Got the Smarts?



The second generation Smart car – electric version

I own a Smart car. It is my own personal transportation pod.

An enthusiastic driver, I observe countless others on my daily commute driving five or more empty seats to work and back. Why the selfishness? Drive something smaller, less monopolising of street space.

With one exception which I will come to later, I’ve always liked small, compact cars, (my first an orange Mini) the less ostentatious the better, preferably well-built, frugal on petrol, easy to park, and the fewer running bills the better. The Smart car answers that call.

It was designed by the man behind the renaissance of the Swiss watch industry, the man who made his millions selling Swatch watches, Swatch CEO, Nicolas Hayek. A man with a larger than life personality, Hayek wanted a cheap, efficient, park anywhere small, fun and funky car, one put together like his famous watch, with parts you can swap if damaged, or if bored with the colour. He also wanted a car with the fewest parts that rust.

He first sold the idea to VW to build but they stole its revolutionary interior space for their VW Fox, and dumped that ‘elephant foot’ of a car. Undaunted, the irrepressible Hayek took his idea to Mercedes. They gave it their executive treatment, all black and silver, cold-shouldered him, tossing away Hayek’s funky and fun elements in the process.

I own the Mercedes version, more grown-up and better put together than the original, and for me, the fastest, a Brabus Smart. It can out-gun BMW drivers on the motorway, much to their annoyance, which is exactly what I did whenever I could on its journey from London where its first owner lived. The most practical version is one with an 84 bhp engine, not too fast that it eats petrol, not so slow grass grows on the wheels. Road tax is as low as £30.

There are videos on YouTube showing the car hit by a wrecking ball, another by a big rig truck at speed, and another sent flying into a concrete barrier at 70 mph. In the first two the driver walks away unharmed, so good is the safety cage around which its plastic non-rust parts are attached. In the latter there’s no driver. Though the Smart sustains only a smashed windscreen and crumpled bumper a driver’s innards would keep moving forward inside his rib cage until diced like a carrot.

A testimonial

I can attest to its miraculous hardiness. Parked on a brae, I bent down to collect files from the passenger floor when I was overcome by a wave of nausea. I looked up to see the car rolling towards a large white truck. The sound of the thwack reverberated down the street startling passers-by. I got out to inspect the damage. Not a mark! Not a scratch. I called Mercedes to praise to offer praise, the first car I own that threw off accident damaged as if rain water. “It can take up  to a 20 mph shunt,’ said the assistant, without a hint of smugness.  A later rear end shunt caused by a distracted female driver while I was parked at the end of a line of stationary vehicles sustained only a cracked bumper – replaced. Her car lay at the side of the road without a front bumper, headlight, and radiator. Respect!

I love its flappy paddle gear shift. Who wants to move left foot and hand, changing gear every hundred yards like a grape treader when you can change gear in a split second, hands still on the steering wheel? The electric version is a revelation. No moving parts except steering wheel and tyres. What’s to service? Plug into a conventional power socket and you have 80 miles of power to use city driving. The cost per mile is almost negligible.

Electric cars have been around for a very long time, their development suppressed by oil companies. Ferdinand Porsche put an electric motor on each wheel hub of a cart in 1896. Even steam-driven cars were more popular than petrol cars, faster, longer lasting, cheaper to run. Petrol cars could break a wrist if the starter handle whipped back on you, they back-fired scaring horses, old ladies, and children. And they were smelly. Petrol pumps were few and far between. Electric cars were so popular back in the day Mrs. Ford used one daily, refusing point-blank to drive any of her husband’s Model Ts. Ironically, the electric starter motor made petrol driven cars popular, a doddle to start and their sales took off.

All cars have a weakness, and the Smart’s is the doors and the road surface. Created to fit neatly into the tightest parking lot the doors, designed for ease of access and ingress, are too wide, defeating the purpose of the car’s micro size. They should be scissor doors, opening up and over the car. A Smart’s short wheelbase means it skips and jumps over speeds bumps and pot holes. As everybody knows Edinburgh is twinned with Kabul so crap are its roads, hence not enough Smarts grace its streets to solve congestion problems.

The transparent roof means you notice architecture above your head for the first time; the cabin is light and airy; you see the traffic light change when sitting under it and avoid the driver in the seventh car in the line behind you sitting on the horn in fury; and pedestrians smile not glower as you drive toward them, content in the knowledge your car will come off the worst for any contact. I’m told Smart rag-tops are a hoot on warm days.


A Smart car can hold a fridge sideways

There is a myth the Smart can cope with no more than a woman’s handbag for storage. Believe me, you can get a conventional fridge in the rear hatch sideways, and more luggage in the passenger’s seat if no passenger aboard. It can swallow a months shopping for the family. You’ll get a five foot log IKEA flat pack inside if you lean the package against the dash top. In a nice touch, the passenger seat sits further back than the driver seat.

A Smart is that wonderful thing, classless. The Mini has it, Mazda’s honest MX5 roadster has it too. In an industry desparate to sell on the basis of envy and status, classless is good.

You sit high in a Smart giving you excellent vision down-road. There’s no transmission tunnel making it one of the few cars in which you can swap seats without getting out. It all works by computer chip.

The Smart concept was conceived late in the 2oth century. As far as I am concerned, with the exception of the forthcoming revolutionary Tesla electric saloons, and BMW’s electric cars, the Smart remains the most advanced mode of vehicle in the 21st century – for two.


A convertible Smart with all the trimmings

Early Smart, distinctive for their three tails lights and peanut shaped headlights, are now cheap as chips. Buy one and beat the oil companies and car manufacturers at their own game. Reduce your motor vehicle costs by two-thirds. Park sideways on to the kerb, or two to a parking bay. Be Smart, drive Smart. Happy motoring!


There’s a early Smart runs around the city with the registration plate: W33 CAR – Wee Car – neat! I believe the owner is secretary of the Smart Club. Smart’s have an annual London to Brighton run all to themselves.


The latest version of the Smart – snub nose and no longer a micro car

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21 Responses to Got the Smarts?

  1. You’ve pretty much sold me on the Smart. How much is “cheap as chips” these days though?
    I’m looking forward to the true age of electric cars though I imagine a Stanley Steamer might have been fun too!

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Recently I located a modern Smart, 17,000 miles, all mod cons, at only £4,500, (over £10,000 new) for a friend. The older versions with low mileage can be had for £2,000 or so, but I’d drive it to your local Mercedes dealer for a once over to ensure nothing needs replaced, and to register it for servicing. Their customer care is second to none.

    PS: You’ll find a fascinating video on the Stanley Steamer on the website, Jay Leno’s Garage – a superb site for those keen to learn more about specific marques, or the history of cars.

  3. jimnarlene says:

    Not really sold on the smart, though it’s safety is beyond most regular cars. I have owned lots of small cars, fiats mostly, the panda mk 2 being rather nippy and economic. My favourite being an uno diesel, I bought it for £100 and drove it daily for 4 years, selling it for £100 a great wee car 60+ mpg.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Never owned the Uno, Jim. How was it for reliability? (The Panda was a wee classic. Very practical, suited to city life. Still see lots of them.)

  5. jimnarlene says:

    The Uno was extremely reliable, regretted selling it as soon as the guy drove away. I since found out, it was one of four diesel Unos in the UK and the last one on the road.
    We used the wee panda for camping holidays, Arlene and I with the two weans; along with all the gear. Not just city travelling as we stay in the Ayrshire town of Darvel.
    I now have a VW T4, which I use for work (I’m a bricklayer) and camping, with a comfy bed in the back; getting too old for tents.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    Funnily enough, Jim, I’m bricklaying myself – patching the old cottage I’ve bought to make it habitable – onset of winter weather creeping up on me.

    Good to hear the Uno was reliable. I knew a woman who owned and enjoyed driving her Uno Turbo, but got it T-boned by an unwary driver. I liked the Peugeot 205 GTi – great engine that just had torque in barrow loads, but build quality was seriously iffy. It creaked and groaned as it twisted around bends, or took turns too fast.

    Enjoy the VW – a versatile vehicle. (Usually mis-described as ‘flexible.’ My Peugeot was ‘flexible’!)

  7. hektorsmum says:

    Well we have a Toyota IQ, the last one we can buy, it is supposed to be a four seater, hahaha, will take three as long as I push my seat forward, not too bad for the two of us and the dug though who has his own air bag. We recently changed it to the automatic and the larger engine as hubby was getting fed up counting with the diary to overtake and going up hills was a bit of a bind.
    We were in both Athens and Lisbon last year and Smart Cars were everywhere, in Athens with it’s terrible reputation for smog they park them end on. We even saw a few IQ’s.
    We must all be into quirky vehicles in the YES campaign, Jim we had several Uno’s and bought a Panda which we had till it’s demise after 8 years. In it’s last year it took us to Ireland, us and the dugs, the poor thing was more a mobile kennel at times but it was used seven days a week every week of it’s longish life.
    Grouse Beater, on a different subject that which is close to your heart, television programmes.
    You will no doubt have heard about the Outlander Television series which is partly set in Scotland, France and the US. You may or may not be aware that they are viewing it all over the world, from Japan to Denmark with many places in between. My friend in the States is on around episode 10 by now, and I said there was no chance of us seeing it this side of the Referendum and now I reckon unless it comes out as a DVD we have none at all. What thinks you?

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    Hektor’s Mum: What thinks you? [About ‘Outlander’ TV series]

    Deliberately held back from UK transmission because it ‘might influence the outcome of the Referendum.’ In other words, too close in story content to rabble-rousing ‘Braveheart.’ If you read my essay on BBC Scotland drama – ‘The Pitch,’ you’ll see I offered a similar costume fantasy series. Hey ho. As ever it takes others to perceive the story telling pearls that is Scottish literature and culture. Let’s not forget, the English film industry did not make ‘Braveheart.’ The Americans produced it.

    On your car…

    The Toyota iQ (Smart IQ – geddit? ) was Toyota’s answer to the Smart but not half-as-clever. The concept had a windscreen that cut into the roof line. That was deleted from the production model causing the cabin to feel cramped and gloomy. Yes, those rear seats are something of a joke. Soon as you want luggage room they are redundant. And pretty unsafe for rear passengers.

    The car was promoted as better than the Smart because it had 4 seats. Well it would be – the car is one foot wider all round, but that defeats its purpose as a city micro car. Where the iQ beats the Smart is in its amazing tight donut-sized turning circle. Surprisingly, the Smart’s is wide, probably so mad drivers don’t overturn it trying a too fast birl! In any event, the Smart is almost all non-rust, plastic and aluminium. The iQ is clothed in conventional steel.

    What the iQ lacks but the Smart has is … character

  9. jimnarlene says:

    Do all yessers have a fiat past?

  10. jimnarlene says:

    Forgot to add, my father had that old classic……the Hillman imp.

  11. Grouse Beater says:

    The Hillman Imp – one of the few mass produced cars made in Scotland – a potential world-beater never fully fixed because the company followed traditional British car policy of letting the customer do the development. The company, true to form, blamed their workers, but read the book written by the company testers and they tell the true story.

    Do all yessers have a fiat?
    Depends if they are Catholic or not. (Couldn’t resist that, Jim.)

  12. jimnarlene says:

    Having no religious leanings, I couldn’t comment.(fiat) Though from memory, I do know they went on strike due to no “cheese and onion” crisps in the canteen.(imp)*
    I do know that the Imp suffered from a rotten cooling system, sort of a hybrid air and water cool system; that rusted the cills, leading to structural failure.
    *All thanks to the labour party and their cohorts; desperately trying to keep Scotland in the union.

  13. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re well-informed, Jim.
    I think too, Hillman went through two owners, from Rootes to Chysler, the latter soon discovering their own brands suffering lack of attention and pulling the plug on Linwood. Anyhow, the Imp was another opportunity lost. I read the ‘British’ car industry is booming, but the laziest research shows almost all companies owned by foreign entities – which is where the profits go.

  14. jimnarlene says:

    There is no “British” car industry, only marques; names bought and sold, only this time not for English gold.

  15. Grouse Beater says:

    Aye. Sadly true.

  16. hektorsmum says:

    Since ditching the Bravo in 2003 and damned unsafe it was too, we have bought Toyota. We bought the IQ at my suggestion and as it has lots of gadgetsand has become something of a love affair with my husband, I will admit I do not drive, other than people mad so any comment I make is as a passenger. I think we may end up with a Smart the next time, or we will go back to Toyota for another model. We actually like not being at other’s beck an call because the car doesn’t really do passengers, if we can get the dog’s box in the back of a Smart will certainly consider it. Doesn’t look like it would but I will accept your word that it can take “luggage”.
    One thing GB is that Toyota have listened to their customers and every IQ and we are now on number 3 has been improved on, sometimes quite subtly. Number one had problems with the rear seat belts, they fitted into slots and really didn’t so the rattled like mad. They solved this, and the mileage did improve, we moved up this year to the Automatic which has the same system as the Hybrids, quite impressed and mileage is now better. Before you paid VED on the 1.3, they have got the emissions down and we are back not paying.
    I like your Smart do not get me wrong, just Husband trust Toyota, after our experience with Fiat we are reluctant to move, recalls we have had but feel safer that they recall, Fiat with regard to serious problems with the model we had of the Bravo. Well let us say it should have been recalled. It would rev whilst standing in neutral at traffic lights. It was fixed at a huge amount and within a year the problem was back, they could not find it then (so they said at the garage) so we traded it in. Funnily enough one of our friends has a Renault with a very similar problem, garage says it cannot replicate it.

  17. hektorsmum says:

    Meant to say that as someone who has all the books that Outlander is based on and starting as it does in 1946/1743, you can see the problems for it being released during the Referendum. Unionists would have had to confront one or two things like the fact that Scotland was occupied because of the 1715 uprising for the Stuarts and that the ahem British Army were not the much vaunted bunch of heroes ahem, that they are nowadays, It then goes on to address Culloden and then we are into the transporting of Scots out of Scotland. None of that would have worked for them.
    I do not always agree with the things Diana Gabaldon has in her books but historically she has got the flavour. I am saddened that we are not to be allowed at least presently to watch it. It might even give some of those NO voters cause to think.
    The reason I wanted your thoughts on this was because I read your piece on the Pitch and thought you would have think similarly to me.

  18. Grouse Beater says:

    If you like the iQ that much, and can wait a bit longer for values to drop, you can buy the Aston Martin version of the iQ called the Signet. It has improvements all-round plus a genuine Aston grille.

    A mystery they converted them at the time until you realised AM had to conform to government emission levels from their powerful sports cars. By adding a small engined Toyota to their list of vehicles they lowered the average emission – a cheap and easy fix.

    Few bought them for the obvious reason they were hellish expensive!

    Personally, I thought the idea inspired. If you owned an expensive Aston, and left it in the garage in place of using the Signet for daily work trips and trips to the supermarket, you could drive the environmentally friendly Signet to show people how conscientious you were, while advertising you have an Aston DB9 at home. Neat.

  19. donald says:

    Im not sure if you can get the smart in Australia but I have very occasionally seen one of those tiny Mercs .Maybe its the same. Not sure . Aussies love their cars . $wd ,that’s what I call 4wd’s.They are very popular and to my lasting shame we did buy a Subaru Forester AWD 16 years ago thinking we would go out back with it and explore the vast beyond. Never really found time to fully exploit the car but frankly i grew weary of it quickly .Build quality average , running costs high especially after petrol went from 90cents a liter to 1.40-60. Tyre’s were expensive to replace. CV boots did not last long and expensive to replace .
    In the end we tired of it and I looked back to the favorite car of my Youth , an 84 VW diesel Rabbit , US spec. What a great car that was . Fantastic fuel economy , easy to work on, front wheel drive with snow tyres was a blast in winter. That little car took me over the Cascades and Rockies many times without a hitch . I put a lot of miles on that superb little car . And it had air con ! Oh baby.

    I gave it to a friend when we moved to Oz. Our other car was a toyota hilux. Excellent rig when your young with no kids . Again ,totally reliable well built truck.

    So after a bit of research and test driving we narrowed it down to a choice of Golf,polo or suzuki Swift . Diesel options are few down here . They just dont sell well unfortunately .
    We went for the swift because I really enjoyed driving it and cost. love the shape of the body and it really is a good value little car with tons of headroom and space, for the three of us anyway.
    Only one gripe really and that’s the paint job . No undercoating , just a very thin pearlescent white top coat . Chips real easy . Bugger. We have had the swift for a while now and it goes well . Still running like new . cam chain rather than timing belt so you dont have to change it every 100thou.
    Just changed to second set of iridium plugs .I think they are well worth paying the bit extra. I could have gaped the first set and reused them but thought better not .

    Many years ago a relative who was a fighter pilot, discussed openly (because he knew he was dying and could no longer give a damn about Official secrets) the use of water as a fuel . Ie , Hydrogen . People laughed at me when I said water was the fuel of the future for many years but now I am thrilled to know the first hydrogen powered cars have come on the market. Yes.
    I want one . But it may be a few years yet before i can drive the car that vindicated my faith all those years ago. People take the piss out of the prius but it was a vital stepping stone in the evolution of electric/hybrid /fuel cell technology. Kudos to Toyota ,Honda and Hyundai for pushing on with this planet saving ,people liberating alternative to oil. You cant monopolize water but it wont stop the elite from trying .What am I saying ? they are trying to do just that . Scumbags.

    So while diesel is my default choice of infernal combustion engine where available, its time really to let it go. Ultimately i would rather fly to work on a cushy bed of mag levitated exotic meta material . I always laugh thinking of the great glass elevator in charlie and the chocolate factory . Roald Dahl was a fighter pilot and I know damn well what he was really alluding to.

    In the meantime ,respect to you GB for keeping it humble and real in your choice of Vehicle . I knew nothing about the smart at all until I read this essay . Very informative and enjoyable read .

  20. Grouse Beater says:

    It’s a city car, or city to city so long as there are lots of filling stations on the way.

    The mpg is good to excellent depending on the engine size, but as you’d expect it has a small tank, one not suited for a journey Adelaide to Cairns!

    That said, one reviewer took his east to west coast USA on Route 66. Only complaint – lots of stops to fill it up.

  21. donald says:

    Okay . My wife uses our compact for work most of the time. She needs a safe newer car to taxi disadvantaged and disabled people .She gets a tax break on salary sacrifice so its time to trade in the Swift . She puts a lot of miles on it so the smart may not be quite up to the job.Great concept though .If we lived in Florence it would make complete sense .
    One day I am going to take a long holiday there .
    Im going to miss all this dirty technology when its gone though . What I would not do right now to spend a weekend at a steam rally on the footplate of Grandad’s traction engine getting grimey. Conflicted steam punk coming through. Its when the governor kicks in and the engine starts to bark under load that you just cannot help smiling like an idiot. Damn the carbon footprint ,full steam ahead.

    Did route 66 in a beat up old Mercury coupe back in the day . Cant remember what it was called . We had a blast . Texas to Seattle non stop taking it in turns to drive . The power steering leaked badly . We topped it up every time we stopped for gas. I had a date with a U of W student and it was worth the drive . No obstacles to love GB . Full tank of gas ,bottle of scotch , two packets of unfiltered camels and we are heading ……………..That way. Freeeeeedom.

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