Switzerland might not be known for its car manufacturing sector. But a new exhibition, "Les Carrossiers Suisses", at the International Car Museum in Geneva, shows that Switzerland left an indelible mark on the automobile industry.This content was published on May 2, 2000 - 10:20
The exhibition looks at the work of the coach-building yards which were such an important industry in Switzerland in the 1930s and 1940s. Their names - Beugler, Gangloff, Worblaufen, Reinbold and Christe - are well known to aficionados of vintage cars. But why did they achieve such fame?
"From the very start of the automobile industry until Henry Ford came up with mass-production, virtually all cars were assembled with the body separate from the coachwork," says Keene Seeley of the International Car Museum.
"So most major builders were making the rolling chassis with the engine, wheels etc, and the coachwork was then done by an outside firm. For every automobile manufactured, you could go to a variety of coachbuilders to get the body of your choice - be it a convertible, and ambulance or a delivery van."
Between 1931 and 1941, 4,500 cars were coachworked in Switzerland. They were individually crafted and unique, and as a result, priceless. The spark that created the boom was a change in the law.
"A law was created in 1931 which took 40 per cent off the import duty of any car imported into Switzerland - as long as the coachwork was done in Switzerland," Seeley explained to swissinfo. "There was an explosion of coachbuilding, and for the most part, it was aiming at the upper end of the market."
The high production costs meant that the coachbuilders were catering to an essentially domestic market - the cars were simply too expensive to be exported.
There are some magnificent machines on display, ranging from a 1918 Piccard-Pictet, produced entirely in Geneva to the 1939 Buick converted by Reinbold and Christe for the celebrated Second World War soldier, General Guisan.
Not all the exhibits are in pristine condition, however. One car, a 1947 Bernhath based on an earlier Jaguar model, was found neglected in a demolition yard in canton Vaud in the 1980s. However, it still has much of the original detail, and once it has been restored to its former glory, it would probably fetch in excess of SFr300,000 at auction.
By the 1950s, the carrossier yards were in terminal decline. Car manufacturing had changed. Unit body construction meant that the craftsmen of the coach-builders' could no longer transform the bodywork without modifying the chassis.
The "Carrossiers Suisses" exhibition is a way of remembering a brief but golden period in the Swiss motor industry.
by Roy Probert
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