although the idea was impressive, technical implementation proved not to be possible at that time due to an inability to meet the company's strict safety standards.

Nine years later, however, the Mercedes-Benz developers succeeded in developing groundbreaking ideas for safety features that only take up a small amount of space in a car. Initial designs employing a "sandwich" principle - that is, a raised vehicle floor - were tested, but their technical implementation continued to be thwarted by Mercedes-Benz's strict safety standards.

In 1991 Mercedes-Benz Design started the next attempt. The Eco Sprinter and Eco Speedster show cars were developed in a cooperation between the Design Concept department in Sindelfingen and the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Center in Irvine, California. When Johann Tomforde presented them to the Mercedes-Benz board members in 1993, their enthusiastic response led to concrete plans for a new kind of vehicle and a new segment: the micro compact car.

The concept, package and safety concept – later to become characteristic features of the smart fortwo – were already clearly apparent in the first studies. The safety concept was brilliantly simple: like a nut, the soft interior is protected from harm by a rigid shell.

1994: Joint venture with Swatch

In 1989, Nicolas G. Hayek, the inventor of the Swatch wristwatch, had announced his intention to launch a small city car on the market. He wanted the car of the future to appeal to people as a statement rather than a status symbol.

Hayek sought an experienced partner for the quick and successful realisation of the project. The combination of Mercedes-Benz's vast experience in building cars coupled with Swatch's creative powers brought together two ideal partners for this project. The cooperation resulted in a unique vehicle concept and a new automobile brand: smart.

Shortly after initial negotiations between Mercedes-Benz and Nicolas Hayek took place, Micro Compact Car AG was founded. The company headquarters were in Biel, Switzerland. In the search for a production site more than 70 locations worldwide were evaluated. In 1994 Hambach in France was chosen.

1997: World premiere in at the Frankfurt International Motor Show

Following the start of development in 1994, in 1997 the smart city coupé (later renamed smart fortwo) had its world premiere at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Production began in July 1998 at the new plant in Hambach, France. Sales started in the following October in nine European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland). In the same year, smart became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Daimler-Benz AG (now Daimler AG).

1998: Market launch

The first smart fortwo rolled off the production line in Hambach on 2 July 1998. The market launch began on 3 October 1998.

1999: Further models and model series

In 1999 the young brand surprised the world public by unveiling a whole host of new model studies at the Frankfurt International Motor Show. A cabrio version was presented that was based on the smart city-coupé. This model opened a whole new dimension to the "closed" micro car community by opening up the roof. The smart cabrio offers pure joie de vivre. From the spring of 2000 the world's smallest production cabriolets rolled off the production line and onto European roads.

1999: smart with cdi engine

Whilst the world was talking about the introduction of the "three litre" car at the beginning of the new millennium, shortly after the presentation at the Frankfurt Motor Show at the end of 1999 smart launched the cdi engine that consumes 3.4 litres of fuel over 100 kilometres. The most economical form of car transport was born and was a great success. More than 140,000 smart cdis were sold up to the introduction of the successor model in 2007.

2002: smart crossblade for absolute openness

A special vehicle variant that was launched on the market in 2002 offered a true open sky feeling: the smart crossblade. It had no doors, no roof and no windscreen. Its drivers were able to drive through the countryside under open skies with the wind in their face for an incomparable driving experience. A narrow, tinted wind deflector was all that stretched across the cockpit area to reduce the headwind. A year later smart decided to introduce a small series of the vehicle onto the market. 

2003: smart roadster and roadster coupé

The smart roadster and the smart roadster coupé, which were launched on the market in April 2003, offered a particularly intensive and sporty driving experience. With these two vehicles smart revived the tradition of compact and purist roadsters that had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.

2003: smart fortwo facelift

A new larger three-cylinder engine gave the petrol versions of the smart fortwo (previously city coupé and cabrio) more power: following the 2003 facelift, the entry-level version now disposed of 37 kW/50 hp, while the more powerful smart generated 45 kW/61 hp from 698 cc. The proven cdi diesel engine remained unchanged at 30 kW/41 hp.

In 2003 the smart logo and vehicle names were also changed: the city-coupé and cabrio became the fortwo coupé and fortwo cabrio. The car proudly displayed its purpose in its name: fortwo – driving fun for two. From now on the front bore the smart ring as the new brand logo.

2003: smart fortwo BRABUS

In the same year the BRABUS versions developed by the joint venture smart-BRABUS GmbH, which was established in 2002, were presented. In 2004 smart-BRABUS GmbH opened new company headquarters in Bottrop: an ultra-modern technology centre and centre of excellence costing €16 million.

2004: smart forfour

smart's first departure from the two-seater and rear-engine principle came in 2004, when the forfour was launched in cooperation with Mitsubishi. The sporty five-door vehicle had unusual dimensions for the brand and opened up a new, competitive market segment for smart. The smart forfour was larger than all the brand's previous models. Production of the four-seater smart at Mitsubishi subsidiary Netherlands Car B.V. (NedCar) in Born (Netherlands) ended in the summer of 2006, following a decision to focus on the fortwo.

2005: smart crosstown

The show car presented at the Frankfurt International Motor Show featured a trailblazing hybrid drive comprising a petrol engine and an electric motor. At the same time, the smart crosstown also demonstrated the potential offered by the smart fortwo's unique vehicle concept and whetted appetites for its successor, which was launched in the spring of 2007.

In 2005 smart presented further vehicle studies with alternative drives at a technology forum: in addition to a prototype of the smart fortwo ev (electric vehicle), the company exhibited a smart fortwo with natural gas drive, a mild hybrid and a cdi hybrid.

2006: smart formore

In 2006 smart presented an off-road vehicle concept in the guise of the smart formore. This all-wheel-drive smart would have established the brand in the compact off-roader segment as a smart utility vehicle (suv) and transported the brand's core values of innovation, functionality and joie de vivre.

2007: second-generation smart fortwo

The developers set even higher standards for the new smart fortwo. The optimised running gear, the longer wheelbase and the slightly larger body made the smart fortwo even more comfortable. Active and passive safety were further improved. The smart fortwo was launched in April 2007 with re-engineered uprated petrol engines. The three-cylinder engine with a capacity of one litre came in ratings of 45 kW/61 hp, 52 kW/71 hp and 62 kW/84 hp. The smart fortwo cdi had an output of 33 kW/45 hp. With NEDC fuel consumption of 3.3 litres per 100 kilometres and emissions of 88 grams of CO2 per kilometre, the smart fortwo cdi was the most economical production car worldwide.

2007: smart fortwo micro hybrid drive (mhd)

Production of a 52 kW/71 hp variant of the smart fortwo featuring a particularly fuel-efficient start/stop function began in Hambach on 15 October 2007. The smart fortwo micro hybrid drive used idling phases to switch off the engine and temporarily completely avoid fuel consumption, exhaust gas and noise emissions. The core of the system was a belt-driven starter-alternator which supplies the on-board electrical system with voltage while also serving as a starter.

2008: smart available in the USA, too

In January 2008 smart was launched in the USA, too. The US market launch was preceded by an unusual project in L.A. in October 2007: for four months, an exclusive studio building on Abbot Kinney Boulevard was turned into a smart house - a temporary showroom for potential customers, journalists and VIPs.

2009: smart goes on sale in China for the first time

The Middle Kingdom quickly developed into one of the largest markets for the brand.

2010: Facelift for the second generation

The smart fortwo was launched in the autumn of 2010 with a fresh interior look, an upgraded exterior and even more environmentally friendly engines. Optional LED daytime driving lights and new alloy wheels offer even more opportunities for customisation. Fresh fabrics and colours and a new cockpit design determine the high quality interior ambience of the two-seater car.

2010: smart BRABUS tailor made caters to customers' more extravagant wishes

From the original to one of a kind: "Anything is possible" has been the motto of the smart BRABUS tailor made individualisation programme since March 2010. With paint finishes in a vast array of different colours, as well as leather and Dinamica in a total of more than 30 basic colours, creative customers are able to configure a smart that fully reflects their own ideas.

2010: smart drive kit for the iPhone

smart is the first car brand to develop its own drive app for the iPhone. Together with the smart cradle for the iPhone the cult phone becomes a multimedia trip computer that is optimised for the smart fortwo in terms of function and design.

2011: smart forspeed

smart presented an unconventional study at the Geneva Motor Show: the forspeed, combining contemporary urban mobility with the fun factor typical of smart. The two-seater had no roof or side windows and it featured a low wind deflector instead of a windscreen in the style of a classic propeller aircraft. The result was an incomparable fresh air driving experience. The responsive electric drive had been further developed and featured a boost function also guaranteed driving pleasure.

2011: smart forvision

The researchers and developers from BASF and Daimler combined five automotive world premieres in the smart forvision concept vehicle (2011 Frankfurt International Motor Show): transparent organic solar cells, transparent organic light-emitting diodes, all-plastic rims, new lightweight body components and infrared-reflective films and paints all help to reduce the vehicle's energy consumption and so to increase its range and practicality.

2012: smart for-us

The smart for-us study (Detroit 2012) saw smart interpreting the practical loading concept of a pickup in the context of 21st-century urban transport: the electrically powered for-us presented a fresh take on the martial image of classic mega-pickups.

2012: Facelift for the second generation

Following its second facelift, in the spring of 2012 the smart fortwo made its mark in a striking new look with an upgraded exterior and a fresh leather/fabric mix in the interior. The substantially revamped smart fortwo sports a markedly more dynamic appearance, featuring a larger radiator grille with integrated logo, striking front aprons in a new design, horizontally arranged LED daytime driving lights, muscular side skirts and modified rear aprons.

2012: smart fortwo electric drive

Zero-emission motoring with even more driving fun – the third generation smart fortwo electric drive will be available from the spring of 2012. Driven by a battery supplied by Deutsche Accumotive for the first time the 55 kW electric motor passes the 120 km/h mark.

2012: smart ebike

With an unconventional design in line with the style of the brand, functions appropriate for city use and high technology standards that are demonstrated by the extremely efficient and high-performance electric drive among other features, the smart ebike is an exceptional proposition. The pedelec was launched in April 2012.

2012: smart forstars

The electrically powered smart forstars study (Paris 2012) is an SUC (sports utility coupé) with room for two people and plenty of stowage space. Its name is a allusion to the glass roof which affords the passengers a view of the stars above. It also refers to the original idea of integrating a beamer into the front lid, enabling spontaneous get-togethers with friends to watch the stars of the silver screen at any time.

2013: Limited edition of the smart forjeremy

Created in collaboration with renowned fashion designer Jeremy Scott, the smart forjeremy model went into production as a strictly limited special addition licensed for road use. The most striking feature is the two vertical wings that adorn the rear above the tail lamps.

2013: smart fourjoy

Four full-size seats inside a vehicle of minimal length – the smart fourjoy study showed the dimensions of the next-generation smart four-seater for the first time at the Frankfurt International Motor Show. The doors, rear windows and roof were not yet presented, allowing an unobstructed view of the futuristic interior.

2014: Third-generation smart fortwo and new smart forfour

The revolution enters the next round – the smart fortwo has undergone improvements in virtually all areas and is markedly more comfortable. The hallmark smart rear engine concept is being offered for the first time in the four-seater smart forfour as well, which is produced in cooperation with Renault. Drive power is supplied by state-of-the-art three-cylinder engines rated at 45 kW/60 hp, 52 kW/71 hp and 66 kW/90 hp, while power transmission is performed by a five-speed manual transmission or the twinamic automatic dual clutch transmission.

2015: smart forgigs

The smart forgigs study realised together with audio partner JBL is probably the world's smallest concert hall on wheels. The high-end sound system in this fortwo has a total maximum power output of 5720 watts.

2016: smart fortwo with a unique soft top look

A coupé or a cabriolet? A soft top or a solid roof? smart blurs the borders: the smart fortwo coupé now has a unique solid roof with a black fabric covering as standard. This roof with the special look will be introduced together with further changes in model year 2016. Front fog lamps with cornering light are a further new feature.

2016: New smart BRABUS models

With an output of 80 kW/109 hp, the smart BRABUS is one of the sportiest vehicles in this segment. Along with the high-performance turbocharged engine, the BRABUS Performance sports suspension with specially adapted ESP®, the sporty power steering and the sporty twinamic dual-clutch transmission with race-start function play their part in this. A sporty look, outside as well as in, also comes as standard.

2017: the new smart electric drive

smart is the only car manufacturer worldwide to offer its model range with both combustion engines and all-electric drive - shortly after the launch of the smart fortwo and smart forfour in March, the smart fortwo cabrio electric drive became available in May. A 60 kW (81 hp) electric motor runs at the rear of the smart electric drive and transmits its power via a constant ratio to the wheels.

2017: smart vision EQ fortwo

The smart vision EQ fortwo presented at the Frankfurt International Motor Show provides a new vision of urban mobility and individualised, highly flexible, totally efficient local public transport: the autonomous concept vehicle picks up its passengers directly from their chosen location. New individualisation options help users to recognise that it is "their" vehicle: by means of the Black Panel Grille at the front as well as large projection surfaces at the sides, the smart vision EQ fortwo allows unprecedented individualisation of the vehicle, ideal for car sharing. Freed from the task of driving, the passengers are able to relax in the large interior. This show car is the first concept vehicle from the Daimler Group to do away with a steering wheel and pedals, and it embodies all four pillars of the CASE strategy: "Connected", "Autonomous", "Shared" and "Electric".

2018: smart mobile disco

With the smart mobile disco, the brand is ready to party and has developed an unusual workstation for DJs – with DJ booth, mixer console, fog machine and various light effects. The show car was created by product designer Konstantin Grcic. JBL, smart's long-standing audio partner, provided the professional sound equipment. The unusual smart was one of the highlights at the preview of "Night Fever. Designing Club Culture 1960 – Today" at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein on 16 March. The next public appearance for the show car was at a smart party held during the "Salone di Mobile Milano" - the world's largest furniture fair, which draws some 350,000 visitors annually.

2020: smart goes all-electric

smart is the first car brand with its sights set on a clean-cut switchover from combustion engines to electric drive: Following on from the USA and Canada (2017), from 2020 the company also plans to sell only battery-powered smarts in Europe, too. The rest of the world is to follow soon afterwards.