The design concept for the company's automobiles began at Mercedes-Benz in the early-70s and late-80s. After brief backing by Volkswagen, the first model was released by Daimler-Benz in October 1998. Several variants on the original design have been introduced, with the original being the "Fortwo".
smart derives from cooperation with Swatch and Mercedes: Swatch Mercedes ART. In its branding, the company lowercases its logotype and the logo incorporating a "c" and an arrow for "compact" and "forward thinking" respectively.
In late 1982, SMH (makers of the Swatch brand of watches) CEO Nicolas Hayek began developing an idea for a new car using the same type of manufacturing strategies and personalization features used to popularize Swatch watches. He believed that the automotive industry had ignored a sector of potential customers who wanted a small and stylish city car. This idea soon became known as the "Swatchmobile". Hayek's private company Hayek Engineering AG began designing the new car for SMH, with seating for two and a hybrid drivetrain.
While design of the car was proceeding, Hayek feared existing manufacturers would feel threatened by the Swatchmobile. Thus, rather than directly competing, he preferred to cooperate with another company in the automotive industry. This would also relieve SMH of the cost burden in setting up a distribution network. Hayek approached several automotive manufacturers and on July 3, 1991, he reached an agreement with Volkswagen to share development of the new project.
By 1993, Ferdinand Piëch had become CEO of Volkswagen and he immediately sought to terminate the project with SMH. Volkswagen had already been working on their own "three-litre car": a car which would consume three litres of fuel per 100 km of driving (the eventual Volkswagen Lupo 3L). Volkswagen's own concept was believed to be a better business proposition, featuring four seats and more cargo room.