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End of the road for car graveyard


It is an unexpected breeding ground for rare flora and fauna. Yet a car junkyard near Bern could soon be cleared, paradoxically, for environmental reasons.

"That is lichen growing on the roof of the Mercedes, just in front of us," says Heinrich Gartentor.

"Most varieties of lichen are endangered in Switzerland," says the middle-aged man before reminding me that he is not a botanist. What Gartentor is, is an artist and curator of an exhibition set amid the junkyard.

The aim of the installations (for example, abandoned teddy bears piled up on a bonnet, or inflated airbags twisting like snakes through the wrecks) is to raise awareness of the fact that the car graveyard has become a national treasure.

Located in the small community of Kaufdorf, the site containing around 500 cars mostly from the 1930s to 60s has not been touched for more than 30 years.

The now overgrown relics were originally bought for their parts by a car dealer who – not wanting to see the vehicles pressed and shredded - parked them cheek by jowl on his lot.

The dealer retired in the 1970s and passed the business on to his son, who left the old cars where they were.

Court order

That was fine until recently when the son, Franz Messerli, received a court order to pave and seal the junkyard grounds to keep solvents leaking out of the decaying Opels, Studebakers and Mercedes from seeping into the earth.

Messerli said he was willing to do so for the section of the lot where the newer models have come to rest, but the injunction calls for the entire site to be cleaned up by the end of the year.

It means the end of the road for the rare collection of American sports cars and sedans and classic European automobiles. It also sounds the death knell for the lush green foliage, including rare lichens, mosses and fungi that have grown over the cars like a second skin, and the black poplars sheltering the lot.

When word got out last year that the junkyard was to be cleared, locals founded an association to fight the injunction. Gartentor – who grew up nearby and has childhood memories of a treeless site considered an eyesore at the time – climbed into the driver's seat with his plan for an exhibition.

Natural history

"The entire history of the automobile is represented here, and you won't find that anywhere else, not even in a museum," Gartentor says.

"Nature has fought back and has eroded everything but it is this contrast which is interesting."

A raised boardwalk constructed for the exhibition takes visitors through the site. On a rainy day and with a little imagination it becomes a mist-shrouded jungle – not a junkyard, with dormant, bloated beasts crowding the ground.

While Gartentor is fascinated by the flora, he is equally impressed with the site's contribution to preserving motoring history.

"For example, many cars here lost their value during the 1970s oil crisis and they met their end here. It would be gross negligence if these historical remnants were to disappear forever."

He asks rhetorically whether the wrecks should be removed, as required by the authorities, at the cost of losing precious flora, which is not yet protected by law.

"It's not the main goal of the exhibition to stop the cleanup," Gartentor sums up. "But I think the exhibition will spur a lot of heated political debate."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Kaufdorf

Key facts

The National Art Exhibition at the Historic Car Graveyard in Kaufdorf runs until October 12.
Kaufdorf, located in the Gürbe Valley, is about 20 minutes from Bern by rail or road.
Entrance costs SFr13 ($12.76).

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Historic Car Graveyard Gürbetal

The lobby group was founded in 2007.

Its aim is to have the site recognised as an open-air museum to preserve it, and overturn the court order.

The authorities say the site does not live up to today's environmental standards, but the lobby group contends that the collection of rusting automobiles has proven to be fertile ground for rare flora and fauna and therefore has had a positive ecological impact.

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