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Cast your mind back to the 1980s. Do you remember Swatch watches? Those chunky plastic watches that were every bit as cool as big hair, shoulder pads, mullets and legwarmers (and that’s quite enough of that!). Swatch really made a name for itself, and had a company image that was fun, fashionable and upbeat.

But the makers of these Swiss watches didn’t want to stop there. They wanted to do for cars what they did for watches. They wanted to get away from the idea that a popular and desirable car had to be large, stately and elegant. Why not make a car that was compact, stylish and fun? They started coming up with plans for a compact city car that seated two people – the classic yuppie professional couple without children.

However, the Swatch gurus knew that it would be a very bad idea to compete against all the other automotive manufacturers that were already present in Europe: names like Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche were hard to beat. This was the 1980s when owning a car from one of these German marques was a real status symbol. So the team from Swatch decided that collaboration on a project was a better idea.

The design team approached a number of manufacturers with the concept of the “Swatchmobile”.  At first, they approached Volkswagen, but this fell through, as VW had plans of its own for small cars and the reintroduction of the iconic Beetle. However, in the end, Daimler-Benz shook hands with the Swatch team and things got underway.

But the new business venture needed a new name. The Swatch half of the venture didn’t want their fun little vehicles wearing the Mercedes name, as they were hoping to break away from the more established traditions and ethos.  On the other hand, Mercedes didn’t really like the idea of “Swatchmobile” or any name to do with the watches. Eventually, they reached a compromise, putting both names together for the “Swatch Mercedes Art”, which could be very happily shortened to “Smart”.

They also put a bit of thought into the logo. The logo is built from a letter C for Compact plus an arrow to symbolise forward thinking.  Cleverly, the C looks rather like a magnet, suggesting that the Smart cars are attractive… and maybe with a slight hint of electricity to prophesy the coming of the hybrid vehicle. (Originally, the Swatch people wanted the Smart to be a hybrid vehicle but the people at Mercedes overruled as petrol was cheaper at the time and electric cars were still nothing more than a vague concept.)

In the 1990s, production got underway. Prototypes were tweaked and fine-tuned for better handling and stability. The timing was perfect: the excesses of the 1980s were over and the world was becoming more eco-conscious. The time was right for thrifty, economical space-saving city cars.  October 1998 finally saw the very first Smart cars rolling off the factory floor. These early incarnations were the Smart Forfour and the Smart Fortwo. It wasn’t long before these snappy little cars made their way Down Under, with 2003 seeing dealerships in Sydney and Melbourne (usually Mercedes dealers) promote the Smart.

Swatch watches may now be less popular, especially given the ubiquity of the mobile phone as a timepiece as well as a general organiser and communication device. However, the Smart car is still going strong. At the time of writing, the Fortwo Cabriolet and the Fortwo Coupé are the hottest new models selling, with hints of more to come if what’s available overseas is anything to go by.

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