A freak convergence of events involving a Swatch watch, plastic fenders and a moose helped forge Europe's new plastic-skinned Smart car.
The two-seat coupe, due out in October from Daimler-Benz AG and Swiss watchmaker SMH AG, draws comparisons to a gaily colored, compressed ladybug. It is both truncated and tall, made to order to zip through the narrow, mean streets of Paris or Milan.
The boutique vehicle has turned some heads on this continent, where it is viewed as an eccentric European uncle that might be ahead of its time. The extroverted car could influence the future of plastic vehicles.
``It's now within our reach to eliminate painting by deeming it impractical,'' said Diana Hickert-Hill, director of automotive exterior systems at GE Plastics' Southfield, Mich., automotive center. ``That's the Holy Grail we went after.''
The idea to render obsolete the need for three coats of paint, while squashing both cost and emission problems, started with a dream in the early 1990s.
SMH, makers of the gaudily colorful Swatch, wanted to transfer the concept from a wrist to the road. The Biel, Switzerland, company had the idea to make a car with interchangeable body panels, allowing whimsical customers to have service technicians replace the car's red body with a blue one, for instance.
The company's idea was for an entire car's body to be replaced in about an hour.
The company first sold Volkswagen AG on the idea, only to be handed divorce papers on a proposed joint venture in 1992. Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart, Germany, then known as Mercedes-Benz, came forward in 1994.
The companies created a new company to make the vehicles called Micro Compact Car AG, or MCC. Over time, Daimler-Benz increased its stake and now controls 81 percent of MCC.
Similar to General Motors Corp.'s Saturn division, MCC was handed autonomy with a separate plant and free-standing operations. The company and its suppliers opened a factory in Hambach, France, in October. To date, the companies have invested more than 1.2 billion French francs ($464 million) in the compound.
And the vision of a replaceable body stayed alive.
The company targeted plastic for the outer body panels. Light, injection molded plastic could be replaced easily and provide dent and scratch resistance.
``The basic idea was to use plastic as plastic, not painted or behaving like steel,'' said Alexander Pothoven, project manager for body-panel systems at MCC's Biel headquarters. ``You can swap and change body panels when you get bored or need a new panel. You can even make a harlequin of crazy colors on one car.''
In came Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics, which was beginning to find a home in Europe for its Noryl GTX polyphenylene oxide resin. All-plastic fenders made of Noryl had replaced steel on the 1995 Renault Megane Scenic sedan. Mercedes A-class vehicles also use injection molded fenders and rear tailgates made from Noryl.
GE had worked with BASF AG of Ludwigshafen, Germany, under a technology development joint venture to develop polycarbonate body panels. The three-year agreement, signed in 1995, helped prepare GE for its work with MCC.
``We made a huge investment because European carmakers were receptive,'' said GE industry manager Venkatakrishnan Umamaheswaran. ``But it took a lot of persistence to get where we are today on the Smart car.''
MCC and GE tried several variations, including using a Noryl blend similar to one used in Saturn's painted body panels. But the MCC team changed to GE's Xenoy PC/polyester resin blend after it proved best for an unpainted application, Umamaheswaran said.
Working with GE's design team in Bergen-op-Zoom, the Netherlands, MCC tailored the resin to provide a rich color rainbow. Impact modifiers and different color pigments added a spectrum of color choices.
The work culminated in a unitized thermoplastic body, tying together the front fender, outer door panels, front panels, rear valence panels and wheel arch in one wraparound package. The entire car weighs 1,440 pounds, about 600 less than most steel-bodied compacts.
MCC decided to apply one clear coat over the panels to protect them from fading. However, by veering away from a primer and a base coat, MCC saved at least half the cost of a painted body, Pothoven said.
The MCC team then turned its attention to manufacturing. Injection molder Dynamit Nobel AG of Weissenburg, Germany, set up a $40 million plant in Hambach to make the panels, which are hung on a steel sheet. While Dynamit Nobel referred inquiries to MCC, Pothoven said that in late 1997, Dynamit Nobel carted in 40 Krauss-Maffei presses with clamping forces of 2,300-4,000 tons.
Other details needed to be worked out, including the manufacture of special tools. The largest hardened-steel production tools, for the door panels, were 15 feet long by 15 feet wide.
Toolmaker Schneider-Form GmbH of Dettingen-Teck, Germany, struggled early on to achieve proper valve gating to allow the resin to flow evenly and gain the tight tolerances to form wall thicknesses of precisely 4 inches, said President Louis Schneider.
``The MCC people were quite different from what we were used to in the car industry,'' Schneider said. ``They were young, dedicated, creative and not afraid of the risk involved with a niche vehicle. We did a lot of extensive work, sometimes through the weekend, but it was always a fun project.''
The car was poised to be launched this spring. But a ``moose test'' imposed by the European auto industry got in the way.
MCC officials found that the car would tend to roll over in a test designed to mimic a driver swerving to avoid hitting a moose, Pothoven said.
So the program was delayed six months while the car's frame was widened, its wheelbase lengthened and the point of gravity lowered.
``We don't like moose,'' Pothoven said. ``But now we can withstand the biggest moose on earth.''
MCC plans to produce about 26,000 Smart cars by the end of the year, with the vehicles shipped from France to nine countries in Western Europe. Next year, production is to ramp up to about 200,000 vehicles annually.
The plastic cars could loom larger in North America once the expected merger between Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. is completed this fall. Chrysler officials, including Thomas Gale, Chrysler executive vice president for product development, already have visited the MCC facility, Pothoven said.
Gale is one of the leading proponents of Chrysler's planned all-plastic car, according to supplier sources. The Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker wants to create a low-emission vehicle using a PET shell without steel sheets behind it.
``Gale personally is very excited about plastic applications and our car,'' Pothoven said.
Until the merger is in place, Chrysler officials say it is too early to discuss future joint projects.
Officials with other plastic resin and parts suppliers said the Smart car and other new and proposed plastic vehicles might not lead to a body-skin revolution in America.
For high-volume vehicles, steel should remain less-expensive than a plastic body, said Jeff Rose, vice president of technology for Textron Automotive Co.'s trim division in Troy, Mich. Automakers may be unwilling to spend money on new molding presses when they have steel stamping equipment on hand, he said.
``Steel is really hard to beat in larger volumes,'' Rose said. ``Right now, plastic [body panels] are just in niche vehicles. I don't quite see the investment on mainstream cars.''
However, if plastics suppliers can eliminate lofty painting costs, the resins might have a fighting chance, he said.
Plastic faces another challenge. In larger-volume vehicles, a steel stamping die can be used over a model's life. Several molds would be needed for the same volume of plastic parts, said Randy Scott, marketing manager for exteriors with Dow Automotive.
But plastics already is making some inroads in plastic fenders, pickup-truck boxes and other applications, Scott said.
``Plastic composites continue to grow,'' Scott said. ``As long as a [vehicle] platform is below 200,000 units sold a year, we can be right in the ballpark.''
Smart-car drivers could see their share of plastic bodies. MCC is setting up Smart Centers around Europe to market and service the vehicles and offer a quick body-panel change, he said.
``Our slogan for the centers is SSS,'' he said. ``Sales, service and swaps. It will be like an ice-cream shop offering key flavors in body panels.''