Daimler has put its Smart car factory up for sale in Hambach, France.
I was there in Hambach watching as that plant started up in 1997. And to put it mildly, it was an unusual auto plant.
Everything about it. The brand’s name was unusual (Daimler spells Smart with a lowercase “s”). The idea of a world microcar was unusual. Even the shape of the production line was odd. Some assembly lines are straight. Some bend, some loop. Hambach is shaped like a plus sign.
And therein lies the story of Hambach.
Coincidence or not, “+” also happened to be the shape of the official logo of Swatch, the colorfully zany Swiss wristwatch company. Recall that Smart was conceived as a spirited partnership between Daimler — a company hungry to break out of its stuffy old ways and shed its reputation as an inefficient manufacturer — and the founder of Swatch, Nicolas Hayek.
Hayek wanted to make his mark on automobiles, not unlike the desires of Apple, or more recently, of the vacuum cleaner magnate James Dyson.
Their resulting Hambach venture was to auto assembly plants what a Swatch watch is to a classic Patek Philippe. Low cost. Iconoclastic. And a little bit zany.
Hambach broke the rules. To bring down costs, suppliers operated their own parts of the plant and used the plus-sign layout to install their own modular, interchangeable parts.
It showed that stuffy old Daimler really could color outside the lines.
But Hayek shrugged it off. He had backed out of the project early on, reportedly disappointed by the process. He showed up there that day in 1997 to see the auto plant’s birth. He waved to the cameras, then left early. Because, in the end, Smart wound up being just a car. Nice. Fun. But just a car.
For its part, Daimler apparently now sees Hambach in a similar light. Colorful and gutsy it might have been. But now, just another car plant.