How Prof. Johann Tomforde builds up the smart brand (feat. Nicolas Heyek)

Nicolas Hayek - How the swatch car visionary became a MCC fan


At Daimler Benz, the MCC project had been on the table again and again since the 1970s, but was then swept under the carpet again. When California then decided in 1990 that 10% of vehicles would have to be emission-free by 1998, it was finally time to pull it off. Now Professor Johann Tomforde finally had the opportunity to implement his idea from the late 1960s. At the end of 1980 the project really got going and the first prototypes were already being tested in 1991. At the same time, there was Nicolas Hayek, who was developing a similar car with VW. Hayek was very good at promoting the project and preparing future clients for it.


When his swatch car project at VW failed due to Mr. Piëch, Hayek was convinced that the swatch car could be brought onto the market, even without VW. So at the Ende of 1992 he went do Daimler Benz and a joint venture was founded in March 1994. The Micro Compact Car MCC GmbH, whose managing director was Prof. Johann Tomforde. It was based in Renningen (Germany) and had its own development department there, in which people from both cooperation companies worked. So both from Mercedes Benz AG (51%) and from SHM / swatch AG (49%). As a side note: With a capital increase in 1997, Daimler-Benz put more money into the company. Swatch didn't, so that the ratios then shifted to 81% (DaimlerBenz) / 19% (swatch).

The new joint venture had two prototypes from which they could take the best of each. On the one hand there was the prototype from swatch, which had 4 wheel hub motors and thus delivered all-wheel drive including ABS. On the other side stood the prototype from Daimler Benz, which had a single electric motor and used it to drive the rear wheels. In the following 2-3 years they tried for quite a while, but unfortunately the swatch AWD concept brought many difficulties with it. The biggest thing was that wheel hub motors unfortunately bring a lot of unsprung weight with them. As a result, after a few kilometers of cobblestone road, half of the car was knocked out and apart from that, the driving comfort was anything but good.

Unfortunately, with the end of the wheel hub motor, the technical developments of the swatch car were all left behind. Even before swatch went to VW, they had given up the other innovation, the joystick instead of the steering wheel. Although they had a working concept, it was unfortunately just too unsafe on the road. What remained of the swatch car was its name and the basic concept, which Daimler Benz already had as a rough concept long before the swatch car was announced in the early 1990s:


Die Geschichte des smart - Wie aus dem 1969er TECC in den 90er MCC / smart wurde


However, Hayek was not necessarily keen on bringing the swatch car to the man and woman. His goal from the start was that his vision would become a real car. With the progress that the MCC project had compared to his car, he was able to became a real fan of this vehicle. So it was easy for him to get people excited about it.

Having the success story of swatch and Nicolas Hayek, it was certainly a blessing for the vehicle and the project itself. This was a reason to break with conventions, to use colorful plastic panels and thus bring in a touch that was not only great for marketing, but also gave the vehicle a lot of character. This was of great benefit to Hayek in his marketing. Among other things, the car should be provocative and he achieves that wonderfully. Little was known about the vehicle that was to come, but everyone in the public had an opinion on it.


Incidentally, the name smart is also a result of the cooperation, it is composed of swatch mercedes and art. In the beginning, the vehicle was still called the smart city coupé, the term fortwo only came up later when smart began to expand the product range with the roadster.



Convince the Daimler Benz board of directors of a 2.5 meter long car


Safety has always been a major issue in the MCC project and ultimately almost more important than the drive train itself. According to Prof. Tomforde, he would not have got the fortwo through if he had not had the issue of safety under control. As early as the 1970s, people told him that the vehicle would never make it onto the road because it was too unsafe. This criticism did not change in the 90s either. Getting the car to survive the crash tests and meet the high standards of Daimler Benz was a task in itself. The requirement was that the future fortwo had to be as safe as the modern E-Class of the time. The smar therefore had a correspondingly large crash. In addition, every smart had ABS as standard and ESP later, starting with the facelift.

The final blessing for the project came when they crashed a prototype fortwo against an E-class in 1995 with remarkable results. The first tridion cell was tested in 1996 and brought the desired results. Their idea was to be as hard as a nutshell and to spread the energy of the accident around and absorb it there. As a result, the interior didn't get smaller in the event of an accident and the occupants were not squeezed anywhere.


Die Geschichte des smart - Wie Prof. Johann Tomforde die smart-Marke aufbaut (feat. Nicolas Heyek)


Another point in convincing the Daimler Benz board of directors of this car was not to sell it to them as a car. This microcar was said to be understood as a supplementary mobility concept. In addition to public transport, taxis and limousines, there should also be this small city car in the future. Ideal for Mercedes customers to get through the city quickly and nimbly without having to give the steering wheel to someone else.

When they arrived at their destination, it was also much more convenient for the Mercedes customer to find a parking space and park there. Not least because of the still famous perpendicular parking. The motto for the smart was very clear: it shouldn't be a rolling declaration of waiver, all small cars have failed in the past and the smart shouldn't fail because of that.



A new car alone is not enough: production, marketing and sales


It was not enough with the car, which was getting closer and closer to series production. Adding to this stress was the need to build a production facility from scratch, continue marketing for it, and last but not least build up a distribution network.


Mr. Hayek in particular was there to keep the market hot, his polarizing personality and his idea for a revolutionary city car made him the perfect marketing manager. Time magazine, for example, reported during this period that it was the most secret car in the history of the auto industry.

And starting from 1995 there should be a show car every year. In 1995 is was the one with the tridion cell. Prof. Tomforde remembered that a Mr. Piëch was sitting in there and carefully scanning them with his "laser vision". Then he must have been visibly impressed and realized that the project could really bring something to the streets. But one point of criticism remained, "I don't believe in the market," quoted Prof. Tomforde. Let's remember: A few years earlier, Mr. Piëch had thrown Mr. Hayek out of Volkswagen because he didn't think much of the project. Tomforde himself was aware that the market would be the biggest hurdle. The technology wasn't the problem, but the people's minds. If people aren't ready for it, they won't buy this car.

So they went on with the show cars and the so-called guerrilla marketing was used. Mr. Hayek had access to a pavilion in Atlanta in 1996 through his sponsorship of the Summer Olympics. He wanted to show this car there and he did. The unthinkable thing was that GM was actually the sole car sponsor. Of course, GM wasn't all that enthusiastic about it, but apart from that it must have been a success.


1996 Showcar (Atlanta)


In the fall of 1996 they did it similarly, but still a bit different. At a vernissage, it was announced that a great work of art would be unveiled. Many journalists came to the unveiling of the work of art and when the work of art was shown, they stood in front of a near-series fortwo with the integrated tridion cell. Here it was apparently Renault and Peugeot who wasn't big fans of it.


1996 Showcar (Paris)


In 1997 there was the "Summertime EV" study, for which there are unfortunately no pictures. It was also electric and already further spun. The young designers had designed them at the time and considered that Micro Compact Car MCC GmbH could have a growing portfolio of electric speedsters in the future.


Parallel to this hustle and bustle, the iconic plant in Hambach, known under the name "smartville", was created from 1995 to 1997. It was very cost-effective and followed the brand's advertising slogan at the time very well: "Reduce to the max". This means, for example, that the panels are not painted, but simply colored plastic and powder-coated. In addition, the suppliers were convinced to build their buildings right next door, with which they build their parts and then send them to the next building, where the production took place. The suppliers paid for these buildings themselves and in total, Prof. Tomforde not only managed to set up a high-quality and inexpensive production, but also the first factory in the world that conformed to DIN 14001. A great standard that certifies a particularly environmentally friendly production.

The planning of the plant was apparently also accompanied by a company from Hayek's: Hayek Engineering, a company that still exists today.


Die Geschichte des smart - Wie Prof. Johann Tomforde die smart-Marke aufbaut (feat. Nicolas Heyek)


For the opening event of the smart factory on October 27, 1997 in Hambach, swatch released a watch dedicated to the factory. Both with a normal strap (GZ154) and with a flex strap (GZ154CA/B). At the event itself there was also a very rare and not freely available box edition (GZ154Pack) with the watch.


Swatch SMART (GZ154; GZ154CA/B; GZ154Pack)


Another field was the question of how to sell this car. Today I would say "I don't want to sell the car through Mercedes, because they simply have different customers", but at that time the reason was a different one: They wanted to sell the car in the middle of the city. Where it belongs and where it will be on the road. The difficulty in the city, however, is that cities areas are expensive and there are hardly any that would have a suitable space for a normal car dealership. Two young people from the logistics and production planning team had suggested simply building a high-bay warehouse. This resulted in the smarttower and not only could space be saved, but the dealers had their own unmistakable style.


Die Geschichte des smart - Wie Prof. Johann Tomforde die smart-Marke aufbaut (feat. Nicolas Heyek)



Every successful project has setbacks, some even a moose test


While the issues of marketing, production and distribution seemed like they would resolve themselves, there was still the electric drive system. It was great to drive and was great fun in city traffic. But battery technology was not that advanced at the time and didn't see to improve any time soon. Furthermore, the batteries had to be kept at around 300 °C throughout. The electronics, the controls, the charging system and the temperature management for the high-temperature battery also took up so much space that you almost needed a trailer for them. It was also not able to fast charge and it was expensive. Although the idea of designing an interchangeable drive axle had existed since the first sketch, unfortunately that didn't lead to anything either.

So it was that the finished vehicle was presented in 1997 with a petrol engine. This was developed in-house and specially designed for the smart. In addition to the cutbacks in the drive system, another request from Prof. Tomforde had to be delayed. He would have liked to have had the convertible ready for the market launch of the fortwo, but this still needed a little bit and they finally wanted to start bringing vehicles to customers.

Mr. Hayek very much regretted the pure combustion engine. According to him and his people, the smart could have become the epitome of the hybrid car. That would have been the perfect combination. If I look at it from today's point of view, then I think that the smart fortwo could have been a milestone in their eyes. Like the Toyota Prius, the first hybrid car that actually works in masse and over the long term with its new powertrain. On the other hand, I also think that the brand could then have become what Toyota became. A brand that didn't catch the change and was to slow for the the step to purely electric drive in the 2020s.

Prof. Tomforde also deeply regretted that the vehicle was ultimately not electric. It made economic and technical sense at the time to bring it as a combustion engine and he knew that too. But of course he would have preferred to have had it as an electric smart. By the way: in 2018, Tomforde bought an electric smart 453 convertible and probably still appreciates it very much.


Shortly after the presentation of the fortwo, which at that time was still simply called the CityCar, there was also the debacle surrounding the moose test. Although this primarily affected the A-Class, it also affected the smart as an extension. Both vehicles had been developed electrically at the time and the combustion engine was only implemented very late. Because of this, both had the sandwich construction that is still common today, in which the underbody is doubled so that batteries can be installed there. But if these don't come after all, the underbody is missing weight and the center of gravity increases significantly.

The usual Scandinavian moose test is about avoiding a moose that spontaneously runs onto the road at high speed and not losing control of the vehicle. However, the A-Class not only lost control, it even threatened to fall over. Out of concern that this could also happen to the smart, it was widened again before they were then delivered to the first private customers with a delay at the end of 1998.


In spite of everything, one clearly has to tip one's hat to Professor Johann Tomforde. He built up an entire company, from design to construction over the marketing and even with the sales, he keep an eye on everything and organize it. And that while he still had to set up a new type of production plant with fresh processes and materials. Jürgen Hubert, Member of the Management Board Daimler-Chrysler, stated in a later interview that probably too much was laid on just a few shoulders.


Die Geschichte des smart - Wie Prof. Johann Tomforde die smart-Marke aufbaut (feat. Nicolas Heyek)



Fun fact at the end


Although the electric drive was ultimately abandoned, the finished car cannot hide the fact that it was also planned to be electric. Every time you start a smart of the 450 series (1998 - 2007), it tests its screen on the speedometer and shows this picture:


Die Geschichte des smart - Wie Prof. Johann Tomforde die smart-Marke aufbaut (feat. Nicolas Heyek)