Press Kit: The history of the smart: “reduce to the max”
Jul 12, 2007
Ideas originating in North America
  • 1991: Design development of the MCC 01 begins in California
  • The first prototypes provide exciting glimpses of the future
  • Focus on an ecological vehicle concept
The new compact car was to be designed in America. On behalf of Chief Designer Bruno Sacco, Mercedes-Benz designer Gerhard Steinle traveled to the USA in early 1990 to find a suitable location for the planned satellite studio of Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design. Steinle opted for Irvine in southern California, one of the most fertile patches in automotive trend research. This is where car aficionados celebrate an all-out mobility cult on wheels with either historical or modern – but almost always highly individualized – cars.
In 1991, Mercedes-Benz Chief Designer Bruno Sacco placed the first order with the freshly recruited team of designers. The graduates from the renowned Pasadena Art Center College of Design were to create a two-seater micro-compact car which at the time had acquired the internal designation MCC 01. The young designers had hoped to be allowed to design intriguing roadsters and elegant sports coupes for Mercedes-Benz. But they had deliberately been chosen for this assignment by those responsible in Stuttgart – the design of the Mercedes City Car was to be created by people who were well familiar with day-to-day urban mobility problems – as encountered in some of the large cities in southern California.
The design team around Gerhard Steinle always endeavored to connect to the reality of urban mobility. This is why the team developed its solutions not just in its offices and studios but also regularly set out for field studies in the busiest quarters of the cities. Every week, the designers went on excursions to the street cafés in Newport and Laguna Beach, to the Sunset Boulevard in neighboring Los Angeles and to Huntington Beach, spending their afternoons in Malibu and Santa Monica with milk shakes and sketch pads, Italian espresso and pens.
In particular, the designers watched people and their use of cars in everyday life. Who was using what type of car for which purpose? What is particularly cumbersome for drivers? What is important to them in which situation – when boarding, opening the convertible roof, loading the trunk or mounting a child seat, when eating and drinking in the car, when putting on makeup or shaving? Tomforde and Reichel’s concept engineers back at the Advanced Design Studio in Sindelfingen were actively involved in all this to be able to integrate these findings in the overall engineering concept.
The design team filtered out the first drafts from this host of impressions. Gerhard Steinle remembers that they first came up with a somewhat chubby city car, giving the impression of being as long as it was wide and high. The proportions were just not right. Initially, therefore an important task was to emphasize the visual impression of length. Among other things, they reduced the width of the Study A of 1.68 meters to 1.4 meters, the so-called Kei-car width for Japan, which meant that the seats moved closer together. To retain the occupants’ freedom of movement comparable to that of the front seats in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the German/American project team in Irvine drew on the idea of offset front seats as realized in the F 100 research car. A similar seat layout was therefore developed for the MCC 01 in agreement with the colleagues in Sindelfingen.
Parallel to this, Tomforde and Reichel worked on a chassis with electric drive for the MCC. Together with corporate unit AEG and its automotive TEMIC branch which in part had been taken over from AEG-Telefunken, they developed automotive control systems with recuperation (energy recovery when going downhill and during braking) for new high-performance batteries which had been announced in the market.
The two development engineers from Sindelfingen also cooperated with Larag AG based in Will, Switzerland – an innovative partner in the realization of a highly efficient electric motor which transferred its output to the two rear wheels at a high torque.
In May 1992, Tomforde drove the first fully operational chassis with electric drive, still without bodywork but with two seats and a rollover bar, on highly demanding proving grounds near Will as well as on country roads in the vicinity – and was enthusiastic about the dynamic handling characteristics of this agile vehicle with a length of just 2.45 meters. Strictly speaking, there was nothing in the way of the “wedding” with the design model created in California – hadn’t it been for the project decision which had still not been taken by the Daimler-Benz Board of Management. Hence, Sacco and Tomforde were eager to find an opportunity to present the fascinating engineering and design studies to the Board of Management.
1992: First MCC prototypes built and ready to drive
On the occasion of a Mercedes-Benz test trip in the USA in the summer of 1992, the Board of Management also visited the Advanced Design Center in Irvine. Werner Niefer and Jürgen Hubbert were standing in the front row when the designers and engineers pushed an unusually small mockup model in a green metallic livery into the studio. The spontaneous comments by the board members and directors – ranging from “It’s really spacious” and “neat and petite” through to “gives the impression of being safe and refined” and “ideal for city traffic with electric drive” – were truly encouraging for the German/American project team.
On that July 4, 1992, the Mercedes-Benz Board of Management approved the full-size model with underfloor battery package, rear-wheel drive and the seat layout shown. Jürgen Hubbert signed the order for a ready-to-drive prototype which the Irvine and Sindelfingen teams had built by prototype smithy Metalcrafters in the vicinity of the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio. Quite a few additional design ideas and visions for mobility in conurbations surfaced during the subsequent barbecue with the executives from Stuttgart under the Southern Californian evening sky.
Bruno Sacco’s decision to have the Mercedes City Car designed in Southern California gave the developers a certain amount of independence from corporate headquarters in Stuttgart for reasons of spatial distance alone. What’s more, the stylistic and aesthetic trends of the mega-city Los Angeles with its constantly changing society influenced the design work. In the summer of 1992, Mercedes-Benz designer Paul Terry used the scope he had been given to sketch a second MCC – a cabriolet – on the basis of the existing draft. The MCC cabriolet intrigued studio manager Gerhard Steinle as well as Johann Tomforde, meanwhile appointed MCC project manager, during one of his frequent working visits to California. The designers came up with renderings of the model and combined the design with the latest chassis concept from Sindelfingen, while the Irvine team was already engaged in converting the clay model of the MCC 01 into a cabriolet. Sacco and Tomforde gave the green light for a second prototype, a cabriolet, this time with a gasoline engine to be fitted in the double floor at the rear. Again Messrs. Metalcrafters were commissioned to build it.
1993: Eco Sprinter and Eco Speedster
In 1993, there were already two operational prototypes on the basis of the show cars. The coupe became the Eco Sprinter, a somewhat more conservative electrically driven version with and leather and wood trim in the interior. The cabriolet, by contrast, was developed into the Eco Speedster, a youthful, dynamic version of the Mercedes City Car. The Speedster was a conspicuous car with its bright yellow paintwork and an almost gaudy interior with blue, red, green and yellow elements. This car clearly addressed a young and creative target group. The shape of the two revised prototypes, presented by Johann Tomforde to the Mercedes-Benz Board in the summer of 1993, already outlined the shape of things – the smart fortwo – to come. In December 2006, Anders Sundt Jensen, head of Marketing and Sales at smart, therefore referred to the two show cars as “the two true forerunners of the smart.”
It was to the wealth of ideas of the Mercedes-Benz designers in Irvine and Sindelfingen that the two MCC prototypes owed their broad-based acceptance as a novel city car and as a part of an innovative mobility concept. The designers’ creativity flourished in the permanent exchange across the Atlantic and also led to a vivid exchange of workplaces. The people from Stuttgart liked the working climate in California where team meetings were held under the Southern Californian sun, as Bernhard Joseph, responsible for cockpit ergonomics in Johann Tomforde’s team, remembers. Individual and team decisions were made not only in the offices but also at the beach restaurant Renato in Newport Beach, on the way to the French bakery C’est Si Bon or on a mountain bike tour to the Top of the World, as one of the outdoor activists’ favorite destinations, located at a certain altitude near Laguna Beach, is called in all American modesty. These were some of the places which inspired the designers.
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