Today, thanks to a perfect road network and winter road clearance, driving through Alpine valleys and over mountain passes is a year-round pleasure. This was not always the case, especially in Graubünden (Grisons). Graubünden’s history is unique within Europe: first a tough ban on automobiles, then a world sensation – the snowmobile!
This acyclic historical and unique driving ban of the “blowing, tutting and stinking mockery” called automobile, praised by some as a courageous demonstration of a will, apostrophised by others as backwoods tyranny, lasted a whole 25 years, only to suddenly make way for the pure opposite – skiing cars!
Photographs testify that with these snow-worthy caterpillar vehicles, transnational winter rallies were staged from one gourmet temple to the next Belle Epoque hotel in the most difficult winter road conditions. But let’s start at the beginning!
A curiosity: Grisons automobile ban
The automobile made its first appearance in Switzerland at the National Exhibition of 1896 in Geneva – a decade behind the rest of Europe. But while in the rest of the world the car steadily accelerated its triumphal march, in Graubünden, a stronghold of the Belle Epoque hotel industry of all places the course was set differently in the 20th century. The railway was given the green light while the car the red card; it became “machina non grata”.
This may also have had something to do with the fact that – unlike elsewhere – the people of Graubünden were able to participate directly in the decision-making process by casting their votes. Thus, in contrast to railway policy, Graubünden’s automobile policy developed not only into a pan-European special case, but also into an anachronistic curiosity of automobile history par excellence.
The main initiator – the Engadine
The result was an astonishing situation that, in retrospect, can hardly be understood: in the very canton that a schoolboy characterised in his essay “The people of Graubünden feed on tourists,” there were no automobiles, because driving was simply forbidden in the entire canton of Graubünden by a resolution of the Minor Council since 1900.
The Engadine was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back because in the message to the Grand Council the Minor Council’s ban was justified as follows: “The ban of 1900 owes its origin to real danger and serious nuisance to road traffic in the Engadine caused by foreign car owners.”
A whole ten votes
Some were pleased with this “peaceful oasis”, while others were annoyed by such “medieval border closures”. Ridiculous situations occurred repeatedly: For example, a count from Carrara, owner of the marble quarries, was allowed to drive his posh car as far as Castasegna. From here on, the horses pulled the car up.
Karl August Lingner, the Odol-king and saviour of Tarasp Castle, also had to use a horse-drawn train to bring his car up from the border in order to be able to drive it in the castle park. It would take a full quarter of a century for this to change – after no less than ten (!) referendums – until 1925.
The era of the caterpillar car
After the ban on cars in Graubünden was lifted, the automobile became popular. But the Graubünden passes as a natural north-south connection over the Alpine barrier, placed very special demands on automobiles, especially in snowy winters.
This prompted resourceful automobile designers to counter this challenge with a trick that was as simple as it was ingenious. They fitted the cars with sliding and caterpillar drives. This led to the amusing situation that the cars, when they were finally registered in Graubünden, immediately learned to ski…
An ingenious invention
Winterized automobiles equipped with caterpillar drive at the rear and skids under the front wheels now appeared in front of the high-class hotels in the Engadine. Automobile manufacturer André Citroën personally demonstrated the first prototypes in St. Moritz. With such skimobiles, the journey over the snow-covered Julier Pass became more comfortable.
Even winter rallies were held as early as the 1930s, as a photo route from the Italian-Swiss border in Müstair via Hotel Schweizerhof in Sta. Maria to Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz shows.
A long history
However, the caterpillar drives are much older than the snow-ready Autochenilles, as André Citroën called his snow cars. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, heavy caterpillar machines (caterpillar) were used in America – based on an English invention. The disadvantage was their limited speed. They were suitable for construction machinery, but not for military or tourist purposes.
The tinkering of the French engineer Adolphe Kégresse (1879-1943) at the court of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II was decisive, first with camel leather, then with rubber bands. Thus, the tsar’s fleet included various all-terrain and even – with skids under the front wheels – snow-ready vehicles. Later, Lenin also made use of the new technology with a Rolls-Royce with caterpillar drive, built in 1915.
Citroën was the leader
Because of the revolution, Adolphe Kégresse returned to France, worked for André Citroën and managed the new factory for tracked vehicles, which were later often simply called Kegressen. In addition to civilian models, unarmoured and armoured military versions were also produced.
From 1928, the B2, B10 and B14 series were replaced by the more powerful C4 and C6 series. In civilian use, the Autochenilles were used for public transport in the mountains (post office), fire brigades and ambulances, agriculture and forestry, as well as for towing ships.
Above all, however, these caterpillar cars were then used by tourism and the emerging winter and leisure sports, for off-road snow travel and over mountain passes, for towing skiers and sledges, but also for beach trips and hunting expeditions.
Almost forgotten today
Soon imitation products came onto the market, from White (USA) and from Hanomag (Germany), the latter even as a motorbike, the Ketten-Krad (tracked motorbike). At Citroën, bankruptcy (1934) finally heralded the end of tracked cars. New four-wheel drive vehicles such as Jeep and Landrover were more economical in consumption and faster. Agriculture, for its part, switched to the tractor.
One thing is certain: the Engadine and St. Moritz with their posh hotel icons played an important role as an advertising platform for the Autochenilles back then. Who knows, perhaps this should be recalled again at a winter rally – with a caterpillar car demo built into the route planning.
At the same time, one could also recall the unique Graubünden ban on automobiles by having the cars pulled by horses again on another section of the route (side road or Samedan airstrip) ... Betting that these nostalgic interludes would be a hit! •
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