Prof. Johann Tomforde is responsible for the smart fortwo as it was presented to the world in 1997 and then rolled off the assembly line. But the road to get there was a long one and began as early as 1969 during his student days. He called the vehicle of his first sketches TECC (Tomforde electric city car). As he told me in August 2017, this sketch should be the beginning of his thesis. However, his professor advised him against it because it was too much fiction for him. Instead, his diploma thesis was then based on an amphibious vehicle.
But that didn't change the fact that Prof. Tomforde started at Mercedes after his studies in 1970 and stayed with the topic of city cars. There, the idea of building a CityCar for Daimler Benz customers, with which they could jet around in urban areas, was already reinforced. He drew the first concept and design studies for this in 1972 and then called them MCC (Mercedes CityCar). At that time he was responsible for the "Future Traffic Systems" department at Daimler Benz. To this day I am proud to have seen these drawings in person. At this point, a big thank you to Ralf Waitschies from smart Club e.V. Germany, who made this possible for me at the time.
What is also exciting about these drawings is that they already had the essential dimensions of the later fortwo. In addition, it was already determined that the vehicle should be electric and the motor should drive the rear axle. And because recharging is slow, the idea of replacing the rear axle in one go, including the battery, was meant to be the solution for that. In this way, the battery would be recharged in station while the vehicle was already on the road again.
Developers at Daimler told him back then that this vehicle would never make it onto the market because it was not safe enough.
The first concept in this direction was implemented as early as 1972. It was a tube construction, which was intended to roughly show how much space such a vehicle actually had. But due to the lack of a safety concepts, the project was then buried again.
From the information I was able to find, the topic was initially on hold until it went to the "Nahverkehrsfahrzeug" ("Near area vehicle"), in short NAFA, between 1981 and 1985. It wasn't electric, but had a 41 hp Suzuki engine driving the front axle. But at least it was as small as he wanted it to be and it was definitely a step in the right direction. Internally, a fairly detailed specification was written for the vehicle. One requirement was that the vehicle should be able to park forwards in tight parking spaces without disrupting the flow of traffic. The small turning circle of just 5.7 meters was also helpful. You have to keep in mind how the how far back that is. Back then, compared to the rest of the passenger car market, Mercedes were even more luxurious than they are today. It felt like there were only S-Classes, the SL, and the chauffeur-driven vehicles of the 600 type. In order to keep up up with them, the NAFA had an automatic transmission, power steering, air conditioning and belt tensioners.
No wonder Professor Tomforde was part of the team around it. Another idea to save space was a sliding door. In 1988, they begun to convert the NAFA began to an emission-free electric drive power train with a high-performance battery. It was considered to put 100 of them into test operation in West Berlin. But because of the short range, they ultimatly decided against that.
The team involved would later create the five-seater "Vision A 93" from this, present it at the IAA in 1993 and the slightly modified study A in 1994. This then ultimately resulted into the Mercedes A class. Another team involved in the the NAFE was a bit inactive again until it finally got going at the end of 1990. A design study had been set up in Irvine in Southern California and the graduates of the renowned Art Center College of Design Pasedena there were allowed to let off steam as to what such a small city car could look like. It was particularly important that they had practical experience and were already familiar with city traffic. Also, they spent whole afternoons in Malibu and Santa Monica with their art supplies to get it right to the point. Internally, this vehicle was referred to as the MCC 01. The first results from this work were still quite bulky and visually did not have good proportions. For this reason, the concept then became more narrower. In order to retain the comfort of a C-Class, the seats were then slightly offset from one another so that the driver and passenger did not sit shoulder to shoulder in the vehicle. The first drafts of an MCC 01 convertible, created in 1992 by Mercedes designer Paul Terry, also come from this basis.
Driving force for the project was that in California 10 % of all vehicles should be emission-free by 1998. So ultimately, the smart fortwo and GM's EV1 were created for the same reason. I'm always amazed at what California started with it in the early 1990s. Elon Musk also mentioned the EV1 as an inspiration to invest in Tesla. It's really amazing what this law of Californians started back then.
At Daimler Benz, a complete concept began to be developed very quickly. The first prototype of the later eco Sprinter already had a high-voltage battery and a 40 kW electric motor. The battery was a so-called ZEBRA battery from the Daimler subsidiary AEG. Yes, the AEG, which today makes you think of refrigerators, for example. At the time, Zebra stood for "zero emission battery research activities prototype". This was a high-temperature battery, which had to be kept constantly at 280°C to 320°C. Even if the vehicle is just parked.
The electric motor for the prototypes was bought from a external company in Switzerland because Daimler Benz didn't have a suitable one.
There is a great picture of Prof. Tomforde rushing across the site with a prototype in 1991. Unfortunately I don't have it and as far as I know it's not publicly available anywhere else either.
The right time had come
The technical development was in Sindelfingen, the designers were in California. The early prototypes were used to practice things like starting off on a hill with an electric motor in combination with the short wheelbase. I imagine those prototypes could do great wheelies.
Another problem was that the battery always had to be kept so hot. Apart from that, however, according to Prof. Tomforde, the vehicle was great fun to drive and so the project continued.
One of the reasons the MCC kept falling asleep throughout the '70s and '80s was that the world wasn't ready for such a small car. Everything was getting bigger, faster and longer. Accordingly, it was a great blessing for the project that a certain Mr. Nicolas Hayek from Swatch started developing something like this with VW at the same time. Although his cooperation with VW was not crowned with success, he had aroused interest in such a city car in Europe. So it happened that Mr. Hayek really wanted to go to Mercedes after the separation from VW and Mercedes was very keen to cooperate with him.
The time has never been more suitable and accordingly the time had finally come. Professor Tomforde was allowed to tackle his dream of an electric microcar. You will find out how this cooperation went in the next article: The story of smart - How Prof. Johann Tomforde builds up the smart brand (feat. Nicolas Heyek)