To launch our manual-wind chronographs, we adventured across Europe to take part in an iconic Alpine hill climb.
High in the Swiss Alps on a stunning mountain pass that is impassable for much of the winter, a new generation of classic car enthusiasts have recently reincarnated historic hill climbs from the 1920s. Held over one Autumn weekend, the Bernina Gran Turismo is truly one of the most bona fide car events in the world. A series of timed mountain climbs for an exclusive group of classic and vintage cars along a 5.7 kilometre stretch of spectacular mountain road between La Rösa and Ospizio Bernina, just outside St. Moritz.
With a starting elevation of 6138 feet, the course climbs a further 1500 feet, winding through 50 curves - this astonishing event attracts competitors from near and far, with a sizeable British contingent who make the annual pilgrimage to this unique high-altitude festival of speed. We could not think of a more fitting event for Farer to be a part of and were honoured to be selected as the official timekeeper of the Bernina GT 2019. However in true Farer style, we were not content with merely providing the official timekeeping watch - our first collection of hand-wound chronographs - we wanted to take part... and we had the ideal car for this iconic mountain race.
Setting off from Berkshire before dawn in our trusty Land Rover Defender, we were towing a precious cargo. Inside our liveried trailer we were carrying a famed Ford Lotus Cortina works racing car - originally acquired by Alan Mann in 1965, this is the exact car in which Sir John Whitmore stormed to a dominant victory in the European Touring Car championship. Now owned by Farer co-founder, Paul, the Lotus Cortina would be the Farer entrant in the Bernina GT 2019. Not only that, it would be driven by Henry Mann - son of Alan and all round top guy.
Faced with a journey of over 750 miles, we headed to the Channel Tunnel before setting off through France. Working in shifts we churned through the miles on the Autoroutes while the team back in London prepared the website for a seamless product launch to coincide with our arrival in St. Moritz. After a full day on the road we stopped for the night at Château Sainte Sabine, on the banks of the Burgundy Canal. After enjoying the local wine and local cuisine we got to bed, ready to embark on the next leg to our destination in Switzerland.
We left France and crossed the border, before beginning the long climb into the Alps. The Defender pushed on steadily, through endless tunnels and increasingly steep mountain roads until we crested the Julierpass and began the descent into St. Moritz - arriving at our hotel, the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski with its car park already full of classic cars. After a quick team briefing with Henry and our regular film/photography team of Amy Shore and Mackie, we went to bed because we had an early start the following day.
We all woke before sunrise and readied the Lotus Cortina for day one of Bernina Gran Turismo. Removing the car from the trailer before Henry set off at break-neck speed up the mountain with us in pursuit. As we climbed up towards
Hospizio Bernina the morning light was almost magical but nothing could have prepared us for the feeling when we arrived at the Parc Fermé for the technical briefing.
Just as the sun rose over the Alpine skyline we parked up and were instantly hit by the smell of motor oil and petrol, combined with the roar of 80 classic car engines. Arranged in front of the Hotel Ospizio was the most brilliant collection of cars from across the ages and classes. From a Ferrari 250 GT SWB Breadvan to a Lancia Stratos, a host of Porsches, an Aston Martin DB4 GT, a TVR Griffith, vintage motorbikes and old F1 cars - the list was endless and the sight was hard to comprehend on this remote mountain pass.
Bathed in sunshine, the first day consisted of some practice runs before two timed races. Unfortunately, after one run, our Lotus Cortina suffered a terminal technical issue with the distributor which left the car unable to start. While the other cars continued with the racing, the mechanics from fellow garages selflessly came together to assist us with getting the Lotus back on the road. What followed was a fantastic show of camaraderie as people we had never met started to strip parts from other cars in an attempt to patch the engine back together.
Repeated attempts to fashion new car parts from other vehicles seemed to be destined to fail - but in the meantime Henry had driven on a two-hour round trip to the garage of a Swiss car enthusiast who had telephoned ahead and arranged for the missing part to be stripped from a vehicle in his local garage. As night fell, we left the mountain but the amazing men from Cameron Race Engines continued working with the salvaged part - over a race dinner, everyone was holding their breath and crossing their fingers.
As the clock ticked past 10pm, the mechanics walked into the room and announced that they had fixed the Lotus Cortina. A huge cheer went up from the restaurant, but none more so than from the Farer group. We could not have been more grateful for the effort that the mechanics had made - it was a wonderful display of generosity and it meant that we got to live another day.
On the Sunday the weather had changed markedly, the previous sunshine had given way to rain and the mountain was shrouded in low level cloud for the duration of the day. But the Farer car was working again and nothing would stop us competing - as Henry finally got the chance to record a timed run, dancing up the wet road with an air of typically understated calm. As the last of the competitors completed the course, the entire group of cars gathered for the final parade before the award ceremony in Poschiavo, where the winning drivers were each awarded Limited Edition Farer Bernina Chronographs.
That concluded one of the greatest Farer adventures yet. We had met so many wonderful people and seen so many amazing vehicles - it seemed somewhat surreal that we would all be leaving this mountain paradise and going back to reality. As we loaded the Lotus Cortina back into the trailer, we thanked Henry and his team for their heroic perseverance before we began the long journey home.
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