My girlfriend and I recently vacationed in Zurich. Anyone who’s ever been to Switzerland will be surprised by this, since it’s possibly the least romantic place in human history. Seriously: instead of flowers, stuffed animals and chocolate, Swiss couples exchange presents like a well-built lamp, oddly-shaped stainless steel kitchen utensils, and … chocolate. And then they shake hands and sleep in two separate very sturdy beds.
Beyond the pragmatic, stoic nature of the Swiss, Switzerland has one other major issue: it’s really expensive. And I don’t mean in the usual American traveler “Oh it’s Europe and things are expensive” way. I mean my girlfriend and I were walking down a street in Zurich and saw, in a shop window, a coat hanger that cost 45 francs. The dollar-to-franc exchange rate, for those who are curious, is roughly one-to-one. So they wanted 45 dollars for a coat hanger. Presented with chocolate, it would’ve made a great gift for a Swiss wife.
You might think I’m trying to dissuade you from visiting Switzerland, but I’m not. I’m just trying to convince you not to take your significant other, unless she (or he – the Swiss would be OK with that) absolutely loves the color gray and evenly-spaced concrete sidewalk slabs. On the contrary, I think the TTAC crowd would really enjoy a trip to Switzerland for precisely one reason: the Swiss absolutely love old American cars.
My girlfriend and I arrived in Zurich on a Saturday night and immediately began seeing them. An old Cadillac Eldorado here; a 1980s Caprice there. Zurich is absolutely filled with AMG Mercedes and “S” model Audis, but it doesn’t require a very keen eye to also see big old American cars that most Americans have long since forgotten, unless we’re a TTAC commenter.
Interestingly, it isn’t just old cars that the Swiss lust after. Remember that rather awful Buick Regal they made from 1988 to 1996? You know the car I’m talking about: it’s the default choice for senior center parking permits. (“Ma’am, which vehicle do you have? 1994 Buick Regal, or Other?”) The Swiss have those. And as you can see below, the Swiss also have the 1986-1991 Buick Skylark, despite the best efforts of General Motors to make sure they fell apart after about seven years.
Even more interestingly, the Swiss keep all of these cars in absolutely perfect condition. Seriously, when was the last time you saw an ’86-’91 Skylark with its original wheels and a grille badge? This has happened only twice in history: this guy’s car in Switzerland, and the president of Buick’s car for about six months in 1987 until a hubcap fell victim to a Detroit pothole.
The Swiss Are Crazy
Clearly, the Swiss are crazy. But it’s not because they love old American cars. It’s because they want to drive them in Switzerland.
Let’s go back to my earlier remarks about how expensive everything is in Switzerland. It’s not just coat hangers: the average liter of petrol costs 1.4 Euros. I know what you’re thinking: I have no idea how much that is! Neither do I, but Google tells me it translates to $1.84 per liter, or more than $7.00 per gallon. I can verify this because I had a BMW 128d rental car in Switzerland, and filling it up required payment via cash, credit, or kidney.
It’s not just the cost that makes old Detroit iron (note my use of the term “old Detroit iron,” like a car journalist from the ‘90s) so absurd in Switzerland. It’s the size of Swiss cities. Anyone who’s been to Europe will agree: the roads were designed for vehicles sized somewhere between a horse and an original Fiat 500. Everything else is ungainly. I once rented a GLK in Europe and it felt like I was riding a piano down the sidewalk.
The size issue is no different in Switzerland. The roads haven’t been enlarged to compensate for K5 Blazers and Gran Torino station wagons, meaning that actually driving one of these things requires a) constant fear of running into something, and b) encyclopedic knowledge of gas station locations. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to attempt it.
So Why Do They?
This question has bugged me ever since I visited Switzerland. I immediately came home and researched it, but found absolutely nothing on the psyche of the Swiss that would explain why they might choose to pilot these 18-foot, gas-guzzling behemoths down the smallest streets in the world.
I did discover that vehicle importation laws are rather relaxed in Switzerland. That means as long as you can pass various safety inspections, you can drive pretty much whatever you want. This, of course, explains the perfect condition of all the cars.
But it doesn’t explain the reason for them. Except that maybe, beyond the drab buildings, spotless streets and perfectly-groomed lawns, the Swiss secretly enjoy a Sunday morning drive just as much as the rest of us. As long as it’s in some old Detroit iron.
And before you ask: yes, every single one of these pictures was taken on a single day in Switzerland.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.