Early Motorists Among The Alps



By “Baladeur”

This month, from the 12th to 21st, competitors will be engaged in the Alpine Trial. This contribution of “Baladeur’s” is therefore topical and will enable present-day drivers in the Alps to judge how their fellows of Veteran and Edwardian times regarded the routes they are about to storm.—Ed.

IN the eighteenth century, before the days of the Romantic Movement, the traveller who was posting to Italy in the course of the Grand Tour would gaze with “horrour” on the uncouth shapes of the mountains as he had perforce to cross the Alps, and would hurry on to the more elegant scenes of the plains. In the same way it is hardly surprising that in the early days of motoring, when it was a sufficient feat to persuade a horseless carriage to proceed on the flat, automobilists shunned the mountains in favour of the long straight roads which covered the more level parts of France.

Yet even in those early days there were hardy spirits who sought the high places, and M. Pierre Souvestre, in his Histoire de I’Automobile has given at amusing description of the first recorded automobile passage of the St. Gotthard.

“Les Fils de Peugeot freres,” he writes, “also possessed intrepid clients. One of them, M. le Comte Cognard, had the honour, as early as 1895, of crossing the St. Gotthard in a petrol car, and in the course of the journey was the hero of an amusing adventure.

“Automobilists were rare at this epoch, especially in the Alps.

“As the vehicle clambered courageously up the zigzag gradient which led to the summit of the pass, the automobilists were met by a Swiss military gentleman, whose horse displayed a certain feeling of aversion at the sight of the petrol machine.

“The horse soon calmed down, but not so the horseman, who, not content with cursing the tourists, and full, no doubt, of the authority which his uniform bestowed on him, declared that he was going to telephone to the next village in order that a fine (amende) should be levied on the owner of the car.

“He did, in fact, telephone; but at that time one did not hear too well on the telephone, and the postmaster, who combined his office as such with the occupation of an innkeeper, understood that it was a question of reserving rooms (chambres) for the travellers who were about to arrive in a motor-car—and hastened to do so.

“One can imagine,” adds M. Souvestre. “the stupefaction of Count Cognard, on arrival at Airolo, when he received the most  deferential reception, having been expecting an entirely different sort of welcome!”

Moreover, the thing did not stop there. I have always thought that the postmaster, in his capacity of innkeeper, may have had an ulterior motive in mistaking chambres for amende on the telephone; but the municiple authorities of several places on the road thought the count’s feat worthy of written testimonials, and that of Andermatt in particular was couched in the following appreciative terms:

“We the undersigned solemnly attest that M. le Comte and Mme. la Comtesse de Cognard, with a mechanician, more than 75 kilos. of luggage and a watchdog, have crossed the St. Gotthard in their Peugeot petrol car, without any other assistance than that of the engine of the quadricycle.

                                                    ANDERMATT, August 18th, 1895.”

It was indeed a feat that was worthy to be placed on record; and in case anyone doubts the fact, I recomend him to read the chapter entitled “Across the St. Gotthard” in Rodney Walkerley’s Motoring Abroad, which describes his passage of the pass in an M.G. Magnette and a thunderstorm, and which is one of the best bits of description of automobile Alpine travelling that I know. Nearly forty years, I imagine, separated Mr. Walkerley’s journey from Count Cognard’s; and yet the former writes:

“If … you do not like high places and have qualms at precipices at your roadside on hairpin turns … the St. Gotthard is not for you.” Especially, I should imagine, if you are driving a Peugeot quadricycle of 1895.

Four years later, believe, in 1899, a voiturette ascended to the summit of the Stelvio. 9,041 feet above sea level, but of this exploit I have, unfortunately, no particulars. Motorists in general were still chary of attacking the Alps, even those intrepid motorists who indulged in racing. The races across France, the race to Amsterdam and back in 1898, and to Berlin in 1901 had all followed routes which avoided the mountains; but when it was decided that in 1902 the great race of the year should be to Vienna, the Alps were found to be sadly in the way. As a matter of fact, by crossing the relatively low-lying north of Switzerland, the competitors had only one serious pass to tackle, in the shape of the Arlberg in Austria; but this the Guide Taride ominously described as “the so perillous passage of the Arlberg,” adding, “we do not think that we ought to recommend it either to automobilists or to cyclists.”

Mr. D. M. Weigel, who drove a 21-h.p. Clément light-car in the race, was apparently of the same opinion. According to the Autocar, he was “particularly emphatic upon the extreme unsuitability of the course for speed contests as soon as the French frontier was left behind. Mr. Weigel says he would give the men responsible for its selection three years’ hard labour for what was almost tantamount to asking men to go to their deaths. The ascent and descent of the ArIberg Pass, particularly the latter, was at the risk of life every moment.”

Before very long ordinary touring motorists were pooh-poohing these somewhat exaggerated fears of what they had learnt to regard as a comparatively mild pass, but for all that, the Arlberg proved that under racing conditions it had its moments of emotion. Gerald Rose’s description of this stage of the race in his classic Record of Motor Racing doubtless gives an excellent idea of the competitors impressions. “The pass was nearly 6,000 ft above sea level,” he wrote, “and shortly before the competitors were due the roads were almost impassable from snow. And such roads! Hardly more than tracks in some cases, winding along precipices, with nothing but boundary stones between the road and the drop beyond, crossing torrents on improvised bridges made of a few planks, climbing hills of extraordinary steepness with descents on the other side of equally terrifying appearance, with the constant fear of the precipice before the eyes of the driver should he miss his corner at the bottom. Small wonder that the competitors imagined at times that they had mistaken the road, and were only reassured by the constantly recurring flagmen. Up the drivers went, climbing to the clouds through the snow-covered passes, with nerves strained to the utmost by the unknown peril behind every bend in the road … Now and again the gradients were so steep that some of the cars had difficulty in climbing them at all, and many were the drivers who obtained a helping hand from the friendly spectators . . stripped their cars of every movable part in order to get up and returned on foot to fetch the discarded belongings; others toiled slowly up, the mechanic pushing behind.”

Some, indeed, did not survive ordeal at all, as competitors in the race. Max, whose adventure has became historie, hit a boundary stone with his Darracq, the seat of the car came off, and he and his mechanic were deposited near the side of the road, while the car plunged it hundred feet to the bottom of the ravine. They went down a little way to have a look at it, and regained the road just as Baras arrived on another Darracq, the latter in consequence recounting at the next control that they had fallen with the car to the bottom of the precipice, and climbed up again unhurt. The escape of Derny was even more phenomenal. On the descent, the brakes of his motorcycle gave way, and as, shouting for help, he shot past de la Touloubre, who was driving a Clément, the latter managed to catch him by the coat, and haul him off his doomed machine. “It must have been with some relief,” adds Gerald Rose, “that the organisers finally realised that the Arlberg had been traversed without any fatal accident.”

On the other hand some of the competitors did extraordinarily well. Herr Lohner, of Vienna, timed some of them on a gradient of about one in six, and found that Teste, on one of the big 70-h.p. Panhards, climbed it at more than 23 m.p.h. while de Knyff on a similar car was very little slower. Unfortunately no times for the passage of the pass itself are available, but over the whole stage Bregenz-Salzburg, Baron de Forest was fastest, on a 40-h.p. Mercedes, at 36.5 m.p.h., followed by Mar el Renault on his 16-h.p. light car at 35.2 m.p.h. and Henry Farman (70-h.p. Panhard) at 34.3 m.p.h.; none of which speeds can be accounted anything but respectable over what are mountain roads most of the way.

In spite of the number of motorists who thus made acquaintance with the Alps, it was not until a couple of years later, in June and July, 1904, that the first mountaineering tour was embarked upon. The party on this occasion was led by M. Max de Martini, and the car was one of those 16-20-h.p. models which he built in Switzerland under licence from Rochet-Schneider of Lyons. The party included Mr. H. Massac Buist, who fortunately recorded some of their experiences for posterity, Capt. H. H. P. Deasy of Siddeley-Deasy fame, and for some of the time, M. Georges Prade of l’Auto. Setting out from Neuchatel and finishing at Geneva, they succeeded in the course of a fortnight in crossing the Col de PiIIon, the Col de la Forclaz, the Petit St. Bernard, the Mont Cenis, the Trois Croix (twice), the Galibier (twice), the Mont Genevre (twice), the Lautaret (twice). the Col de Laffrey (if you call it a col), the Col de Brouis and the Col de Braus. After that Mr. Buist says that they went over the Col de Salaces, which, however, I find it rather hard to believe as there was not a road over it even when I was last that way, which was some years ago now, but was also some years after 1904. On the other hand I can more readily accept that they crossed the Col de Vars, the Col de l’Argentiere (alias the Col de Larche), the Col di Tenda, the Col de Vergons, the Valgelaye, otherwise known as the Col d’Allos, the Col St. Jean, the Col du Labouret and went up to the top of Mount Ventoux. After that they crossed the Col Joncheres, which I think is what is otherwise known as the Col de Premol, the Col du Rousset, the Col du Frene, the Col de Porte, the Col du Planpalais and the Col des Aravis before getting back to Geneva.

The expedition, it will be seen, was practically confined to the French Alps, but as far as they are concerned, the tourists covered the ground pretty thoroughly. Looking back on it afterwards, they decided that the Martini’s lock had proved a bit inadequate, but they did not have to replenish the radiator after any of the ascents, which is more than could probably have been said for many cars built since 1904. The water-cooled brakes were voted a great success, being “seldom warmer than the bare hand could endure” and, most marvellous of all, they did not have a single puncture in the whole trip. They found Nice “strangely unpeopled . . . but wisely so when the great heat there in July is held in mind,” and it was so hot in Turin they could not sleep. I have always imagined that this allergy to summer weather so typical of the period was due to the contemporary insistence on wearing woolly underclothes all the year round, but the whole party caught chills in the mountains, for which I should have thought that we moderns would have had more excuse. However, Max de Martini, born and bred in the Alps, was the only one of them who suffered from nose bleedings.

After this it was only a matter of time before the mad English dashed off to follow this Swiss example. I do not know how soon they did it, but at any rate one particular party did not delay beyond 1906, as is proved by the fact that a member of it afterwards published a book describing his experiences. The author of this work, which was entitled En Route, indulged in the reprehensible practice of hiding his true identity under a nom-de-plume, and called himself Roy Trevor. Unlike “Baladeur,” however, whose identity, of course, remains a profound secret, he provided a clue in the book itself, by following which I have established, with very little trouble, that his real name was Mr. W. R. Chadburn. More reprehensible still, he apparently succumbed to the blandishments of his publishers, and clothed the narrative of his travels in a thin fictitious garb, according to which the travellers consisted of two young couples who not only toured Europe but also found Romance. Mr. Llewellyn, however, who, cloaked as usual under the soubriquet of Owen John, reviewed the book for The Autocar, was quick to see through that one, remarking that “the figures in the photographs do not quite fit the written descriptions of the heroes and heroines in this book.” We journalists are a cagey lot.

However, whatever the photographs may prove or disprove about the crew, they fully confirm Mr. Trevor’s (or Chadburn’s) claim that the party travelled in a 70-h.p. Mercedes, which is a magical vehicle, “fitted with Roi des Belges body, canopy, and glass screen, painted snow-white, edged with green and gold and upholstered in red leather.” Moreover, someone in the party displayed a truly remarkable talent for including the car in pictures of the most magnificent mountain scenes. He had, certainly, ample scope for his talent, for in the course of their tour, the Mercedes party crossed the Stelvio, Pordoi, Spliigen, Mont Cenis, St. Gotthard, Simplon, Klausen, Tonale, Rolle, Arlberg, Campiglio, Karer, Pillon, Finstermünz, Mendel, Brenner, .Aprica and Brüning passes, “and several others of lesser importance.” The car must have had ample power for the purpose, and I envy the party the sensations of pass-storming behind that large low-speed engine. But the Mercedes had a Iongish wheelbase, and evidently, in common with most cars of the period, a rather poor lock, for, when desecrating the Stelvio, Mr. Chadburn found that “of the forty or fifty corners…I do not think more than eight were large enough to allow of turning without manoeuvring backwards and forwards.” For a real improvement in this respect we have, I think, to thank the Italians, whose cars were at this time just beginning to attain to so great a position of prominence that they set a fashion in the motoring world.

To guide him upon his journey, Mr. Chadburn apparently had to rely chiefly upon William Brockedon’s Passes of the Alps. A copy of this book, with its charming engravings and delightful text, is one of my most treasured possessions; but as it was published in 1828, and gives an accurate account of the state of the alpine roads as Napoleon left them, it can hardly be regarded as an ideal practical guide for the motorist. Brockedon, however, was about to find a worthy successor, and in 1010 Charles L. Freeston published the classic among all books on motor mountaineering. The High Roads of the Alps. “This book,” declared the author, represents the sum of seventeen years experience of the Alps”; and indeed, he had already published, in 1900, Cycling in The Alps, with some notes on the chief Passes, an engaging little book which has often made me wish that I had known the delights of the bicycle before the motor car came to make it seem tame. “From the first tour to the last,” added Mr. Freeston. “I have felt the need for practical information”; and this he now proceeded to supply in the most conscientious manner possible.

The High Roads of the Alps, however, is far more than a guide book. To begin with, the author is a man of the most endearing predjudices. He was, for example, an extremely keen motorist. “For generations,” he remarks in his introductory chapter, “the traveller among the Alps . . . had to trust to his own legs, or call in the aid of the horse. The one method was slow and fatiguing to himself, the other alike slow and fatiguing to himself and to the animal employed . . . To cross one or two passes by horsed carriage may be endurable, but to make a practice of it is quite another matter; and as for walking, life is too short for systematic excursions over Alpine roads.” The coming of the bicycle, certainly, had opened up new possibilities. “Going upwards [the cyclist] may move only a little faster than the carriage and at the same pace, perhaps, as the walker with a heavy rucksack; but once at the summit the whole aspect of affairs is changed. The walker is left to his uniform tramp, while the carriage is ontdistanced in a couple of minutes, and the cyclist may revel in an intoxicating ‘coast’ of anything from ten to forty miles.”

For all that, declares the author, “centred in the motor car . . . are the advantages of all the other methods of locomotion with the disadvantages of none . . . for pure enjoyment there is nothing to compare with pass-climbing in a car.” And yet those benighted people the Swiss, instead of realising what a boon the automobile had brought to them, regarded its arrival with undisguised distaste. Running through the book, therefore, there are two themes calculated to warm any motorist’s heart: a withering attack upon Swiss autophobia with its accompanying railway mania; and an insistence on the fact that Switzerland has no monopoly of the Alps. “There are still vast numbers of people,” wrote Mr. Freeston, ” who know little or nothing about locomotion in the Alps. They harbour hazy notions on the subject . . . that the Alps are a Swiss monopoly . . . that the only alternative to scaling a peak by the aid of rope, ice axe and crampons, is to build a tunnel and rush through it by train.” But, “I shall show later how vast a field of Alpine exploration is open to the touring motorist outside Switzerland altogether; such in fact is the main purpose of this volume.” In the meantime, “on the subject of the Swiss Passes it is difficult to think, speak or write with patience, so entirely ridiculous and indefensible is the wholesale embargo which the authorities have placed upon automobiles.” On their side of the Grand St. Bernard, “the Swiss magnanimously allow the motor car to ascend from Martigny provided it be drawn by a horse ” As an alternative they invariably suggest that you should go by train—rush through one of the tunnels that they have built, in fact. As if this was any real alternative! Even on the Brenner, where both road and railway cross the pass itself, railway travellers have little on which to congratulate themselves. “Many people,” remarks Mr. Freeston, “may be found ready to declare that the train journey over the Brenner is ‘magnificent’ . . . It is no wish of mine to detract from any enjoyment which the tourist may derive by taking train from Innsbrück to Franzensfeste . . . but . . . train travellers waste their superlatives on landscapes which, though the best they may have seen, are vastly inferior to those of loftier altitudes.”

While the Swiss remained so unreasonable about motor cars, they could expect little quarter from Mr. Freeston. Even their William Tell gets mercilessly debunked. “Altdorf,” remarks the author, “. . . is, of course, associated with the name of William Tell, a memorial to whom is a prominent object on the roadside, while a play is annually performed here in commemoration of the exploits of the ‘national hero.’ The celebration is maintained despite the fact that all the Tell episodes are now regarded as myths, and even his very name has been officially struck out from the school-books in the Canton Glaris.” Not even the Swiss ladies, I regret to say, are exempt from insidious comparisons. In the Tyrol Mr. Freeston noticed “some particularly attractive native costumes . . . worn by young women who, in physique and comeliness, are in every way superior to their Swiss sisters.” It is a comparison, curiously enough that I have heard made by another well-known motoring writer in very much more recent times.

However, with a certain melancholy satisfaction, Mr. Freeston was already able to see “Nemesis overtaking the short-sighted selfishness of the Swiss villager. Visp . . . was once the centre of a thriving trade in mule transport between the village and Zermatt. The Government desired to build a carriage road, but, the villagers foresaw that the business in mules would disappear and vetoed the project accordingly. Subsequently, however, a company obtained a concession . . . to build the well-known railway line to Zermatt, and this the inhabitants had no power to prevent. As a result they were worse off than ever, for there is neither any trade in mules, nor has any new carriage traffic sprung up . . . Visp is now one of the most melancholy places imaginable . . . even the fact that it is at the foot of the Zermatt line brings it no prosperity, the railway passengers . . . simply bundling out of their carriages and changing over to the Zermatt train. In the intervals inbetween train times the place is as quiet as the grave.”

Leaving, therefore, the autophobic Swiss to build their tunnels and rush through them by train witlt their uncomely girl-friends, Mr. Freeston proceeded to embark on a series of comprehensive Alpine tours, which covered the remaining ground from Nice to Vienna. He went as a rule in a delightfully stark two-seater Daimler with no windscreen, and when he came back he produced a guide of the utmost utility as well as charm. More than a decade later, when I began to follow in his footsteps, I still found the itineraries and road information in The High-Roads of the Alps of the greatest, practical value. To this day, moreover, there are passages that bring back an ineffable nostalgia for the Edwardian days of motoring. “The proper way to mount a lofty pass by car,” for example, “is undoubtedly with the throttle lever only half advanced, selecting one’s gears accordingly.” Or again, “on a long descent the changes could be rung from one brake to another, for the sake of coolness, but with a general preference in favour of the hand-brake, assuming that it acts on the rear wheels; and these, by the way, should be watched by the rear passengers, with a view to detecting smoke or the smell of burning oil.” Watched, mind you; they can actually see them.

In 1911, the year after the appearance of “The High-Roads of the Alps,” the Austrian Automobile Club, realising what a treasure they had on their doorstep, organised the first International Alpine Trials, and the day of the “early motorists” was over in the Alps. Those first Trials bred the “Alpine” Austro-Daimler, a delightful small car with a side-valve, four-cylinder engine of 80 by 110 mm., bore and stroke. After an unfortunate interlude, on which it would doubtless be accounted lèse majesté to enlarge, the I913 Trials produced the “Continental” Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce. Since then, a series of Trials, more usually now, for political reasons, in French than in Austrian hands, have shown up the merits and defects of a whole series of motor cars; and if I was unable to choose a model which had won the Mille Miglia or the Grand Prix d’Endurance, I would sooner entrust my fortunes to a type that had dominated a severe series of Alpine Trials than to any other.