The Swiss who didn’t know
A few days ago, I happened to enter the Swatch shop in Via Soave in Lugano. I have always had a soft spot for this brand and that day I was there to get a dear friend a present.
Going through one model and another, I must have stayed in the shop for no more than twenty minutes. In the meantime, a dozen people, one after the other, came in wanting to buy the same model: the MoonSwatch, the watch that reinterprets the famous Omega Speedmaster that Neil Armstrong wore on the moon on the day of the giant leap for mankind. This triggered my curiosity, I asked the saleswoman for an explanation, and she replied: “it's like this every day, every week a new batch arrives and the next one is already finished”.
I must say that more than a year after the launch of the Swatch Speedmaster, I was struck by the clamour generated by the narrative power of a brand that until recently seemed oppressed by a whole new technological segment, that of smartwatches.
Omega Speedmaster (1967) and OmegaxSwatch MoonSwatch (2022)
In any case, there has already been a lot of talk about MoonSwatch and to me all this noise brought to mind a story, not so well known perhaps, but in my opinion just as interesting. Switzerland is certainly not the land of motors (don't hold it against Peter Sauber) and yet this is the story of a Swiss motoring icon, or maybe we should say Swiss-German.
Not everyone knows that the Smart was the brainchild of Nicolas Hayek, the genius founder of Swatch who in the 1980s saved the Swiss watchmaking industry, then in crisis due to Japanese competition.
In the early 1990s, following the first media echoes about global warming, Hayek saw an opportunity to introduce an “ecological, fun, cheap city car for two people and two cases of beer” to the market. It was to be the Swatch of cars.
At the time, the iconic Swiss brand was booming and had no shortage of financial resources, yet Hayek knew that going up against the giants of the automobile industry could prove fatal even for the world's largest watch group. So it was that he presented his revolutionary idea to Volkswagen, with whom he began a joint project to build the car. But the liaison with the Wolfsburg company was short-lived and Volkswagen ended up taking a much more traditional path on its own, which led to the birth of the Lupo.
However, the Swiss entrepreneur was not one to give up easily and soon managed to enter into a new joint venture with Daimler, then owner of Mercedes-Benz. Hayek was determined to create a radically innovative and environmentally friendly car with an electric or at least hybrid engine. However, the time was not yet ripe for electrification, and the German management was pushing for an internal combustion engine solution that was indeed innovative due to its turbocharged three-cylinder architecture and minimalist cubature, features that allowed extremely low emissions.
Hayek conceived an original, fresh and customisable vehicle that, just like Swatch watches, were able to express multiple personalities.
It was 1994 when Mercedes publicly announced its partnership with the Swiss brand by presenting the first Eco-Sprinter and Eco-Speedster prototypes, the first with an electric motor and the second with the more concrete three-cylinder petrol engine. As per Hayek's concept, the cars were built around a solid safety cell, were highly customisable and assembled with a minimum of parts, most of which could be recycled.
Mercedes Eco-Sprinter and Eco-Speedster prototypes (1994)
Swatch wanted the new brand to bear its name in some way: “Swatchmobile” and “Swatch Car” were the suggestions. Mercedes disagreed and ended up asserting its 51 per cent in the joint venture, opting for what they presented as a compromise: “Smart”, an acronym for “Swatch Mercedes Art”. We can’t say that Stuttgart lacked imagination.
Well, the clash over the name, combined with philosophical design differences over the engine, led Hayek to pull out of the joint venture, leaving the Germans to conduct the project alone.
The Smart in its final form was presented at the 1998 Paris motor show. 2.5 metres long and 1.51 metres wide, it was the only car in the world that could be parked transversely. For such a small car it was surprisingly comfortable and safe. The interior was basic, functional, colourful and extremely innovative for the time. The other city cars on the market aged all at once.
Smart City-Coupé (1998)
As Hayek wanted, the Smart cars were marketed through a network of dedicated dealerships with the iconic tower displays that began popping up all over Europe.
With an average of 100,000 cars sold per year for over two decades, countless configurations, petrol, diesel and electric engines, and the honour of a place in MoMa's permanent exhibition, the Smart car has entered automotive history. In spite of other well-known attempts, such as the legendary BMW Isetta and the more recent Toyota iQ and Renault Twizy, the small Swiss-German car is the only microcar in the world to have ever broken through.
In the solid and somewhat conservative automotive market of the late 1990s, the story of outsider Hayek and his impossible little car fascinates with the irreverence of the plot and the disruptive epilogue that reminded me of a well-known adage by Albert Einstein:
“Everyone knew it was impossible, until a fool who didn’t know came along and did it”.
Not convinced? Ask Mr Musk.
- Original copy: I've written this article with zero support from AI, because I like to do it myself.
- Swatch and Omega watches photo: Swatch Group
- Other images: Mercedes-Benz AG