Goodwood Festival of Speed is one of the best and one of the worst automotive events at the same time. Its the best because of the sheer number of rare cars, legendary race drivers and action-packed events. It is the worst because of the terrible logistics and the hundreds of thousands of people that block the roads around the town of Chichester every year.
Last year I was joking to fellow colleagues that we need a GTspirit helicopter for the next edition. Mercedes-Benz however came up with a completely different solution to beat the notorious Goodwood traffic: the Smart ForRail! We had an exclusive opportunity to take this unique vehicle from London to Goodwood Festival of Speed.
The idea is as simple and unusual. Take an existing car with roughly the same track as the rails and replace the wheels with train wheels. The Smart ForFour proved to have the perfect size and within six months it was converted from road going compact car to private train for four. A shuttle took us from our hotel in Brooklands to a train station in Surrey, South of London.
Here we waited for what was about to come. After a few minutes a small yellow dot appeared on the horizon – seemingly small compared to the trains that normally frequent the station. When we closed our eyes we could swear a train was approaching the station with the typical scraping and drumming sound of steel wheels on iron tracks.
Instead the small sparkling yellow Smart ForRail stops right in front of us. The Mercedes-Benz mastermind who came up with the idea and an employee from the local railways welcomed me on board. The interior of the Smart ForRail is in every aspect identical to a regular Smart. You will find a accelerator and brake pedal, steering wheel and automatic gearbox.
Some things are different though; The navigation system shows you are actually running on rails and turning the steering wheel doesn’t do anything to the wheels. Maybe the coolest feature is the Smart horn that has been replaced with a proper train air horn.
We slowly press the accelerator and the Smart ForRail starts moving. We expect the 22 inch solid steel wheels to slip but the 80 kg steel wheels actually grip very well and we soon accelerate to a comfortable cruising speed. The feeling is typical like being in a train. Kaboom, kaboom, squish, squish, kaboom, kaboom…
James Bond made it look easy once in his Mercedes-Benz 250 SE, but in real life making a car ready to run on rails takes a bit more than removing the tires. Train engineering company Interfleet spent six months on the development of the Smart ForRail. Starting with CAD modelling they effectively replaced all wheels and welded aluminium supports between the axles to lock the wheels in place.
We pass small villages and stations on our way to Goodwood. It is fun to see this side of Britain from the comfort of a car. Wild life flies and runs away shortly before being over run by the unique Smart. As a city boy I dare to say it is the closest I have felt to nature in a long time. We run up to a deer by surprise and slowly follow him until he got enough courage to jump over a fence.
Unlike on the road there is no way to steer around animals on the track. Driving this Smart on tracks is so cool but why are we doing it again? To get to Goodwood. Every year the traffic gets worse and even though they do their best to make operations as smooth as possible the underlying road network is just not build to cope with Goodwood’s peak traffic.
Our train is a great alternative but there is a catch – Our station is not at Goodwood! Nevertheless, Mercedes-Benz came up with a solution to cover the last kilometers. They negotiated with local land owners to allow us off-road all the way to the Goodwood House in the middle of the action. So at the station we changed into a slick G63 AMG that helped us cover the remaining miles to Goodwood.
The Smart ForRail was picked up and turned around to bring a few more guests to Goodwood. After Goodwood it will make its way back to Germany where it will go to the Mercedes-Benz Museum and might even see some action on local German railways!
We hope the alternative Goodwood transport becomes a tradition and surely can’t wait to see what Mercedes-Benz comes up with next year!