Thus far in the COJL series I’ve profiled a selection of mostly ‘fun cars’ which my spouse John had for the time we were together. However, during that time he also had one everyday vehicle which served him well for all the unglamorous tasks of everyday life for more than a decade. That was his 2005 Smart ForTwo Passion.
Being a car guy like me, John knew a bit about the Smart’s rather convoluted road from idea to concept to market. For those who don’t know, here’s the 10-cent version as I’ve been told it:
In the middle 1990s, Swiss watch maker Swatch and Mercedes-Benz teamed up to collaborate on a small city car – Mercedes was supposed to take care of the mechanical/engineering side and Swatch the design side. At some point, Swatch realized that the investment of creating a new car from scratch was WAY more expensive than it thought it would be, so Mercedes became the majority shareholder in the company.
A special purpose-built complex was built in France to make nothing but Smarts, and after changing the original design a number of times, the new two-seater city car named Smart ForTwo started to be sold in the European marketplace in 1998.
By the early 2000s, Mercedes-Benz Canada started to make noise about wanting to sell the Smart ForTwo in the great white north. I’m not totally sure why, but I seem to remember some Canadian automotive journalists saying that BMW’s successful release of the MINI brand in 2002 had something to do with it. As well, even though Canada has a car market about one-tenth the size of the American one, small cars are more popular here than stateside. Mercedes had already decided to sell its B-class here in 2005, so I guess the decision was made to bring their smallest product to our shores.
The Smart ForTwo caused quite a sensation when it was first announced it would be coming to Canada. John decided he had to have one.
We went up to Star Motors in Ottawa (one of two Mercedes dealers in the city, and the first one which would offer the Smart ForTwo) for a test drive as soon as testers reached Canada in March 2005. As I recall, the tester was a Smart ForTwo Pure (base model) with the 0.8 litre three-cylinder diesel engine.
I sure didn’t love it. The outside was finished in lime green, and the interior with lime green fabric on the seats and dashboard. Funky the interior was, but the quality seemed no better than on my Suzuki Sidekick of the time, with hard plastic and exposed screws.
And then there was how it drove. The automated manual transmission had six speeds and no clutch to push, but it shifted jerkily, like a real manual transmission did. And as for power, well, there wasn’t much. I was quite underwhelmed, but John said he absolutely loved it, and ordered a 2005 Smart ForTwo Passion (nicer trim with heated leather seats, a tachometer, air conditioning) from France.
He chose the ivory and black colour scheme, but also reasoned that he could chose a different colour for the body panels if he ever got sick of white as they were all interchangeable. And plastic.
And once it arrived, his enthusiasm didn’t dampen one bit. I think part of the cars initial charm for him was its novelty as it was the first Smart in our hometown. One time he told me that it wasn’t good to be doing anything inappropriate in (for example, picking ones nose) while driving since everybody would be looking at you! I hoped he was joking.
The Smart ForTwo initially proved pretty popular in the great white north, it wasn’t long until there were at least a half-dozen examples in our small hometown. Soon, John became a member of a ‘Smart ForTwo’ fan club based in Ottawa, we even held a couple of the get-together events at our home.
Whatever I saw its shortcomings to be (lack of space, slow acceleration, herky-jerky transmission, vulnerability to getting blown around when a Cadillac passes you), John’s enthusiasm for the Smart continued for many years.
Over time, I got to appreciate its good bits too (the fuel economy really was terrific, as I discovered when I drove the car to Uxbridge and back for less than $20 for a family wedding), and it handled fine for such a small vehicle. The cheap interior was at least cheerful looking, and the Harmon-Kardon stereo and speakers sounded great. And you really could fit more stuff inside it than was immediately obvious.
But the Smart was really John’s pal, not mine. He didn’t mind that the transmission shifts pitched you forward and back in your seat, and he didn’t care that the acceleration was leisurely and the interior quality was iffy. If it was teutonic perfection that he wanted, he would just drive one of his Mercedes.
He found the Smart adorable and fun. He also liked that he could add little features to it a-la-carte, like the cupholders, the under-seat storage drawer and fold-down armrest. After much online searching, he even found a kit to add cruise control to make long-distance driving a bit more bearable.
John kept the Smart car for ten years. For all of his day-to-day driving it was perfectly adequate. About the time that the warranty ran out (2009 I believe), he talked about getting one of the new Smarts. However, after doing a bit of research he found out the diesel ones were no longer being imported, so he decided to hang onto his.
He would probably still be driving it today had fate not intervened. After being blessed with great health for most of his life, in mid-2014 it became apparent that something wasn’t right with him health-wise. He was losing weight for no apparent reason, and he commented that he sometimes felt a bit ‘peaked’.
Although he’d always been fine with driving anywhere, he started asking me to drive him in the Smart to different medical appointments, where we hoped that someone would be able to tell us what was wrong, and what could be done to fix it.
But even as he started to feel more and more poorly, if he had to go somewhere by himself he would drive – and the Smart would take him there. Maybe not quickly, and maybe not in the lap of luxury, but it would take him where he needed to go.
After several months of having medical professionals tell him that they couldn’t find anything wrong, his GP suggested what he thought was causing John’s issues. ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
I still remember when John told me. I felt like throwing up, and I knew there was nothing that could be done about it. I cried a bit and was upset but John was a bit more philosophical. “You know, I’ve had a good life, I’ve done lots of interesting things, gone interesting places, had a great career.” he said . “I’ve driven some great cars and had lots of fun. And I had you with me for some of the best parts of it. I think I’m ready.”
John died on December 29, 2014. He passed away more suddenly than most people with ALS do, which really was a blessing given the hell many long-term sufferers with the disease go through. I found him passed away in his bed in the home we shared. If one has to die (and we all do), I think that’s the best way to go.
He left all of his cars to me. Unfortunately, I had no need for the Smart so I decided to sell it to a longtime friend of ours; the contractor who has done most of the work on the 1830s stone house we shared and where I still live. I am glad it has a good home.
While the passing of my best friend ever created a void that’s almost impossible to fill, I’m glad I got to spend the time with John that I did. I do think it’s going to be almost impossible to find someone else whose love for cars is as great as mine. But, you never know.
One of the things I’m especially grateful for is that I had an opportunity to experience all of the great vehicles that graced our garage during the 14 years we were together. It was him who really took my love of cars out of the pages of car magazines and internet sites into real life. And for that, John, I will be forever thankful.