Switzerland Loves Old American Cars

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
switzerland loves old american cars

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.

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  • Hoonthatprado Hoonthatprado on Apr 20, 2013

    I´m a Swiss citizen myself, and having lived in SE Michigan I have come to understand both Swiss and American car culture. I have shipped 10+ American cars to friends back in Switzerland while living in the U.S., from 1940-ies Fords to brand new Mustangs and Camaros. Why the Swiss have a fascination for American iron has several reasons, but here the key drivers: Lower cost (a fully loaded V8 Mustang costs around $55k, delivered to Zurich, while a Bimmer or Benz with comparable horsepower would cost more than double); "American lifestyle", or better said, what the Swiss believe it is - the U.S. is referred to as the "Land der unbeschraenkten Moeglichkeiten" (the land where everything is possible, or the land of freedom); last but not least, the f-u effect of owning a big, gas guzzling car (in Switzerland it is important not only to keep up with the Joneses, but also not to deviate much from what is considered "correct" - hard to understand for non-Europeans).

  • HiFlite999 HiFlite999 on Apr 23, 2013

    ^ Agreed ... as a US citizen living in Michigan and former resident of Brugg, Switzerland. Another factor plays some role. There are some jobs American Iron does better. One of my then co-workers was a paraplegic: He drove a G-20 van which allowed easy access and exit for his wheelchair, plus the ability to camp. (Handicap access to European hotels is virtually unheard of, which is one reason he took all of his vacations in the USA or Canada.) The bf of the daughter of a good Swiss friend of mine owns several American pickups and big SUVs. He runs a landscape company and a towing service for trailering horses, both of which require some genuine torque to deal with the weight and steep inclines, as well as off-road tracks.

  • SCE to AUX Good summary, Matt.I like EVs, but not bans, subsidies, or carbon credits. Let them find their own level.PM Sunak has done a good thing, but I'm surprised at how sensibly early he made the call. Hopefully they'll ban the ban altogether.
  • SCE to AUX "Having spoken to plenty of suppliers over the years, many have told me they tried to adapt to EV production only to be confronted with inconsistent orders."Lofty sales predictions followed by reality.I once worked (very briefly) for a key supplier to Segway, back when "Ginger" was going to change the world. Many suppliers like us tooled up to support sales in the millions, only to sell thousands - and then went bankrupt.
  • SCE to AUX "all-electric vehicles, resulting in a scenario where automakers need fewer traditional suppliers"Is that really true? Fewer traditional suppliers, but they'll be replaced with other suppliers. You won't have the myriad of parts for an internal combustion engine and its accessories (exhaust, sensors), but you still have gear reducers (sometimes two or three), electric motors with lots of internal components, motor mounts, cooling systems, and switchgear.Battery packs aren't so simple, either, and the fire recalls show that quality control is paramount.The rest of the vehicle is pretty much the same - suspension, brakes, body, etc.
  • Theflyersfan As crazy as the NE/Mid-Atlantic I-95 corridor drivers can be, for the most part they pay attention and there aren't too many stupid games. I think at times it's just too crowded for that stuff. I've lived all over the US and the worst drivers are in parts of the Midwest. As I've mentioned before, Ohio drivers have ZERO lane discipline when it comes to cruising, merging, and exiting. And I've just seen it in this area (Louisville) where many drivers have literally no idea how to merge. I've never seen an area where drivers have no problems merging onto an interstate at 30 mph right in front of you. There are some gruesome wrecks at these merge points because it looks like drivers are just too timid to merge and speed up correctly. And the weaving and merging at cloverleaf exits (which in this day and age need to all go away) borders on comical in that no one has a bloody clue of let car merge in, you merge right to exit, and then someone repeats behind you. That way traffic moves. Not a chance here.And for all of the ragging LA drivers get, I found them just fine. It's actually kind of funny watching them rearrange themselves like after a NASCAR caution flag once traffic eases up and they line up, speed up to 80 mph for a few miles, only to come to a dead halt again. I think they are just so used to the mess of freeways and drivers that it's kind of a "we'll get there when we get there..." kind of attitude.
  • Analoggrotto I refuse to comment until Tassos comments.