N o other place in the Swiss Alps embodies the sunny side of life quite like St Moritz - literally so, with 322 days of sunshine a year, this tiny village in the Engadin region is the sunniest spot in the Alps. And during September 2022, it will be host to the International St Moritz Automobile Week, a glamorous event located in Berninapass und St. Moritz Bad, inspired by the week-long car festivals of the same name, that took place in 1929 and 1930. Then, the programme included a rally, a kilometer race, a skill race, a beauty contest and the Bernina race. In 2022, the joyous exuberance of those far-off days will be evoked with a set of events mirroring the original - the 'Kilomètre Lancé - Alpine 1000', the 'Motorsport Rendezvous' and two new rallies, the 'Targa Posciavo-Engiadina' and the 'Super Stick Shift', as well as the 'Mobility Forum St. Moritz'. The new International St. Moritz Automobile Week rounds off with the Bernina mountain race, the 'Bernina Gran Turismo'.
The modern-day story of St Moritz started during the 1880s, when a group of wealthy English tourists visited the area, then considered a rather unspectacular place, best known for its revivifying mineral springs. Still, the visitors were intrigued by the mix of crisp fresh air and fresh, thick lustrous snow glittering in the winter sun - the “champagne climate”, as it would soon be known. Word spread and soon, St Moritz was bustling with elegant Brits, keen to avoid dreary long winters at home while indulging in such winter sports as curling or tobogganing. The St Moritz Tobogganing Club founded in 1887, with its famous Cresta Run, is a relic of those times.
"St Moritz boasted the first hotel in the world equipped with electricity, the first tarred road, the first ski lift – and the first Alpine car rally"
While climate, scenery and the British influence might have contributed to St Moritz’s ascent to a luxury destination so acclaimed that it was registered as a brand in 1987, probably the most important factor in its success was the pioneering spirit of the local Engadin people, who created a remarkable number of firsts. St Moritz boasted the first hotel in the world equipped with electricity, the first tarred road, the first ski lift – and the first Alpine car rally.
When the first International St Moritz Automobile Week was launched in 1929, St Moritz was one of Europe’s premier leisure destinations, thanks to the pioneering work of Johannes Badrutt, the father of Engadin luxury hospitality. Numerous Grand Hotels were attracting wealthy tourists and the annual ISAW automobile event, situated around a spectacular hill-climb rally, the Bernina Race, became an instant success.
Alas, the event only lasted two years. As a consequence of St Moritz hosting the 1928 Winter Olympics, serious tourism soon shifted from summer fun to winter activities such as skiing and bobsleigh races - and even polo - usurped car rallies.
But in 2015, Swiss entrepreneur and car collector Kurt Engelhorn - together with a group of likeminded car enthusiasts - decided to revive the annual Bernina race, in order to share his passion with the vintage car community, bringing classic cars out of museums and while they were at it, revive the legendary International St Moritz Automobile Week (ISAW).
After all, Engelhorn reasoned, the entire original infrastructure was still there, from the mountains to the roads. The village, the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains with its sweeping lawns, still have a garden party atmosphere meaning the allure and atmosphere of St Moritz remains incomparable to this day.
Nothing has really changed that unique atmosphere - not even the waves of party-hungry jet setters in the 1970s (naturally, St Moritz has an airport for private planes nearby) or the nouveau riche crowd, who discovered St Moritz in the 1990s. Yet St Moritz has always attracted creative and entrepreneurial types. It’s no coincidence that some of Europe’s leading industrial families bought houses in the region, even that icon of the dolce far niente, Gunter Sachs, didn’t just party here, but created a legacy, the founding of the Dracula Club being only one of his numerous contributions to the unique fabric of the town.
Being sensitive to that cultural fabric and having the sensitivity needed to engage with it, has gained ISAW the support of the local tourism association, meaning that despite being only in its second year, ISAW is organically embedded in the historical and social tissue of St Moritz.
ISAW’s goal, as Director of Marketing Carlos Rubia states, is to create, ‘the biggest European historic mobility and luxury event in the Alps,’ and it is not unlikely that it will be achieved. How? By curating a community. Applicants from around the world are carefully selected, as if by an experienced hostess creating the perfect seating plan for her dinner guests, to create a harmonious group, composed of individuals willing to interact, share and contribute.
So while owning a special car doesn’t hurt, those lucky enough be admitted to participate in ISAW, have to be able to demonstrate that ‘special’ doesn’t just mean ‘the priciest money can buy’ - but that the car tells a story as interesting as that of its owner.
And, just as the carefully selected participants who have to drive their own cars, the event’s equally select partners and sponsors have to actively contribute to the programme, sharing ISAW’s principles and curatorial approach. One of those partners is RM Sotheby’s, who will be embedded in the event’s infrastructure, with an auction boasting a small - but very special - selection of cars from over the decades.
‘It’s a compressed version of automobile history, if you will’, says RM Sotheby’s Marketing and Communications director Peter Haynes. Ranging from a 2018 Porsche 911 GT2 RS ‘Weissach’ to a stunning 1936 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante, the diverse selection takes into consideration different aspects of car collecting, from childhood dream cars to cars that embody the era in which they were built and represent an epoch of car making.
"The Bugatti is a historic icon, occupying an important place in motoring history – and still conjures a feeling of pure joy at this work of mechanical perfection, in a unique yet strangely familiar form that is timeless"
Take the Bugatti, of which only 17 examples were produced. This example was the first one to leave the Molsheim factory in 1936 and today, can look back on a full life spent mostly in Europe, that began with its introduction to an awestruck audience at the 1936 Paris Auto Salon and included participating in the all- female rally Paris-Vichy-St Raphaël (the driver, Claire Descollas, would later become one of the most successful female race drivers of her time) before being owned by sports car racer Michel Poberejsky aka Mike Sparken, who upgraded the engine to a 200hp ‘SC’ specification, which the car retains to this day.
This car is a historic icon, occupying an important place in motoring history – and still conjures a feeling of pure joy at this work of mechanical perfection, in a unique yet strangely familiar form that is timeless.
With the advent of new mobility concepts and the realisation that the combustion-engine car as we know it might not be around much longer, comes the growing reappraisal of classic cars, and commensurate awareness of the impact the car has had on shaping our collective social and cultural histories. As any aficionado knows, collecting cars is more than a hobby, it is a way of conserving history. Preserving and celebrating cars and car culture is both an individual pleasure and collective responsibility - and being a part of St Moritz Automobile Week is a perfect way to serve both.
(All images courtesy ISAW except where otherwise credited)