The beginnings: A glance back at the year 1972

Jul 12, 2007
  • The first compact car for the year 2000 created by Mercedes-Benz in 1972
  • Via the NAFA short-radius car to the Mercedes City Car
  • Clear-cut specification of a car length of 2.5 meters
The first stages of smart development go back 35 years: in the early 1970s, Mercedes-Benz began working on a design study for the automotive future of the year 2000. Research and far-sighted development have always played an important role at Mercedes-Benz. This approach calls for creative people with sound knowledge of future traffic developments, a feel for trends and any amount of imagination. The researchers’ successful work for the future results in numerous innovations which Mercedes-Benz transfers from design studies and research cars to large-scale production.
By tradition, the visionaries at Mercedes-Benz are at least ten years ahead of their time. The project of a compact car, however, was pointing over more than two decades into the future. This extraordinarily visionary project was also accelerated by the oil crisis which even resulted in driving bans in Europe in 1973. On the basis of this experience and the assessment of future traffic growth, the engineers and designers in the Mercedes-Benz project team defined the need for a particularly economical and compact car for the conurbations of the future. Responsibility for the project was assumed by Johann Tomforde, at the time Mercedes-Benz studio engineer and coordinator in Future Traffic Systems.
As early as October 6, 1972, Tomforde wrote a letter to Werner Breitschwerdt, at the time deputy director at Daimler-Benz and responsible for Passenger Car Bodywork Development and Testing. In his letter, the engineer predicted a fundamental change in the individual mobility in conurbations, maintaining that the car in its contemporary form would no longer be suitable for all traffic scenarios. Tomforde reckoned that “the role played by the contemporary automobile in future traffic systems” would depend on “the automobile’s possible functions as part of a newly designed, optimized traffic system.” He continued to say that the development potential of 1972 automobiles was accordingly high, and that the focus in the development of future passenger cars at Mercedes-Benz had to be on ride comfort, progressive safety and environmental compatibility.
With the aim of safeguarding mobility in urban areas, the project team had already developed a concrete vision – that of a two-and-a-half meter long two-seater with a trunk and a wheelbase length of just 1.7 meters. Basically, these specifications already bore resemblance to the looks of what was to become the smart. The drawings accordingly showed a car in a one-box design with a short front end. This compact car was not to be powered by an internal-combustion engine but by an electric drive system with an energy storage unit under the seats. Other drive-system variants were developed in addition, among them the so-called dual car with hybrid drive – an internal-combustion engine installed above the rear axle, combined with an electric motor above the front axle and a storage battery between them.
On the basis of the draft, the team developed a ready-to-drive mock-up model with tubular frame. This rough model was to convince skeptics that efficient use of space is also possible in a micro-compact car. After all, this small car was to set out to revolutionize the automotive world, so it had to combine easy handling on the front seats with the seating comfort and space of a modern Mercedes-Benz – “as expected by our present-day buyers,” according to Tomforde.
Initially, however, the visionary small-car concept failed. This was not attributable to the space issue, as one might expect, but to vehicle safety. In 1972, it was still unclear how the exacting standards of in-house safety research could be incorporated in a car as compact as this one.
A review of contemporary history explains the revolutionary nature of the new concept. In 1972, a Mercedes-Benz was usually either an S-Class car or a model from the mid-series. People enjoying professional success and preferring stylish dynamism would opt for the Mercedes-Benz SL sports car; heads of state and captains of industry had themselves chauffeured in the 600, the large representative limousine from Stuttgart. Every one of these models combined elegance – each in its own way – with the high levels of ride and operational comfort, the occupant protection and the longevity of a Mercedes-Benz. They incorporated all those qualities which make up the brand’s acknowledged high standard of expertise in automotive engineering. At the time, it was difficult to imagine compact cars to join this lineup of models with the three-pointed star on the engine hood. A compact car with a length of just 2.5 meters, a novel bodywork shape and futuristic drive systems was therefore nothing short of revolutionary.
1981: Short-radius car (NAFA)
Against all the odds, the Mercedes-Benz engineers continued to pursue this visionary concept and introduced a concept study of a short-radius car (NAFA) nine years later. The car developed in 1981 interpreted the basic idea of 1972 in more concrete terms – as a car that provides answers to the problems to overcrowded roads, lack of parking space and long tailbacks. Alongside Johann Tomforde, the team of researchers, advanced-development engineers and designers also included Gerhard Steinle, a young design graduate fresh from the Pforzheim Polytechnic, where Tomforde had been lecturing automotive concept development for many years. For the concept study, a six-page specifications docket was compiled which among other things demanded the possibility of parking the car at a right angle to the direction of travel, without impeding traffic.
After numerous design studies on paper and clay models, a ready-to-drive 1:1 scale prototype in a novel lightweight design with high rigidity was manufactured: 2.5 meters long and 1.5 meters both wide and high – that was the format of the concept study presented to the public. Weighing in at just 550 kilograms, the compact car was powered by a 41 hp (30 kW) three-cylinder engine with a displacement of one liter. As other components were not available, the car had front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission. The car’s intelligent features for perfect ergonomic efficiency in city traffic included sliding doors for boarding and alighting in all comfort. Thanks to four-wheel steering with rear wheels turned through up to 15 degrees by an electric motor, the turning circle was as small as 5.7 meters, and the car could also be maneuvered forwards into confined parking lots. The extensive range of equipment included air conditioning, power steering and belt tensioners.
This result of advanced development fueled the optimism of those responsible: the NAFA fulfilled the demands on a low-emission city car with a small footprint but outstandingly efficient use of space. The question was whether Mercedes-Benz would actually build such a model in the foreseeable future. The decision against a production version was based, as in 1972, on the brand’s high safety standards. Although the NAFA did feature bodywork parts with defined deformability, sturdy lateral impact protection and an automatic belt attachment system, those responsible arrived at a negative decision. One of the reasons was the low response to such a compact car recorded in market surveys at the time. The latter indicated that people continued to demand large and powerful automobiles.
This trend actually continued and did not abate before the end of the 1980s. When the administration of the Federal State of California announced the Clean Air Act to combat the smog problems of Los Angeles, it triggered dynamic action on a global scale. Awareness of the problem of air pollution rose in urban conglomerates throughout the world and gave rise to relevant legal regulations. In Italy, the administration successively banned vehicles with internal-combustion engines from historical city centers; Singapore dramatically raised the passenger car registration taxes; Tokyo granted permits for passenger cars in the inner city only upon presentation of proof of a parking lot or for cars less than three meters long and less than 1.4 meters wide.
During this stage of public discussion, Mercedes-Benz took the initiative. This was because a haphazardly imposed ban on private transport in conurbations was not an acceptable approach to safeguarding mobility and people’s supply needs on the one side, and to improving the air quality in cities on the other. Mercedes-Benz oriented its innovative mobility concept for private transport in conurbations to the timeframe of the Californian Clean Air Act. At the time, California demanded every major automotive brand represented in the market to introduce zero-emission vehicles which had to account for precisely ten percent of the manufacturer’s model range until 2002.
1990: Start of development work on the Mercedes City Car
In a first step, the engineers in Mercedes-Benz Advanced Passenger Car Development converted the two-seater NAFA to electric drive with a high-energy battery in 1988. The researchers considered the pilot operation of up to 100 electric NAFA cars in West Berlin , but the batteries’ storage capacity still proved to be inadequate for continuous service. On this basis, two coordinated project teams were established in early 1990 to derive two different concepts from the NAFA study – and to develop the cars to production standard. One team developed the five-seater Vision A 93 prototype which was presented to the public at the Frankfurt International Motor Show in 1993. A slightly modified version of this car – called the Study A – was displayed in 1994 and served as the direct predecessor of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
The other team worked on a two-seater with load compartment, calling it Mercedes City Car (MCC). The project’s special features included electric drive at the rear axle and a high-performance energy storage unit in an intermediate floor underneath the seats. The two cars with double floors were fairly high, giving passengers a correspondingly high seating position; this in turn called for a high roof line but also generated great potential in safety engineering.
With the MCC, the project team in Strategic Design, headed by Johann Tomforde, tackled one of the greatest challenges in Mercedes-Benz automotive development, namely to create a micro-compact electric car, just 2.5 meters long and featuring all the virtues and qualities of a genuine Mercedes-Benz, including occupant protection and innovative engineering. Together with safety specialist Karl-Heinz Baumann at the Sindelfingen plant, they solved the basic problem, namely compliance of the MCC with the high Mercedes-Benz crash safety standards, by means of an unparalleled safety structure which was patented at a later stage. The 1:1 scale design drawing was submitted to design concept engineer Anton Reichel and his team, responsible for prototype development, in Sindelfingen in 1990. But what sort of exterior and interior design was to be adopted for the intelligent coupe? They came up with a solution that was both radical and well-balanced.
Sidetracked: Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car
A completely different but equally radical mobility concept was, incidentally, incorporated in the Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car of 1995: this compact car came with interchangeable “hats” to be converted into a sedan, a convertible, a station wagon or a pickup. This responded to a vision of customers who no longer owned the different bodies themselves but collected them from rental stations, where they could enjoy a cup of coffee while service technicians mounted the desired bodywork hat. It would then be up to the customer to decide how long he or she used a specific variant – the envisaged rental system was as flexible as the car itself.