This Is What It’s Like To Drive A Vintage Fiat-Abarth Up A Foggy Mountain
Photography by Rosario Liberti
It’s not every day one gets to “‘haul ass” up a historic Swiss Alpine pass that’s been completely closed to traffic, much less while behind the wheel of a beloved classic car. But once a year, a small region of Switzerland—right near the Italian border—comes alive to the sound of vintage machines proving their mettle against the Bernina Pass and the sometimes-extreme weather.
I recently spoke to friend-of-Petrolicious Carl Gustav Magnusson, who recently competed in the event with his beautiful 1957 Fiat Abarth Zagato 750 GT Corsa (that we’ve done a film on) and wanted to share what makes this reborn event so compelling.
Michael Banovsky: The first thing is, our photographer Rosario mentioned, “I’m going to be going up to this event in Switzerland and it looks pretty interesting,” and we were like, “What event in Switzerland?” So can you tell me about why you decided to take part in the Bernina Gran Turismo?
Carl Gustav Magnusson: Yeah, the history is fascinating! Partly because it’s in the province of Graubünden and up until…well, keep in mind that automobiles were already fairly prevalent in the western world, already by 1915. In Graubünden, they would not allow automobiles to be self-motorized until about 1928 or some darn thing. I can’t remember exactly which it is. Which meant if you drove a car into Graubünden, they would make you have horses pull the car to wherever you wanted.
I just find it very amusing, that you weren’t allowed to actually self-propel the automobile. Anyways, then they had the Bernina, and then they shut it down because, well times were tougher, something like that.
MB: I mean, Switzerland has had an interesting history with cars, because they were a little bit late to the game, and then motor racing was banned there for quite some time, and now you have this reborn event. What attracted you to visit the area and bring your car?
CGM: For about five years, I lived in that area, St. Moritz. And I met up with Kurt Engelhorn, a fanatic collector. He is the guy who is the aficionado who is crazy about collecting and racing and rallying, etc. He’s done Peking to Paris, Panamericana, he’s done almost everything. And he says, “You know, I think I’m putting this thing together”. Knowing the Swiss regulations and general reluctance to change anything and draconian fines for the slightest infractions as it relates to velocity and such, everybody thought he’s wasting his time, but, “Go ahead…”
Well, he convinced the province and therefore also the country to let him give it a shot. Basically, it’s an uphill race, no speed limit, which is shocking in itself. They close off a very important pass, the Bernina Pass, from Italy to St. Moritz, for a couple of days. They would let intermittent traffic in between trials, etc., but the very fact that he got this thing done is rather amazing.
And then included in it is the cultural memory of what they call the Shell Mile, and that’s very close to St. Moritz. Shell Oil Company, back in 1927 or something like that, staked a straight line of over one kilometer, so that for racing cars you could measure the one kilometer. I don’t recall whether it’s for preparation of racing, so you could set your clocks and speedometers, etc., odometer; or whether that was actually a race of how fast you could go, like a drag race. But either way, the Shell Mile, and it’s still referred to as the Shell Mile, even though it’s kilometers there.
I was very taken by it because I keep two cars over there, including my 750 Abarth Zagato, which Petrolicious made a lovely report on a couple of years ago, I guess it was. I keep it over there for the sole purpose of doing the Mille Miglia. I was invited by Kurt two years ago for the initial run, which was basically a gentlemen’s polite run up the hill, good times, etc. it was just the beginning of the idea.
Today, it’s FIA sanctioned, it meets all the requirements which is really a big deal of course, as far as safety is concerned, fore suits, crash helmets, outside inspectors, FIA inspectors, etc. So it’s really run professionally.
It’s come up very quickly. Fifty automobiles partook, and 80 will be allowed in next year. They’re keeping it at a maximum of 80 because they feel that it’s the appropriate critical mass for running an excellent race that is based on quality instead of quantity. It’s not about the money, it’s about the sport. There are very good sponsors, etc., but quite frankly, Kurt picks up any slack. The point is that 80 is the number they feel is correct, and they’ll reach that next year.
Next year, they will increase also the competitive level of it, in other words automobiles will be allowed in that have a competitive history. A lot of the cars that were there indeed did. Jaguars, Coopers, Listers—
MB: There’s a 908 I saw there.
CGM: Two of them. Absolutely wonderful. They had AC6 and early birdcage Maseratis. The 450 SS, what a beautiful brute of a machine. I refer to it as “brute-iful”. Lots of 356 Carreras. Also a 911 RSR, 911 ST, I believe it was. And then pretty renowned drivers also besides the nice collection of cars. I don’t recall the name of all the drivers, I don’t recall the names of any of the drivers, how about that.
MB: Except for you.
CGM: No, I don’t recall that, either. [laughs]
MB: You’ve done the Mille Miglia and a number of other races, so can you elaborate a little bit on what a driver would get a little bit differently here than from an event like the Mille Miglia.
CGM: Certainly the Mille Miglia is wonderful, and I’ve done it seven times or something like that. It’s great, it’s long, etc. This is a little bit more like an Alpine festival of speed in that you can choose to go in the regularity, in which case you simply would need to match your previous time—which sounds easy but it’s not.
MB: Definitely not.
CGM: I always screw that one up. Or, you can do it from the point of view of how quickly can you go up the hill. It’s about 5 minutes. You’re heading up a perfectly paved, absolutely sort of Stelvio-like curves all the way up to the top. You could begin at the bottom of the hill sunny, no wind, and by the time you’re at the top it could be completely fogged in to the point where you’d have to slow down to 15 or 20 kilometers an hour (10-12 mph) before you saw the checkered flag. This year there was no snow. Next year it could very well be—just because the Bernina Pass is one of the highest points of any roads in the Alps, and so you—you’ve probably seen some of the snow images. When we begin in the morning, you’re completely socked in. So it’s very interesting from that point of view.
Also, the landscape. Which is one of the reasons why you do go to the Mille Miglia. The landscape is amazing. This is also why I’m amazed that, in turn, that the Swiss officials allowed it. I’m not sure how much milk the cows are producing that day, whether it would have any effect on it. Or the goats, quite frankly.
The hospitality also is superb. Hotels there are wonderful. Nothing is what we call “rough knocks”.
MB: Sounds like quite the time!
CGM: They’ve put together something that is definitely a unique experience that has high levels of acceptance. Everything has to be FIA safety. They’ll choose the cars out of all the applicants. It’s a wonderful experience, and it’s completely different than what you would get at other wonderful venues such as Targa Florio, which is longer, Mille Miglia which is much longer, Laguna Seca which of course is the beauty of just a closed racetrack, or vintage racing at Mosport, etc. But here you are in the Alps, the only time since 1927 or whatever, that you can, how you say, haul ass up this magnificent Alpine road.
The safety levels are terrific because they always have a helicopter, a medicaid helicopter nearby. Because it’s a skiing area, even the hospitals are all set up for handling broken limbs and such, so it’s nothing new to them. You get the full Swiss treatment with it.
It’s also interesting: you really have to come prepared, because there’s no garage around.
MB: That’s a really good point.
CGM: I find it rather interesting. You bring your own stuff, and you race it. It’s not like there’s endless garages around or facilities and such that will take care of everything for you, unless you brought it along yourself. JD Classics was there, I’m sure they’d be able to try to help with more or less anything, but you better bring a car that’s prepared and ready to go…which is fine. It’s part of the sport.
If you’d like to learn more about the event, take a look at our stories and check out the Bernina Gran Turismo website for information on next year’s race. In further conversation, Carl mentioned as well the contributions of Ana Engelhorn and organizational work by Marco Makaus and Florian Seidl who he noted helped to ensure it was a fine event.