It is a radical idea that starts to mature in the heads of the Mercedes-Benz developers in the early 1970s: as they see it, the "car of the future" must question all existing preconceptions of cars and put them to test. Sketches dating back to 1972 show a new, seminal approach. The concept for an ultra-compact car with a length of two and a half metres is subsequently developed by Mercedes-Benz. Johann Tomforde, studio engineer at Mercedes-Benz and development coordinator for the field of "future traffic systems", is responsible for the project.
Although the idea is impressive, technical realisation is not possible at this time due to an inability to meet the company's strict safety standards.
However, nine years later the Mercedes-Benz developers succeed in developing groundbreaking ideas for safety features that only need a small amount of space in a car. First designs using a "sandwich" principle with a raised vehicle floor are tested. But the technical realisation is still not possible on account of the strict Mercedes-Benz safety standards.
In 1991 Mercedes-Benz Design starts the next attempt. The Eco Sprinter and Eco Speedster show cars are developed in cooperation between the Design Concept department in Sindelfingen and the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Center in Irvine, California. When Johann Tomforde presents them to the Mercedes-Benz boards in 1993 the enthusiastic response leads to concrete plans for a new kind of vehicle and a new segment: the micro compact car.
The concept, package and safety concept – later to become characteristic features of the smart fortwo – are already clearly apparent in the first studies. Even then the safety concept was brilliantly simple: like a nut, the soft interior is protected from harm by a rigid shell.