Thursday, February 5, 2015

The ultimate SUV - Yesterday and today

For generations American automobiles have been a huge part of Max Bertschinger's family in Switzerland. Now living in Bäretswil, a small village in the Swiss Highlands near the city Zurich, Max operates a classic car company and has vivid memories of American cars owned by his family.

At 59 years old, Max can remember American automobiles since he was very young. His grandfather, who referred to any United States produced car as an “American,” first purchased a 1933 Pontiac Straight Eight Coupe. "This Pontiac had a convertible structure that deviated from the series design, called 'Victoria', with two doors and five to six seats," Max wrote. "It was powered by the newly developed eight cylinder in-line engine with a 3.8 liter displacement and 77 hp. 

After the Pontiac came a black Plymouth 1939 P8 four-door sedan, which was used in the family business of security material manufacturing of products like safes and bank counters – Max’s company actually did business with Paul Guilden, the Stetson Hat trademark owner in New York. Outfitted with a "massive steel roof rack", the Plymouth transported heavy-duty secure doors and window frames. "A 3.3 liter six-cylinder engine operated below the hood. My father later 'inherited' this Plymouth and [my] grandfather went to a Pontiac," wrote Max.

1954 Belvedere Sedan.
Max said his grandfather's passion for cars was handed down to his father who owned a 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook four-door and then, after a catastrophic collision with a Volkswagen that injured his father, a Belvedere. Still later, his father bought a Ford Customline Country Sedan from '54. "The entire family always drove away on Sundays in this fantastic car - called 'Spring' within the family - and I, as a small youngster, was then usually at the far end in the cargo area, sitting on the small folding jump seat and looked and waved to the cars following behind." 

Max's father's next buy, however, proved somewhat different, though not entirely, from cruisable sedans and whether or not he was aware of its versatility. Max reports that his dad was "immediately fascinated" at the Geneva Motor Show of March 1964. There he saw a Kaiser Jeep Wagoneer. "Its width, its height and its length were impressive. And certainly its distinctive front with its mighty, chrome grill in the center." 

An aged photo of the '64 Wagoneer with Gladiator grill. 
Max calls the Wagoneer "the ancestor of today's SUV" and notes that its release in 1963 was seven years before the Range Rover was made available by Land Rover. "Power steering and an all-wheel drive were pioneering at that time. No slope was too steep and no snow was too high with the speed reduction." Max said, "Our Wagoneer had a manual three-gear shift. The steering was power-assisted, however, not the brakes. Braking and operating the clutch were hard work and a lengthier trip went quickly 'to the bone'. A six-cylinder OHC engine of the Tornado model with a displacement of 3.8 liters operated under the huge, heavy hood." 

These features soon found use among Max's family. Two years before the Wagoneer's purchase, the temperature of the Swiss lowlands was below freezing consecutively from November to March and Max remembers Switzerland's Lake Zurich, which was safely frozen over. "The surface of the ice was covered by sausage and chestnut stands and there were specifically cleaned areas in many places where ice hockey could be played.

As an apprentice at his family's shop, Max was responsible for helping to clear snow which piled into "mountains," as he describes. "When it had to be [cleared] faster at times, it was accomplished using the Jeep and everything was quickly flattened." 

He fondly recalls other drivers half frozen, stuck in the snow who had difficulty even with snow chains, while the Wagoneer just switched to all-wheel drive in heated comfort. If this wasn't enough torque the Jeep could be shifted into speed-reduced all-wheel drive. "When using the speed reduction, one was able to conquer the steepest hills on uneven terrain at full throttle or... deep snow without spinning the wheels. However, maximum speed was then limited to 40 km/h.

Max's family tests the new Wagoneer at
Gotthard Pass, Switzerland.

Max feels the four-wheel capabilities of the '64 Wagoneer weren't fully realized. The shift lever on the tranny column was "remotely positioned" and required a good deal of effort and more than a single attempt to successfully switch into all-wheel drive. "...The idle speed had to be selected and the (foot) hand brake customary in American vehicles had to be pressed or the brake and clutch pedal had to be pressed simultaneously (which was simply impossible with short legs). Then you pulled the said lever, which - depending on the position of the wheels - could only be moved after several jolts." 

After the '64 though, Max's family bought a new Wagoneer at the beginning of 1976 - that model lasted them twelve years. Now a days in the Zurich highlands, Max collects classic cars like his Afla Romeos. Jeepless for ten years, Max finally bought a Grand Cherokee 5.2 LTD, which along with the Grand Wagoneer he calls the “’bedrock’ of the Jeep models”. 

“And despite the many changes in ownership (Willys, Kaiser, AMC, Chrysler) and the influence by Daimler and finally Fiat, the Jeep remained what it has always been: "The SUV” He also had a 4.7 Limited Grand Cherokee, but then moved to the highlands and started his classic automobile business. At this point he was without a vehicle and, “only one brand was suitable – how could it be otherwise,” he said. “The Jeep Cherokee 3.7 V6 Limited was exactly the right one!” 

Max's latest 3.7 Limited Cherokee tows a
classic Alfa Romeo.


  1. Max,

    That's some great history. Thanks for sharing und Ihnen einen schoenen Gruss aus Kalifornien!

  2. Hallo Dan, ich freue mich, dass Dir meine Jeep-Story bei Mark’s gefällt. Bitte schreibe mir auf meine e-mail-Adresse . Ich freue mich auf Deine Reaktion. Viele Grüsse aus der Schweiz! -Max

    1. Sorry for the delayed response, Dan B. Above is Max's reply.