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Micro Compact Car Smart GmbH, Renningen, Germany, and Hambach, France. Smart Car ("Smart & Pulse" Coupé). 1998

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Micro Compact Car Smart GmbH, Renningen, Germany, and Hambach, France (German and French, founded 1994)

Smart Car ("Smart & Pulse" Coupé)

The artist
Steel frame and thermoplastic body panels
61 x 59 3/8 x 8' 2 3/8" (154.9 x 150.8 x 249.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of the manufacturer, a company of the DaimlerChrysler Group
MoMA Number:

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 353

Size matters. As its clever marketing slogan "reduced to the max" suggests, the Smart Car has been developed to maximize the convenience, comfort, and safety of driver and passenger, while minimizing the impact on the environment. Low fuel consumption (averaging 49 miles per gallon) and eco-friendly methods of production distinguish this two-passenger car from the others on the market.

The Smart Car was developed in the early 1990s at the Mercedes-Benz design studio in Irvine, California, where a team of engineers and designers, led by Gerhard Steinle, created the prototype. The design and marketing strategy was further developed with input from the Swatch watch company. Cars are sold at "Smart Centers" throughout Europe, where the brightly colored vehicles are stacked in towers like objects in a display case, clearly aimed at youthful, style-conscious consumers seeking an affordable car.

The Smart Car's body reveals a clear, functional, modular design. The black frame of reinforced steel—the so-called Tridion safety cell—gives the vehicle its inherent strength. The safety cell defines the car as an integral unit, enabling the Smart Car to be conveniently short for a city car, without the front and back ends that project beyond the passenger compartment in a conventional vehicle. The steel frame is coated with powder paint, considerably less harmful to the environment than conventional painting processes. Colorful, lightweight body panels made of recycled plastic are virtually dent-resistant and rust-free. They are easily exchanged for a new set whenever the owner wants to change color. The interior is unexpectedly spacious. The engine is located below the passengers, allowing space to be conserved and seats to be given additional height.

Audio Program excerpt

AUTObodies: speed, sport, transport

, June 29–September 16, 2002

Curator, Peter Reed: This is the Smart car—the colorful trendy, two-seater that is already very popular in Europe. What a different approach to a two-seater compared to the long, low sports cars. Since it was introduced in 1998, approximately half a million Smart cars have been produced. This is a very real car, not a dream of the future, and it is especially well suited to dense urban environments. The Smart is enormously fuel efficient, averaging around fifty miles to the gallon, and even higher for diesel. This is economically as well as environmentally important. In Europe, gas costs approximately four times what it costs in the United States.

Many people assume this is an electric car, or a hybrid. But the Smart car uses a conventional gas-powered engine. It's also one of the least expensive cars on the market—ranging from about $9,000–$12,000. It's only two and a half meters long—about 8 feet. That means that two of them can fit in a conventional parking space. In fact, the marketing slogan for the Smart car says a lot about it—"Reduced to the max." The Smart car was developed by Mercedes Benz with input from the Swatch watch company. Two prototypes (one for the convertible model) were designed by Gerhard Steinle and his team. While you walk around and examine the Smart, he'll tell you about his design and its safety features.

Gerhard Steinle: I began working on the design for the prototype of the Smart car in 1991 at the Mercedes Benz design studio in Irvine, California. Mercedes Benz wanted to develop a small two-passenger car that was highly fuel efficient. One way to do this is to reduce the car’s weight – by making it smaller and using light weight materials. The green body panels here are made of recycled thermodynamic plastic – they weigh much less than metal, and they are durable, rust free and they don’t dent. They can also be easily exchanged for a set of new panels and a different color in an hour or two. Here, you can see some white ones hanging on the wall.

Many people see the Smart car and question its safety. Actually, that black steel frame that wraps around the body is very strong. Called the TRIDION Safety cell, it's engineered to withstand impacts from different directions. The safety cell defines the car as an integral unit. That enabled us to design the Smart without the front and back ends that project beyond the passenger compartment in a conventional vehicle.

To minimize the length of the car, we placed the engine underneath—the passengers actually ride above it. This boosts the passengers and increases visibility too. Peer inside the car, and you'll see that there's ample headroom. The roof is of dark glass, which adds to the feeling of spaciousness. Also, notice how the two seats are slightly staggered—the driver's seat is placed a little bit forward of the passenger seat. We did this because we wanted to keep.

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