Collectors celebrate their classics at Bernina Gran Turismo

With its breathtaking mountain scenery, the Bernina Pass, near St Moritz, in Switzerland, is a wonderful setting. Its 16.5-kilometer tarmac slope is very twisty, but has few hairpin bends and therefore makes for a sweet and harmonious drive. It is, indeed, a dream to drive, penalized only by traffic and a stringent speed limit. Once a year, however, it hosts a magical event: the Bernina Gran Turismo.

The origin

Bernina Gran Turismo is a very young meeting, having been held only twice before. The event was created by a handful of Swiss collectors with a deep passion for classic cars and driving. They shared fond memories of the classic car meetings of a couple of decades ago — meetings where collectors were considered friends rather than enemies to be defied, spirits were high, and the whole atmosphere was relaxed.

Bernina Gran Turismo - classic cars at the pass

Realizing that there was nothing with that kind of spirit on today’s classic car meeting scene, they simply decided to create an event themselves. The idea was to keep it small, no more than 80 cars, and to aim it at friends, or friends of friends, so that everybody would feel at home.

On the driving side, it was decided that a touristic tour could be held on the Friday, while the Saturday and Sunday could be given over to a sort of a special hill climb “competition”. Through their efforts, these enthusiasts, together with some of their friends in the area, achieved the unthinkable: getting the Bernina Pass closed to normal traffic and ready to welcome driving enthusiasts at the wheels of their cars: road legal ones or racing cars.

The 2016 Bernina Gran Turismo

It was immediately obvious that this event was bound to be a success. The formula was perfect and simply too charming not to attract friends from all over Europe, keen to enjoy the unique spirit of the meeting. And since the event would not have been complete without an element of competition, entrants were given the possibility to choose whether to participate in a regularity trial or a speed trial; this solution made it possible for a wide variety of wonderful cars — as diverse as a Morgan Three Wheeler and a Porsche 908 — to compete, yet without sacrificing any of the sheer pleasure of driving. After the drives, there was plenty of time to relax and enjoy mixing with the other drivers and cars.

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The cloudy weather

There was only one factor that, some months ago, it was impossible to forecast and plan for: the weather. Indeed, in the wake of weeks of summery temperatures, sunshine and blue sky over the valleys around St Moritz, the drivers participating in the two days of the hill climb, not to mention the spectators, found themselves wrapped in thick cloud. After a gorgeous day on the Friday, that had provided perfect conditions for the Tour, the visibility on the Saturday morning was so poor that drivers admitted they had been forced slow down just to be able to see the road. But spirits remained high, and everybody enjoyed the hill climb, slower than usual and with less opportunity to admire the scenic views, but offering a greater sense of adventure. For their part, the photographers, cold and wet, were cheered up by the occasional yellow or bright painted car, which added some color to their pictures.

The drivers

The “human factor” is the key to the particular charm of the Bernina Gran Turismo, and the drivers are largely to be thanked for this. While some of them are professional racers, others may be mothers stealing a day off from parental duty (and perhaps worrying more about Grandma standing in as babysitter than about the right apex of a set of tires), but they all share the same passion for the history of motor cars. It was wonderful and rather refreshing to see drivers of different cars sharing their experiences and feelings and telling the others all about their weekend “steed”.

race car driver at Bernina Gran Turismo

The competition was clean and enjoyable, with the good humored drivers happy to compare their times (promptly available on the official website) and explain why they had been so fast (or not fast enough!). Finally, even though this practice cost them some hundredths of a second, all the drivers admitted to giving gas a little too early on exiting the tighter corners, just so as to enjoy the pleasure of the oversteering, sometimes helped by the slippery surface, and the challenge of controlling it. The master in this was Chris Ward in his 1952 Jaguar C-Type, who, I have to admit, forced me to break into a run a couple of times…with the result that very last pictures I took are a little too shaky to be any use!

Jaguar C-Type at Bernina Gran Turismo

The cars of the Bernina GT

The event’s oldest car was a 1928 Amilcar CGSs, while the youngest were a 1975 Ford Capri RS 3100 Gr. 4 and a Porsche 911 Carrera 3.0 RS. We also spotted the 1957 Ferrari 500 TRC #031 belonging to Liechtenstein collector Ernst Schuster. This car was originally sold, through Chinetti, to American racer Bill Hellburn, who was famous in the New York area as a Vogue photographer and for being the very first person to drive a Vespa in downtown Manhattan. The car, with the American racing colors of white with blue stripes, raced on the East Coast with different drivers before being sent by Chinetti to compete at the Nassau Speed Week. It was subsequently sold to the Gelles family, active in the oil industry, who kept it until 1987, when they sold their entire collection as a single lot to a friend of the current owner, who bought it shortly afterwards. It is not a show car, but after being restored by Fantuzzi, it was driven at the Mille Miglia Storica, the Targa Florio Revival and the Ferrari Challenge.

Ferrari 500 TRC at Bernina Gran Turismo

The most beautiful looking car was the 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Zagato belonging to Austrian collector Martin Halusa. This car has a fantastic Mille Miglia history, being a 1932, 1933 and 1934 entrant, always finishing among the first 10 cars. In 1935 it was sold to an Italian army officer based in Eritrea (then an Italian colony) where the car remained until the end of the 1960s, unmolested and protected. It subsequently went to the USA, where it was restored, before returning to Europe. It is considered one of the most original 8Cs in existence, and is still capable of driving up the Bernina Pass in five minutes, only 30 seconds more than sports cars 40 years its junior.

Alfa Romeo 8C Zagato at Bernina Gran Turismo

The 1973 Ford Escort RS (chassis #BBAFNM99901) has wonderful tales to tell too. It was originally delivered to the Ford racing team, to be used at the 1973 East African Safari (with Clark/Porter), where it did not finish. In the same year, it competed in the Scottish Rally (with Pond/Miss) where it finished 7th overall, the RAC (with Brooks/Brown), and the 1974 World Cup (with Cowan/Syer), before being sold to Derby Road Garage in November 1974. It remained a rally weapon all its life, and is still quite fast today, as well as impressive to look at.

Ford Escort at Bernina Gran Turismo

Bernina Gran Turismo – The winner

Coping with the 350 HP of a racing Porsche 908 on wet ground is never easy, particularly when the car in question is the K version (kurz being German for short and indicating a short wheelbase) and has slick tires with only a few cuts on the treads. For this reason, the driver most penalized by the bad weather was Christoph Rendlen, professional racer and a master of the Nürburgring circuit. Nevertheless, he achieved what he had set out to do, recording the fastest time of 3 minutes and 28 seconds. He pointed out that this was only the second time he had driven this car, and the first time on the wet, remarking that the quantity of water entering the cockpit was amazing: a sort of shower on every right bend. That apart, he found it a real pleasure to drive as it is a very reactive, lively car, but also very honest and predictable. “You can really feel the power arriving at 6500 rpm, and pulling up until 8000 rpm,” he remarked, “but today I had to rely more on the good torque, coming from about 3000 to 4000 rpm.” Rendlen added that it was impossible to get the water, oil and tires to their correct working temperatures, and that this had been the only real problem. He explained that he sometimes had to slow down a little, just to be able to see enough road in the fog, as this was the last place in the world he would want to take a risk, certainly with a car (chassis #908-3) boasting such a wonderful history.

Porsche 908 at Bernina Gran Turismo

All photos courtesy of the author.

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