The Art Of Resurrecting A Classic Swiss Alpine Hill Climb
Photography by Rosario Liberti
Historical photographs provided by Florian Seidl
With the rise in vintage racing popularity, more and more events are being offered to petrolheads looking to drive the wheels off their old machines. While large scale events like the Goodwood Revival are premiere annual highlights, there are many smaller more intimate driving affairs popping up all over the globe.
A German gearhead by the name of Florian Seidl saw an opportunity to add another destination for adventure seeking circuit-goers. He, along with an assembled team of auto aficionados, brought an ancient Swiss hill climb back to life to celebrate the art of driving: the Bernina Gran Turismo. Here’s how – and why – Florian made it happen.
Andrew Golseth: Florian, I understand cars have been more than a hobby for you, they’ve become your career base. Tell me how you got in the business of managing collections for international clients for people.
Florian Seidl: I was actually a late starter. Really as a kid, I was not interested in cars much. We always had cars, classic cars and motorsports stuff, but it never really captured me when I was really young. There was always a big interest from my great-grandfather, grandfather, and my father though; typical German machine-building company genes. I didn’t get “the virus” until I was around 16 years old. But from there, it really took off. It was only a hobby during my university studies; I was restoring a couple of cars back then and, in those days, you could still find interesting stuff in places like Italy for reasonable money.
I was not dealing with cars professionally until quite some time later. Before this I was working on infrastructure for big companies, projects in all these weird places far away from civilization.
And then at some point I thought, “Okay, that’s enough, let’s move on to something else.” I had a feeling that it was a good time to get involved in the classic car movement.
AG: When was this?
FS: This was around 2002. I thought that was something worth getting involved in the classic car brokerage space in a fresh way, so I personally went and looked at cars, looked them over, and bought them based on precisely what my client wanted. It worked really nicely, and slowly and steadily we were gaining recognition.
And then came the massive 2007/2008 hit on the financial markets. All of the sudden, in huge numbers, people started buying cars as investments. These high-end investors were looking for reliable, independent people who had an idea of what they were doing and my business “Carficionado” started picking up a lot of that interest.
AG: How did all of this bring you to revive the Bernina Gran Turismo? Why did you choose to pursue this instead of simply creating a wholly new event?
FS: I had a client who voiced his passion for smaller hill climb events, and the rest, as they say, well you know… The Bernina Gran Turismo was created by a small group of classic car enthusiasts and experts. The purpose is to pay homage to the races held in St. Moritz in Engadine, Switzerland back from 1929 into the 1930s. The current Bernina GT course is the same as the one they used back in period. We wanted to have a strong connection to the past, to the era of racing that bred the generations of enthusiasts that passed the interest down to us. The original event was a very popular hill climb with such champions as Louis Chiron and Hans Stuck winning the sprint in Bugattis and Austro-Daimlers respectively, but it was eventually closed down. We wanted to do our best to bring its essence into the present.
It took me two years to form a core team to really make this happen. The biggest challenge was convincing the Swiss authorities to allow us to do a race considering the fact that circuit racing was banned in Switzerland in the 1960s. It was a major, major issue.
Even after getting approved though, it was a challenge because the road on the Bernina Pass is very narrow and is typically used as a main transport route for public bus services, so closing it even for a weekend is something really, really crazy to do. It’s all but unheard of in places like Switzerland, but we just knew it would be worthwhile to go through all the impediments to make this a reality.
And finally it all worked out. It came down to having the vision, starting the effort, and just persevering, sticking with it though the tough parts. Now it’s developed nicely, and the folks taking part really do love it.
AG: Can you elaborate on your role in all of this?
FS: Basically, I’m the head of the organizational team, so I’m kind of taking on the responsibility of the event as a whole. This all started really as a team effort for a very special client and, you know how these things go, if you do it right, it develops into something bigger.
So now we have specialists on staff that know exactly what they’re doing and we’re constantly thinking about how to revise and improve things for the event. For instance, we’re now considering a one-kilometer acceleration race on the nearby airport. That’s still in the development stage, but we’re looking to add new things to the event while still preserving the hill climb aspect.
AG: These type of smaller-scale historic events seem to be gaining traction all over the world.
FS: Yes, I have a theory as to why. My feeling are that we will, in the near future, be running into the problem that owners might not want to run their cars at major circuits because of the risks. So, events like the Bernina Gran Turismo will become even more popular, especially because people are coming with their vintage cars into these events with real provenance, real history behind them.
AG: So, the Bernina Gran Turismo runs along the same mountain pass roadways used back in the ‘20s-‘30s hill climb races?
FS: Yes. Exactly, it’s the same pass. We didn’t want to use the name and not have the correct course. We thought that would not make sense; why revive something if it’s not as close as possible to what it used to be?
AG: How long is the course?
FS: It’s 5.7 kilometers long, but it’s a complex fast-paced run, so the distance is a little deceiving on paper.
AG: How many participants generally compete? What’s the the thinking behind this?
FS: This year we are expecting 80 cars. Honestly, that’s probably going to be the maximum we’ll ever allow to enter because we want to keep it a really private event. We don’t want to dilute the quality of the cars. Because of the history we don’t want a bunch of so-so cars showing up and separating this event from the original one with their presence. So, we likely won’t exceed roughly 80 cars. We are quite proud because people get a lot of track time, and we don’t want to change that.
AG: When was the first run of the resurrected Bernina?
FS: In 2014 we had a sort of pre-event, just to get an understanding of the mechanics behind making something like this work smoothly. And 2015 was our first real serious race, so 2017 is going to be the third edition of the revived race. We’re really happy with how it’s progressed so far.
We have the 2017 Bernina Gran Turismo scheduled from September 22 through September 24. That weekend is supposed to be nothing but sunshine, with no more rain or fog, but who knows. Fingers crossed.