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Smart Co-Founder Hayek Dies

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2011 Smart electric drive

2011 Smart electric drive

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One of the founders of the Smart brand has died.

Nicolas Hayek, the chairman and founder of Swatch Group, passed away in Switzerland at 82, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Hayek led the company that reinvented the Swiss watch (conflated into "Swatch") with an inexpensive, stylish range of plastic timepieces. But Hayek also was pivotal in the Smart fortwo's long gestation. The whole notion for a small, plastic-bodied city car with interchangeable panels was said to be his idea, and his initial sketches for the vehicle in the 1980s described a two-seater with hybrid power.

Hayek first linked up with Volkswagen in the early 1990s on the project, but dissolved that partnership when Ferdinand Piech became head of the Volkswagen Group in 1993. Hayek turned to Daimler-Benz AG, which signed up as Swatch's new partner--and took on some of the design, engineering and construction of the Smart in a new factory in Hambach, France.

The Smart city car would be shown in concept form in 1994, but it would not hit the streets until 1998--and wouldn't make its way to the U.S. market until 2008. By then Hayek's part of the company had long been subsumed by Daimler-Benz, which had become DaimlerChrysler and then finally, Daimler AG.

The Smart project--which entered production without Hayek's hybrid powertrain--has never turned a profit. This year, Smart adopted a new electric drivetrain for what TheCarConnection's Bengt Halvorson says is the most satisfying version of the urban commuter car.

Hayek was born in Lebanon in 1928, and was one of the biggest shareholders in Swatch until his passing, though he ceded the CEO title in 2000.

[Wall Street Journal, subscription required]

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