Denny Carlyle has a custom license plate on his 2008 smart fortwo passion coupe: “TPANTS.” At first glance, it’s a little perplexing, but put together with the name of the car’s make – SMART – right above the plate, it reads: Smart TPANTS or Smarty Pants.
Carlyle has lived in Blacksburg since 1975, when he relocated from Northern Virginia. He accepted a job as controls engineer at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, where he had previously consulted for two years. “It was pretty much a manually-operated place,” Carlyle recalls of the arsenal. “There was a lot of opportunity to be innovative.” His work largely involved automating the processes which turn raw materials into finished products.
After 32 years working to turn the arsenal into a more modern, automated facility, Carlyle retired in 2006. One of the things on his bucket list was to get one of those cool cars he and his wife Jan had seen when traveling in Europe. In early 2008, Daimler – the maker of smart cars – announced it would sell the microcar in the United States, and Carlyle signed up for one of the two-seaters. It took almost a year for the vehicle to be delivered, but ever since Carlyle picked it up from the dealer in Winston-Salem, N.C., he’s been happy with it.
“I really bought it as a novelty,” he admits, “but I found it to be well-built. It got to the point where I use it all the time. As a controls engineer, I can say whoever designed the controls for the automated manual transmission did a masterful job. It’s really, really well thought-out.”
In the nine-plus years Carlyle has had the vehicle, he’s driven it more than 50,000 miles and only had to perform ordinary service – changing the oil, putting on new tires and brakes – a service record which Carlyle calls “extraordinary,” adding: “It still has its original battery.”
The car – at just under nine feet in length – also offers great flexibility when it comes to parking. “That’s why so many people use these in Europe,” Jan chimes in. “Parking is more difficult there.”
Despite its diminutive size, the fortwo has good crash test ratings, thanks to its rigid steel safety cage. Designed somewhat like a roll bar, the cage is exposed and makes up a big part of the car’s exterior appearance: a big curving C-shape runs from behind the front tires to the hatchback and then along the roof line to the windshield. “The car weighs more than 1,800 pounds empty,” Carlyle explains. “It has a lot of steel in it.”
It also has all the options which were available when the car was released, including heated seats, a feature he wishes he had on his other cars – a Mazda Millennia and a Ford Explorer. The smart fortwo passion coupe has a rear, three-cylinder, 70-hp, 61-cubic inch engine, rear-wheel drive and a 5-speed transmission. It doesn’t have cruise control. Carlyle wishes it did, but that doesn’t prevent him from taking the little vehicle on large roads. “There’s still enough novelty to the car that when I’m on the interstate highway people point and wave,” he smiles.
Today, smart offers an electric version of the fortwo. Carlyle wishes Daimler would resurrect the smart roadster which they made and sold for a few years. Even though his fortwo isn’t low-slung like the roadster, it does hug the road well. “It’s sprung pretty hard. It’s not cushy. It takes curves well and is really stable.”
That’s the kind of performance it takes to impress someone who spent his life as an engineer, someone who naturally pays close attention to details. Someone who – Carlyle eventually reveals – had the kind of attitude that led his mother to give him a certain nickname when he was a kid: Smarty Pants.
Text by Karl H. Kazaks | Photos by Tom Wallace