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.
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.
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.
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.