Mercedes-Benz NAFA

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I realized the other day that Car of the Day had not yet featured a Mercedes-Benz. And it's been a while since the last microcar, so…could I find a Mercedes-Benz microcar?

Thanks to the magic of the internet, yes. Feast your eyes on the 1981 Mercedes-Benz Nahverkehrsfahrzeug, or NAFA (NAhverkehrsFAhrzeug)—the "short distance vehicle."

For some strange reason, it was the first microcar from Mercedes-Benz. I say strange because, while we think of the company as a luxury car manufacturer in North America, in the rest of the world (as many of you know!) they're a full-line vehicle manufacturer, selling everything from Unimog off-road utility trucks to semi trucks to work vans to supercars.

But you knew this.

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So where to start? Probably with the smart fortwo, actually. There are a few sources online that cite the NAFA as inspiration (or at least a starting point) for the concepts that became what we know as the fortwo, but don't draw a convincing line between them.

First, the NAFA was from 1981. Swatch and Mercedes-Benz hooked up in 1994, forming the basis for what would become the fortwo. The first Mercedes-Benz city car, the A-Class, was seen in concept form in 1997. 

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Mercedes-Benz, for their part, says, "The NAFA study did not fall into oblivion. The insights it produced were incorporated into the design of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, the prototype of which made its debut in 1996."

Do any of you think for a minute that photos of the NAFA graced cubicles for 13 years before someone thought to make something more of it?

In this case, yes: the vehicle was commissioned by engineer Johann Tomforde, who later ended up becoming one of the first three co-directors of MCC—Mercedes City Car, the venture that would evolve into smart.

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And now you've seen the most bad-ass feature of the car, the forward-opening doors(!) Why isn't that a thing these days? Now we know where Peugeot got the idea for the 1007. 

That said, I suppose these are suicide opening doors?

Its powertrain is similar to what eventually ended up in the smart fortwo. Powered by a tiny 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder engine with an automatic transmission and front wheel drive, the car was foremost designed to be easy to drive around in town.

The NAFA seen here in front of the Mercedes-Benz Vision A concept and the A-Class production car.

The NAFA seen here in front of the Mercedes-Benz Vision A concept and the A-Class production car.

Some sources online say it's the first front wheel drive Mercedes-Benz concept, and after some digging I'm inclined to agree.

Four-wheel steering certainly helped with parking, but even compared to modern microcars it would've been top of its class. The Toyota/Scion iQ, for instance, has a turning circle of 7.8 metres or just less than 26 feet, whereas the NAFA does the trick in 5.7 meters, less than 19 feet!

My favourite feature of the car is its completely transparent rear section; it's not very practical but reminds me of the Quasar Unipower…which is not something I can say about any other Mercedes-Benz.

The company showed another, more revolutionary concept that year, but it's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading