smart forefathers: Eco-Sprinter and Eco-Speedster

smart concept cars
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The story of smart is in no way less fascinating than Mini history. The Eco-Sprinter and the Eco-Speedster are the forefathers of smart fortwo.

Believe or not, smart has a history of 42 years. Already in 1972, Mercedes thought to a city car of only 2.5 meter long and a 1.7 meter wheelbase. And for that times, the propulsion ideas were visionary. Mercedes planned an electric drive version or a hybrid drive which combine an internal combustion engine installed above the rear axle and an electric engine above the front axle.

The concept failed and failure was not attributable to the space issue like we would expected but to vehicle safety.

But Mercedes continue to believe in this revolutionary concept and presented the NAFA concept in 1981. With a length of only 2.5 meters and a width of 1.5 meters, the NAFA concept car had an extremely  turning circle of only 5.7 meters thanks to a four wheel steering with rear wheels turned through up to 15 degrees by an electric motor. Initially, the 550 kg NAFA concept car was put in moving by a small 1 liter 3 cylinder with 41 HP.

In 1988, Mercedes converted the two-seater NAFA to electric drive and built up to 100 vehicles. The german engineers were not statisfied by the batteries storage capacities and changed the strategy.

Based on NAFA, two coordinated project teams start to develop different concepts:

  • The five seater Vision A 93 shown at Frankfurt motorshow in 1993 and the Study A displayed in 1994 as a predecessor of Mercedes A-Class
  • The Mercedes City Car (MCC), a micro compact car of just 2.5 meters long which offer all the virtues and qualities of a Mercedes-Benz including high safety standards.

In 1990, Mercedes started to develop the MCC concept and the destiny of this innovative vehicle was crucially influenced on a meeting held on December 3, 1992, between Werner Niefer, the chairman of the board of management of Mercedes-Benz AG and the american-lebanese mathematician and physician Nicolas Hayek, the owner of Societe de Microelectronique et de d’Horlogerie (SMH) (the future Swatch Group) located in Biel, Switzerland.

Hayek had also plans to build a visionary small car after his success with the Swatch watches. But Hayek did not dare to tackle the project alone and was convinced that it would be a success only together with a partner from the automotive industry.

smart fortwo, 2006,  Designskizze

It is very interesting to say that before Mercedes, VW was also interested in the project. In 1991, Carl Hahn, the president of VW in that era met Hayek and proposed a SMH VW AG joint venture in which VW should hold a 50 percent stake. But the joint venture was never set-up after Ferdinand Piech replaced Carl Hahn as a chairman of the VW Board of Management.

But Werner Niefer showed great interest in Hayek’s Vision. On January 8, 1993, Nicolas Hayek met again Werner Niefer and he presented development plans based on research work done by Biel Polytechnic’s on an electric drive system. From the first moment on, Hayek insisted on an electric propulsion.

Hayek was a true visionary man, anticipating with almost 20 years ahead the idea of a city electric car

But from this point on contradictory discussions started between Hayek and Mercedes-Benz executives. Hayek intended to position MCC as a small electric car to compete with small Japanese cars. He wanted to use standardized and miniaturized assemblies – the electronic control units for drive and suspension systems developed by Biel Polytechnic and SMH, and to save costs in bodywork manufacture. But Mercedes had a totally different vision which put the occupant protection on the first plan.

Despite all obstacles, Niefer and Hayek decided at Geneva Motor Show in March 1993 to start the project and the joint venture was announced one year later on March 4, 1994 by Helmut Werner, the successor of Werner Niefer.

With the occasion of joint venture ceremony, two show cars were presented which are in fact the forefathers of the modern smart fortwo.

  •  The “Eco-Sprinter” was a particularly green machine having a 40 kw electric motor.  Not only the propulsion was “green” but also the whole concept of the car. “Eco Sprinter” use of high-quality renewable natural materials and recyclable components. The roof was fitted with solar cells which provided power for the interior ventilation even when the car was parked.
  • The “Eco-Speedster” was a roadster with removable  hard top. Safety was insured by the roll-over bar and the reinforced windshield. Eco-Speedster was powered by a three cylinder gasoline engine.

smart , 1993, Studie eco speedster

Hayek believed in electric and hybrid propulsion meanwhile Mercedes engineers insisted on the potential of gasoline and diesel engines, because they did not believe in the degree of maturity of the batteries. The conflict was to be resolved by an experiment.

Hayek and Biel Polytechnic invited Mercedes-Benz officials to a test session of a all wheel drive vehicle with electric wheel hub motors on ice stadium in Biel in 1994, but the demonstration failed.

This was the moment in which Mercedes took over the development and decided to create a new automotive brand.

In December 1994, Daimler decided to produce the new car in a new factory in Hambach, Lorraine, France. And in April 1995 the design approval was granted by the MCC Supervisory Board.

The show car was presented at the time of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 and then at Paris Motorshow in September 1996. Because the investments exceeds the financial possibilities of SMH, Hayek decided to sell his shares and in February 1997, Daimler bought all the shares of Hayek.

smart fortwo coupŽ, 2001, erste Generation

Smart fortwo was presented officially in September 1997 at Frankfurt Motorshow.

In autumn 2014, Mercedes launched the third generation which preserve the initial structure: rear engine, rear wheel drive and the three cylinder engine placed under the boot above the rear axle. And a new generation of the electric version is under preparation and will start in 2016.