Smart Fortwo (450), a unique Modern Classic?

Updated: Feb 5

Smart Fortwo design integrates individuality, innovation and art, plus it is a unique car, so does that make it a Modern Classic?

Smart Car 450 around 1998, where the journey for the little car began.

Suggest to car enthusiasts that the early versions of the Smart Fortwo should be regarded as Modern Classics you will get a mixed reaction. Some just laugh which you assume the answer is no, some nod in agreement and some say they have just never really thought about it.

Like all cars the Smart 450 model has history, and I would suggest a far more interesting history than a lot of the cars which are currently held in, dare I say, reverence.

I am a member of a number of generalist classic car Facebook Groups and this “feeling or attitude of deep respect, love and awe, as for something sacred; veneration” is shown towards some cars which makes me think those cars are nothing special so why? They have no real history as a model, it is just a development of a previous model usually with a large engine tuned and some fancy trimming. Say something against it and the comments are not always polite.

For example Post an image of a 15 to 20 year old bog standard Mercedes on Facebook and the comments are usually overwhelmingly appreciative. I think why, it is bog standard car which has been well looked after and reached a fair age, but there is nothing special about it. Unlike the Smart Car it does not have any history around its development. It is undoubtedly a good car, but it was not ground-breaking when it was initially launched and has not really contributed much to “the party” where we celebrate cars.

Obscure Mercedes. A nice example at 22 years old but is it really a Modern Classic?

Regardless of any age of a car stick an AMG, “M” or RS badge on it, which basically turns a standard car into something which has blistering acceleration and a top speed well above the legal speed limit, and there is nothing but appreciative comments. I guess it depends on what you look for in a Classic Car, and personally I look at its overall contribution to the world of design and engineering and not just how fast it goes.

If you Post on a generalist classic car Facebook Group about a Smart Car there is usually hardly any response. Having raised my head above the parapet on one FBG to ask the question about the Smart 450 being a Modern Classic the few replies I received was no. A couple suggested the (faster and nicer trimmed) Brabus version maybe, or the Roadster which was a development of the 450 model. But not the bog standard 450 which is where it all began for the Smart brand, and indeed a new innoative design concept was created which is still very much with us on our roads some 24 years later.

I must confess I found the "no but a Brabus maybe" response amusing, as this same FBG a few days earlier a number of comments had sung the praises of the humble Lada Riva and previously about a Proton Saloon. As I draft this Blog someone has Posted an image of a 1985 Skoda 120. Iconic cars from behind the Iron Curtain which significantly contributed to the history of the motor car, hummm I think not. Popular and sold millions, but residents in Iron Curtain counties had little choice in the cars they drove. That is why so many Trabants were sold, and not because they are lovely and cute.


A 1995 Lada Riva parked up at a classic car show somewhere in the UK. Clearly a very nice well kept example, but if that is generally accepted as a Modern Classic at such shows then why not a 1998 Smart Car?

Comments about the Iron Curtain cars being future classics and rare cars was suggested on the Facebook Page by the responders, but nothing was said about the poor USSR Block citizens who had no choice but to drive around in the downgraded Fiat lookalikes. And am I right in thinking a few years ago the mere mention of a Skoda and everyone howled with laughter and told a joke about the car. Admit to actually owning one and err, well...............

Skoda Estelle 120, nice colour with what must be upgraded European chrome trim.

As for the Proton, well I had the “pleasure” to drive around Cyprus for a week for work in one of those quite a few years ago and still remember the experience vividly. A couple of times I thought if I let this car roll off a cliff they will give me another car and hopefully it will be a Ford which everyone else seemed to be driving.

A 1993 model Proton, years ahead of it time. In the background there looks to be a cliff, maybe the owner, or the person who had it on hire, was taking a last picture.

I think the older we get the more we need to get thicker lenses for our rose tinted spectacles. Maybe we should just take a couple of seconds to think about a car before coming out with a joke, or that well used phrase “a load of crap” just because the person does not like a particular car. Every car has its good and bad points and its place in the history of motoring, that also applies to the Smart Car.

Back to my suggestion that the early version of the Smart Fortwo should be regarded as Modern Classic.

I guess a lot of people are unaware of the history behind the Smart brand and the development of the car, well apart from it was a joint Mercedes Benz / Swatch Watch makers collaboration. Hummm, well as I like to know facts before I come to a conclusion. Rather than saying I love it just because it has a few years under its belt, or crap because I do not like it, I have set out a brief history below for general information.

The first concepts for an extremely compact and economical two-seater were developed at Mercedes-Benz in Frankfurt back in 1972. Fortunately the concepts were just that, phew!

Fortunately the designers decided to move on from the 3 year old childs drawing of a car and design a proper one. it does however beg the question why did they bother to produce a physical full size prototype of this model.

More concepts, getting there but still a way to go


Designs for the “450” we know and some of us love were originally developed in the early 1990s at the Mercedes-Benz design studio in Irvine, California, where a team of engineers and designers led by Gerhard Steinle created the prototype. I am not sure why the designers were based in a country where no small town cars existed. Maybe all the European design houses were busy or MB wanted to keep it a secret, and no US designer would ever admit to working on a "toy car".


The design and marketing strategy was further developed with input from the Swatch watch company under the guidance of American-Lebanese mathematician and physician Nicolas .G. Hayek. The Smart Fortwo (450) was created, the brand name is a combination of the brand names Swatch and Mercedes with a mention of art, ie S M ART. Unfortunately they could not think how to include the word “iconic”

We are getting really close to something we recognise and love. I like the exterior blue, but not sure what is going on inside the car. It has to be classy or funky as far as I am concerned.

Interesting interior concept, shame about the slightly later 450's interior being basically grey.


At the time of the 450’s launch in Europe in 1998, yes amazingly 24 years ago, the car design and key features were unique, such as :

  • A purpose designed two seater car for city use where people as a general rule travel on their own or with just one passenger.

  • Interchangeable body panels which allows a damaged panel to be changed in a couple of hours, or to change the entire external appearance of the car, is a still a unique feature.

  • High levels of passenger safety due to the development of the Tridion safety cage, which is still a unique feature.

This is still the case today, there is currently no and never has been another car like the Smart 450 and its successor the 451.

The launched car, a tad different to the first concept designed by a 3 year old child.


Interior colour options

Match the exterior colour by replacing the plastic panels to the colour of your choice.

My personal favourite, no prizes for guessing what colour interior my Smart Car has.

Light colourful interiors, so very different from the Lada Riva and the Proton, well most cars in production around 1998 as it happens.


Is the Smart Car unique?

I had difficulty thinking off the top of my head of any car of any age which is similar to the Smart Car, ie a two seater, not a sports car / coupe and not a three-wheeler. I found an Isetta (bubble car), and lots of quirky modern electric cars which look like something a child would draw / design, but nothing which sprang to mind apart from the Toyota IQ. The IQ was launced in 2008 and due to it being a small car which was slightly longer than the 450 and a four seater people associated that as a rival to the 450, which it is not in reality.

A two seater, four wheeled town car, the BMW Isetta. The Isetta came with three or four wheels, the latter was used for the racing version to stop it rolling over at the first corner. This safety feature was subsequently included on a large number of the road going cars as strangely it rolled on the public highway as well as the race track.

Toyota IQ, the larger four seater rival to the smaller two seater Smart Car. Thinking about it the IQ was just a small four seater car which was about the same size as the original little Ford Fiesta before it gained considerable bulk to become a SUV.

Just in case I was forgetting something I asked a question on a couple of Facebook Group Pages and some interesting replies came back, some of which the models were derived from a 4 seater car such as the Nissan Figaro (the Micra), Mini van / pick-up and the Ford P100.


Other makes and models suggested were the Messerschmitt Tg500 Tiger, Oldsmobile Curved Dash (which comes in two and a four seat option), Ford Fairlane 500 (which is a four seater but reduced to two when the roof is folded down), Austin Gypsy, Landrover and one of those 500cc cars 16 year olds can drive (in France) which the French are so good at making. Ligier and Aixam spring to mind, but then very quickly forgotten.

Messerschmitt Tg500 Tiger

It is possible thetwo seater version of this car influenced the Smart Car design team when looking at concepts, but then possibly not.

From the designers of some of the best racing cars ever, a road going version of the Golf Buggy.

Ahh now we are talking, a 500cc two seater which actually looks like a modern car.

0 to 60 time was not possible to achieve with a top speed of only 28mph from the 500cc engine

Now this is more like it, if you are happy to travel along at 28mph maximum

Cool eh? A car to attract the ladies, and at 16 years old you can legally drive it in France.


I would deduce from the above that it seems as far as a two seater car for everyday use is concerned the Smart has no direct competition, so the Smart Car is unique.


Well possibly not, there are copies out there

China could not get enough of the little Smart Car so they decided to make their own small two seater town car, and borrowed the original design as a template. The China version even had an official launch, but Mercedes were not happy and took the manufacturer to court over copyright. They have all made up now though, they are so loved-up that the Chinese will in future be building the official version of the electric Smart 453 when production moves from its current base in France. Hopefully they will be building the official design of car and not their version of it.


Some examples of the copies as follows:

The "official" copy


The copy of the copy

....... and another copy of the copy

Then there is the copy of the copy of the copy, which is a little way off the original


So I guess you could say there is an alternative to the Smart 450 but it is just a poor copy of the original.


Is then the Smart 450 a niche car with limited market? How the sales figures compare, Mini v Smart Car

The original Mini obviously took the World by storm being such a small car and it could seat four adults, plus it was about as small as you could get to accommodate four people. Fast forward 60 years and with current safety requirements the original Mini could not pass the safety certification, which is possibly why the BMW version of the MINI is now the size of a Transit Van. Having been in an early version of the BMW MINI I can say that there seems to be more room inside for passengers in the Austin Mini.

However the Smart 450 is 465mm shorter than the original Mini, 2500mm v 3035mm, as small as it could go to meet the 1998 safety requirements and to travel is some degree of comfort. So bottom line I guess is that if a four seater was needed then there are suitable options available, Smart was designed specifically “Fortwo” and a lot buyers thought three was a crowd. If I do not want to offer someone a lift I just say I have the Smart Car outside lol.

I could not find an image with a 450 and a Mini, so it will have to be a slightly larger and newer 451 model, which slightly longer than the 450 but it still looks slightly shorter than the Mini. .


At the time of its launch of the original Mini there was nothing like it on the market. Apart from being small and lovable, the appeal of the Mini was the fact it was a four seater and it developed into other vehicles such as an estate, van and pickup. This aspect provided a far greater use and therefore increased the sales market for the car. It became a British icon, dare I suggest the most iconic car the UK has ever produced, sorry E Type owners.

The Smart Car (450) has only ever been a 2 seater, so the market has been a great deal more limited for the little cars.

From a sales perspective it seems from Internet searches that in the 40 years it was built the Mini in all its forms and uses between 1959 and 2000, 5.3m cars were sold worldwide.

The sales figures for the 3 generations of Smart Car built in the 22 years between 1998 to 2020 amounts to just over 2.2m sold in Europe and the USA. It is possible the Smart Car has been sold to more countries around the World as direct imports, it has proved very difficult to research accurate sales figures.

However, a limited use “niche car” selling just over 40% of the number of one of UK’s most popular and iconic models at the time is pretty good going. Clearly the lack of seats in the small car is not such a deterrent to buyers.

Out of interest how does it compare with one of UK’s most iconic cars, Ford Cortina v Smart Car?

It is difficult to find accurate figures for models produced and total sales, but clearly there is an obvious winner here. Without doubt the Ford Cortina appealed to a far wider market than the Smart Car, the former being a family saloon and estate car with a variety of engines and trim. The Smart Car is just a two seater town / urban car so has a far limited market.

I found on the internet the Sales figures for the 5 generations of Cortina built between 1962 to 1982 amounted to some 4.3m produced and presumably sold worldwide, 2.6m of which were sold in the UK.

For non UK residents this is the Ford Cortina model range across all five generations, together with some other models getting in the way of the cars.

A reminder that the sales figures for the 3 generations of Smart Car built between 1998 to 2020* (*still in production) amounts to just over 2.2m sold in Europe and the USA.

Again a limited use “niche car” selling just over 50% of the number of one of UK’s most popular models at the time is pretty good going.

Clearly I am keen to promote the merits of the Smart Car from a Modern Classic perspective, so is there anyone with some credibility also promoting it?


The title of this Blog states in my view the “Smart Fortwo design integrates individuality, innovation and art, plus it is a unique car”. But don’t just take my word for it there are a couple of reputable “Agencies” who would agree with that statement.

I guess the proof of the pudding is if a Smart Car in a museum or mentioned in some sort of impartial publication, examples of such recognition includes:

The Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan, NY.

Never heard of it, well check it out on their website at https://www.moma.org/ . The particular Page relating to the Smart Car included in their exhibition can be found at https://www.moma.org/collection/works/85995

It was not just the Smart Car which was exhibited at MoMA, the Smart was joined by the Jaguar E Type, Porsche 911 (1963), Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle (1959) and a Citroen DS.

If you want to see the entire collection of cars displayed at MoMA see https://citroenvie.com/ds-at-the-museum-of-modern-art-in-nyc/


The Smart 450 was not officially imported to the USA, it was not until 2008 that the second generation 451 was officially imported by Mercedes. However the museum curators were so impressed with the Smart Car in 1998 that they put it on display and surrounded it with other iconic cars.

The Design Museum, Kensington High St, London W8 6AG. Their website can be found at https://designmuseum.org/

The Design Museum’s mission is “ to celebrate, entertain and inform". It claims to be "the worlds leading museum devoted to contemporary design in every form”

The Design Museum has published a number of books on contemporary design, including the 2009 publication “Fifty cars That Changed The World”. This publication lists the top fifty cars which in the Design Museums view “has made a substantial impact in the world today. From the 1908 Model T Ford to the 1998 Smart Car, each entry offers a short appraisal to explore what has made their iconic status to gibe them a special place in design history”

Front cover of the publication

Unfortunately the image is of a Smart 451 which was not launched until 2007, which is quite a different car underneath the plastic body panels but on the outside looks similar. An easy mistake to make I guess, unless you are writing an article on a specific car. See image below.

The image the Design Museum should have used. Love that colour


Also included in the list of fifty cars is the 1946 VW Beetle, 1948 Landrover, 1970 Range Rover, 1959 Austin Mini, Jaguar E Type, Piaggio Ape and the Trabant. It also includes my absolute favourite the Lamborghini Miura, so the little Smart 450 is a design icon and keeping mixing with very good company.

Interestingly of the 50 cars which supposedly changed the world there was not one car from Dagenham or Luton. There are several cars from the Midlands which "changed the world", including the car which is often the subject of ridicule and attracts the "crap" word, and I do not mean the Marina.

The Haynes Motor Museum, Sparkford, Yeovil, Somerset. BA22 7LH https://www.haynesmuseum.org/


John Haynes of Haynes Publishing Group was not only the clever guy who created all of those very useful car maintenance manuals, he was also a collector of cars and most things related to them. John’s ambition to create his own Museum, which he ultimately did and it is in Yeovil, Somerset. UK.

The Haynes Museum is described on their website as "a living and working museum, with over 400 amazing cars and bikes from nostalgic classics of the 50s and 60s, a little 450 Smart Car, glorious Bentleys and Rolls Royces to exciting super cars of today, like the Jaguar XJ220 and the Ferrari 360".

It was interesting to see the 2001 Smart Car. An early and very nice example in a good colour combination which makes the car stand apart from some of the more mundane cars seen on our roads today.

This 600cc version Y registration was first registered in June 2001


What that sign next to the Smart says to justify its place in the museum.

The second from bottom line, I am not certain that was a fact when I visited the museum in 2021. But as I said previously China will be making electric Smart Cars in the future and no petrol versions will be made anywhere in the world, which is sad.

The last line is a fact, it is possible to park at 90 degrees to other cars. However, it is also quite likely you will get a parking fine if you park like that on the public highway where parking restrictions apply. It is also possible that a passing HGV will wipe off the front or the rear of the car.

2001 model 450 looking at odds with the other earlier cars on display which were manufactured some 40 odd years earlier. But take into account the design of the Smart Car was very forward thinking at its launch and it is still as fresh some 24 years later.

The Fiat is 1965, interesting how the design has changed in a mere 35 years, or was it the Smart Car design was ahead of its time.



Previously I mentioned derogatory remarks, is the Smart Car 450 a bad car?

Without doubt the 450 has a few mechanical and handling issues, but then what car does not have issues at some point in its lifetime. If you ask someone who basically has no real knowledge of a particular model car what are those issues it is highly likely they would not know. That is when you get the derogatory ill-informed comments on FBG Posts on the basis they do not like the car anyway and then rumour starts.


Let’s be realistic here the Smart Car 450 was originally designed as a purpose built city car. It is likely to spend a great deal of time stuck in traffic, weaving in and out of traffic on busy narrow roads and jammed into tight parking spaces. The car is perfect for that. It also has a capability to venture out of the city and onto more open urban and rural roads, although it is not the fastest car on the road and handling at greater speeds it not brilliant. But it does that job adequately also accepting the limitations.


It would never see off the likes of a BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Range Rover or most other cars for that matter travelling at 100mph plus in the outside lane of the M25, but it would most likely loose them nipping in and out of traffic in the city. Plus there will always be a small parking space on a side street for a Smart Car, unlike an overblown SUV or equally large car where parking options are limited. Some of those type cars cannot even fit in a designated parking space they are so large.


I had set out the main issues with the mechanical and handling aspects associated with the car to include in this Blog. However, I said previously all cars have their issues regardless of their country of origin and the value of the car to purchase. What I would say is I found in researching 15 to 20 year old German cars, which are revered as Modern Classics in the classic car world in general which seems to exclude the Smart Car 450, it that they are often the most problematic for faults due to their complexity, particularly around electrical components.


So putting everything into perspective the Smart Car is not perfect, it is what it is and does what is has been specifically designed to do. It has its place in the world of motoring as well as the large, fast and expensive cars.

Back on the road and looking good in black and white


The design of the Smart Car integrates individuality, innovation and art. It is a unique car, there is nothing else like it on the roads today and there never has been. How is that?


Question.

How many other cars were designed to make it possible to be able to change the entire external body panels in a couple of hours, without the need to paint anything, simply using a spanner, screwdriver and an Allen Key.


Answer.

Two, the original 1998 Smart 450 and the second generation 2007 Smart 451

David at Surrey Smart Centre showing how easy it is to remove and re-fit the body panels. This is the 451 model but David said it is easier to change the panels on the earlier 450 model.

Almost done before putting them back, just adjusting the position of the clips and then re-fit the rear panel section.


Smart cars also provide a great deal of fun.

Such as doubling up on parking bays, the 450 model on the right of the image.

And even more fun you can annoy other drivers by hiding in the back of a parking bay in the mulit-storey car park


Conclusion

It is interesting to see the original 1998 Smart Car fast approaching its 24th birthday, it still looks young and fresh as the day it was launched which makes it look at odds with other Modern and Historic Classic Cars.


Being such an innovative and unique car it is difficult to understand why the cars are often met with derogatory comments when they have played a key part in our motoring history.

Based on the above I would suggest the original Smart Fortwo’s deserves to be acknowledged as a credible Modern Classic, warts and all like all cars seem to have.

If there is agreement you will not mind if I bring my Smart Car to classic car gatherings, I will park next to an anonymous couple of year old newbie and the cars can discuss history, uniqueness and which has made the greater contribution lol.

Looks like someone else agrees with me about the status of the Smart 450, in the background but rightfully parked up on a field during a classic car show last year (2021).


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