At a time when the majority of car manufacturers are trying to work out how to shift the daily-growing stockpile of unsold cars as recession bites deeper leaving them to resort to crazy tactics in order to get rid of them such as cereal box token-collect giveaways, one company is having no such worries.
While many premium car manufacturers have seen sales of their prestige cars plummet as banks scale back their bonus largess to hard-done-by executives, meaning they only get a new luxury car once every year instead of every 3 months - or otherwise have now discovered that their car maker also makes buses on the way to the job centre - the manufacturer of the smart city car has bucked the trend by increasing sales and announcing revolutionary new models to meet the demands of cash-strapped, ecologically panicked motorists.
One of the planned new models is based on the existing and well established smart fortwo city car. For 10 years now this economic and compact urban runabout has been seen worrying pedestrians in European cities (for it is actually allowed to drive on the pavement in countries like Italy, for example, such is its size) and after much demand to help ease an Amercian crisis it has recently arrived stateside where its diminutive proportions have helped to dramatically shorten the queues at many McDonald's and KFC drive-throughs.
Available in Petrol and Diesel engined versions for some time now, a battery powered version was announced a couple of years ago partly to take the car back to its original roots - for the Swiss watch maker and creator of the smart concept, Swatch's Nicolas G. Hayek, always intended the car to be electric but sadly battery technology wasn't reliable enough at the time, while the plan to provide a very long power cable with each car instead was blocked by EU safety laws on the grounds that frail or disabled persons and dogs may trip over cables on high streets.
It's no secret that car manufacturer has long been looking into a number of alternate powertrains to offer a choice from the combustion engine (including hybrid, electric, hydrogen, nuclear fusion, solar and wind power), yet the Swiss influence was not forgotten which is why R&D boffins and Hayek have kept working away in secret to produce the wind-up smart fortwo - a car powered solely by clockwork energy.
At an exclusive and top-secret unveiling at their German headquarters I was among a small group of lucky journalists to be shown one of the first prototypes. The car looks like a normal smart car but with a "key" at the back which one turns to "charge" the car. The manufacturer claims a miles per gyration (MPG) of 10 therefore to drive 100 miles one would have to turn the key ten times. They apparently have video footage of the car driving from London to Edinburgh (a distance of 411 miles) with the key only needing to have been turned 42 times. I suspect however that it might require many times more turns than that, as one of their engineers who helped develop and test the prototypes - Ivar Strongarm - had rather better developed muscles than expected of an R&D lab confined engineer.
Ivar explained that while Hayek and Swiss watch technology played a part in making this breakthrough in car power technology possible, it was in fact a British inventor who solved some of the technical challenges:
"The trouble with the Swiss designs, which are undoubtedly small and beautifully formed" - Ivar explained - "was that whenever the mechanism got worn, it was too small and fiddly to maintain, there was no way your average mechanic was going to cope with that, they barely have the dexterity to work on a combustion engine and that is not exactly small, and frankly we didn't think seeing a load of small cogs pinging out of the back of a smart simply because a clumsy mechanic was more interested looking at an SLK owning buxom blond in the waiting area than fixing the smart car he's been assigned to do was good for the brand! So we approached Trevor Bayliss, the guy who invented the wind-up radio for help. He came up with a less beautiful design but one that is more robust and should be harder for the mechanics to mess up in the field, though naturally he was interested in powering the car radio first before anything else!"
Ivar took me for a ride in the car and I have to say the car has an almost impressive performance for something so oddly powered. True, it did 0 to 30 in 12 seconds and while that is about half as fast as a normal smart, you have to keep in mind that this is costing you nothing other than the embarrassment of having OAP mobility scooters beat you off the lights and perhaps a bit of shoulder strain from turning the key as he and some other staff openly confessed when away from the gaze of management eyes. He assured me however that a redesign has helped to resolve matters.
When waiting at junctions all you hear is this strange ticking sounding something like a giant alarm clock or perhaps an old fashioned movie "bomb". It's an unsettling sound at first but you get used to it, even if you keep expecting to hear bells or a bang at any moment!
The company may also look to extend the range by offering further "kinetic" power options for the car. Ivar refused to explain exactly what that could be however his co-worker Flint Stone indicated it involved a method of power that utilised the human body as the driver actually sat in the drivers seat. Intriguing indeed!
Overall then, I was impressed. Certainly it won't challenge the existing, conventional, smart models but as a totally eco-friendly transport solution and one that will see your muscles improve dramatically as an added bonus - its a winner. Testing continues and it is hoped production will begin by 2012. In keeping with the positive and aspirational lifestyle theme the car will be launched at the Olympic games in London, England, where mayor Boris Johnson will carry the torch in one to the stadium during the opening ceremony.
The BBC TV programme "Top Gear" are going to feature it in the next series while I'm told that presenter James May has already placed an order for one, although he is a little worried it still might be a bit too quick for him. I'd certainly recommend it though it remains to be seen what rivals will do next, although I have heard that BMW is rumoured to be developing a mini powered solely by yoghurt that has passed its sell-by date.... watch this space!