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“MILAN –SOCHAUX” – A NOVEL ACCOUNT OF AN UNUSUAL JOURNEY BY GIOSUE’ BOETTO COHEN (CORRIERE DELLA SERA)

“MILAN –SOCHAUX” – A NOVEL ACCOUNT OF AN UNUSUAL JOURNEY BY GIOSUE’ BOETTO COHEN (CORRIERE DELLA SERA)

特別COLLABORATIONS

BY SPECIAL ENVOY GIOSUÈ BOETTO COHEN OF THE CORRIERE DELLA SERA, THE NOVEL ACCOUNT OF AN UNUSUAL JOURNEY BETWEEN SWITZERLAND AND FRANCE, FROM MILAN TO SOCHAUX, UNDERTAKEN IN HIS PEUGEOT 403 ON THE OCCASION OF THE CELEBRATIONS OF THE FRENCH CLUBS FOR THE 60TH ANNIVERSARY OF THIS MODEL, PASSING THROUGH THE “REGION OF WATCHES”.

THE NEXT TIME YOU GO TO FRANCE BY CAR – AND YOU ARE NOT IN A HURRY – PASS BY LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS. THIS DETOUR VIA THE CANTON OF NEUCHATEL IS EXACTLY HALF WAY BETWEEN THE TWO “CLASSIC” DESTINATIONS OF MONT BLANC AND BASEL-MULHOUSE. IT WILL ENABLE YOU TO PASS THROUGH THE SWISS CAPITAL (BERNE IS USUALLY A BIT OUT OF THE WAY) AND WILL REWARD YOU WITH THREE UNFORGETTABLE ENCOUNTERS: ONE WITH A GIANT OF ARCHITECTURE, THEN WITH A MOTORING HERO – IN BOTH INDUSTRIAL AND SPORTING TERMS – AND LASTLY THE GREAT STORY OF WATCHMAKING, AS NEVER TOLD BEFORE. LA CHAUX IS IN FACT CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE WORLD’S WATCH CAPITALS; EBERHARD & CO. AND OTHER RENOWNED BRANDS WERE BORN HERE, AND THE GRAND BUILDING WITH THE EAGLE ON ITS ROOF, BUILT BY GEORGES-EMILE EBERHARD IN 1906 FOR HIS “MANUFACTURE D’HORLOGERIE”, STILL WATCHES OVER THE INHABITANTS FROM ON HIGH.

SO THERE ARE SOME GOOD REASONS TO VENTURE THROUGH THE JURA VALLEYS TO THIS CITY WHICH – ALTHOUGH IT HAS BEEN DESECRATED BY SOME BAD CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE – STILL BOASTS SOME BEAUTIFUL EARLY 20TH CENTURY NEIGHBOURHOODS, STATELY VILLAS AND VERDANT HILLS THAT FALL, IN THE DIRECTION OF FRANCE, HEADLONG INTO THE GORGE OF THE RIVER DOUBS.

BUT WHY AM I TELLING YOU ALL THIS? READ ON AND YOU WILL FIND OUT: IN ORDER TO REACH – AT A CERTAIN POINT – THIS CURIOUSLY NAMED CITY, ITS ILLUSTRIOUS INHABITANTS LE CORBUSIER AND LOUIS CHEVROLET AND THE SPLENDID INTERNATIONAL WATCHMAKING MUSEUM, YOU NEED TO START OUT WITH AN ANNIVERSARY, A PASSION FOR A CAR THAT WAS CREATED SIXTY YEARS AGO AND THE TWO HUNDRED YEARS THAT ITS FAMOUS BRAND (THE OLDEST BY A LONG WAY) HAS RECENTLY CELEBRATED.

THE OPENING SCENE IS SET BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, AMONG THE HILLS AND PONDS OF THE REGION OF FRANCHE-COMTÉ. THE DAUGHTER OF THE RICHEST MILLER MARRIES A YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR, A CERTAIN JEAN PIERRE PEUGEOT, BRINGING HIM A DOWRY OF SEVEN MILLS. THE WEDDING IS NOTEWORTHY, BUT THE MAIN CHARACTERS OF THE STORY ARE THEIR SONS, WHO TRANSFORM THE MILLSTONES INTO DRIVING FORCES FOR INDUSTRY: STEEL FOR JEAN PIERRE II, SILK AND COTTON FOR JEAN FREDERICK. THE TWO BRANCHES OF THE FAMILY THUS GO THEIR SEPARATE WAYS, BUT THEIR PATHS CONTINUE TO CROSS TIME AND TIME AGAIN, WITH MUTUAL SUPPORT AND BRILLIANT IDEAS, EVEN TO THE PRESENT DAY. WHICH JUST GOES TO SHOW THAT THE BAD HABIT OF DESTROYING A COMPANY IN THE THIRD GENERATION IS A VERY ITALIAN QUIRK.

SECOND ACT: BY 1850 PEUGEOT HAS ALREADY BECOME AN IMPORTANT BRAND NAME: BLADES BOTH LARGE AND SMALL, SPRINGS FOR CARRIAGES AND FOR WATCHES, ALL KINDS OF TOOLS. METAL OFTEN MEETS LOCAL TIMBER TO CREATE FINE MANUFACTURED GOODS, SUCH AS THE FAMOUS COFFEE GRINDERS. WHEN WEAVING IS AFFECTED BY THE GREAT DEPRESSION, ONE BRANCH OF THE FAMILY SUPPORTS THE OTHER. IRON AND RIBBON ARE COMBINED TO MAKE CRINOLINE, WHICH SPARES WOMEN THE TORTURE OF SKIRTS MADE OUT OF STICKS OF BAMBOO. IN 1871 ANOTHER FORM OF TORTURE COMES IN THE FORM OF A DISASTROUS WAR, WITH THE PEUGEOT FACTORIES STRADDLING THE BORDERLINE. BUT THEN ALONG COMES THE “PENNY FARTHING”, THE EARLY BICYCLE THAT THE BRAND DECIDES TO LAUNCH IN QUANTITY. FOR THE TIME BEING IT IS ONLY A FAD, A SPORT FOR ACROBATS, BUT THE IDEA, SOONER OR LATER, COULD BE IMPROVED ON.

THE NEXT SCENE IS SET ON THE EVE OF THE BELLE ÉPOQUE. TRANSPORT HAS BECOME A SERIOUS BUSINESS: JOURNEY TIMES ARE HALVED WITH STEAM SHIPS AND THE RAILROADS ARE WRITING THE PAGES OF HISTORY. A SIXTEEN-KILOMETRE TUNNEL BETWEEN ITALY AND SWITZERLAND IS UNDER CONSIDERATION. SOME EVEN DREAM OF FLYING (LILIENTHAL IS ABOUT TO TAKE THE PLUNGE WITH THE FIRST GLIDER), WHILE ATTEMPTS ARE BEING MADE TO ATTACH BOILERS AND ELECTRIC MOTORS TO CARRIAGES. IT IS AT THIS POINT THAT ARMAND PEUGEOT, THE VERY WEALTHY GREAT-GRANDSON OF THE ALREADY RICH OWNER OF THE MILLS, DECIDES NOT ON A TURNING POINT – BECAUSE THE COFFEE GRINDERS AND THE HEAPS OF PEUGEOT PRODUCTS CONTINUE TO ENJOY SUCCESS – BUT ON A TOTALLY NEW VENTURE. THE PETROL ENGINE PATENTED IN GERMANY BY HIS FRIEND DAIMLER IS WORTHY OF INVESTMENT AND THE LION BRAND HAS ALL THE KNOW-HOW, THE TOOLS AND THE RAW MATERIAL NEEDED TO MANUFACTURE AN AUTOMOBILE.

IT IS THIS BYGONE STORY THAT I THINK OF AS WE TRAVEL THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF THE SIMPLON TUNNEL. INAUGURATED IN 1905, IT WAS THE CENTRAL THEME OF THE FIRST MILAN EXPO, DEDICATED TO TRANSPORT WHICH WAS, AS MENTIONED ABOVE, A SERIOUS BUSINESS. I AM TRAVELLING BY TRAIN, BUT AT THE SAME TIME IN A CAR, WHICH IS BOBBING ABOUT ON THE CAR DECK, IN ORDER TO SAVE ON MILEAGE AND CHANGES IN ALTITUDE. IT IS A LESSON THAT THE ALPINE COUNTRIES HAVE LEARNT WELL: IT PROTECTS THE ENVIRONMENT AND EMPTIES THE MOTORWAYS. YET IT DOES NOT WORK IN ITALY, WHERE WE HAVE A THOUSAND KILOMETRES OF APENNINES IN ADDITION TO THE ALPS. WHO KNOWS WHY. THIS TRIP IS ALMOST A PILGRIMAGE: I AM TAKING THE PEUGEOT 403 – THE CAR MY FATHER HAD WHEN I WAS BORN – BACK TO THE FACTORY WHERE IT WAS MANUFACTURED, SIXTY YEARS AGO. CELEBRATIONS ARE PLANNED IN SOCHAUX, NINETY CARS FROM ALL OVER EUROPE. LETTING IT REST FOR A WHILE ON THE TRAIN WILL HELP IT ARRIVE IN GOOD SHAPE.

A FEW HUNDRED PEUGEOT 403S WERE SOLD IN ITALY. THE MAKE HAD ALMOST DISAPPEARED AFTER THE WAR, WHEN BUYING FOREIGN CARS WAS A LUXURY AND COMPETITION FROM THE FIAT 1400, APPIA AND GIULIETTA WAS KEENLY FELT. MAYBE TEN OR SO HAVE SURVIVED. YOU NEED TO GO OVER THE BORDER TO BUY ONE, BECAUSE IN FRANCE, EVERYONE KNOWS THE QUATRE-CENT-TROIS. IT WAS THE FIRST PEUGEOT OF A MILLION MODELS. THE SALOON VERSION WAS USED TO FERRY MIDDLE-CLASS FAMILIES AROUND, WHILE PARISIAN TAXI DRIVERS FAVOURED THE PIONEERING DIESEL MODEL, GREENGROCERS AND MILKMEN THE ”UTILITAIRE” VAN, AND THE POLICE AND AMBULANCES USED THE SEVEN-SEATER ESTATE. AND THEN THERE WERE THE TWO THOUSAND LUCKY SOULS WHO COULD AFFORD THE CONVERTIBLE, MADE FAMOUS BY LIEUTENANT COLOMBO. THE 403 WAS THE TRAILBLAZER IN AFRICA (STILL COLONIAL AT THE TIME), BEFORE THE NEVER-ENDING 404S AND 504S, WAS ALSO PRODUCED IN ARGENTINA (UNTIL THE MID 70’S), AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND. PRETTY MUCH A WORLD-CAR. BUT, FROM THE OUTSET IT WAS ALSO AN ITALIAN CAR. PIERRE PEUGEOT, ARMAND’S GREAT-NEPHEW, UNDERSTOOD THAT PININFARINA STYLE COULD ALSO BE APPLIED TO MASS PRODUCED CARS. IN 1951, AT THE TURIN MOTOR SHOW, HE INVITED THE CAR DESIGNER TO STUDY THE SHAPE OF THE NEW SALOON, TO THE GREAT DISMAY OF THE SOCHAUX STYLE CENTRE. THIS “DISMAY” WAS TO LAST HALF A CENTURY, BUT IT DID ALLOW A VIRTUOUS COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE TWO BRANDS WHICH HAS FEW PARALLELS IN THE HISTORY OF DESIGN. THE PEUGEOT MANAGEMENT WANTED THE 403 TO HAVE A SEDATE LOOK, IN CONTRAST TO THE EXTRAVAGANCES OF SIMCA AND CITROËN’S UNATTAINABLE VISION. WITH SALOMONE AND MARTINENGO’S DESIGNS, ENGINEER CARLI’S IDEAS AND BATTISTA’S EYE, PININFARINA WAS ABLE TO IMPART PROPORTIONS, ELEGANCE AND A DASH OF CHARACTER THAT ARE STILL CLEARLY DISCERNIBLE TO THIS DAY.

THE MILAN-SOCHAUX JOURNEY IN A 403, AT A HUNDRED KILOMETRES AN HOUR ON TRUNK ROADS, MAY SEEM LONG, BUT THE MUSÉE DE L’AVENTURE PEUGEOT IS WORTH THE TRIP AND THE ASSOCIATED RISKS. IF YOU HAVE AT LEAST THREE DAYS TO SPARE, THERE ARE SOME REMARKABLE STOPS TO BE MADE. AFTER BRIG AND THE SECOND RAILWAY TUNNEL LÖTSCHEN-FRUTIGEN, YOU COME TO THE BERNESE REGION: SCENERY STRAIGHT OUT OF CHOCOLATE ADVERTS AND CHARMING COUNTRY ARCHITECTURE. IT IS FROM HERE THAT YOU ARRIVE – ABOUT TIME TOO! – IN LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS, THE CITY OF WATCHES. THE SPLENDID MUSEUM OF TIME-KEEPING EXPECTS YOU TO BE PUNCTUAL, BEFORE 5 PM (DEVOTE AT LEAST A COUPLE OF HOURS OF YOUR TIME TO THIS UNIQUE PLACE, IF ONLY FOR THE WAY IN WHICH IT DISPLAYS ITS MASTERPIECES AND TELLS THEIR STORIES). THE BUILDING IS LOCATED UNDER A PARK, CLOSE TO OTHER 18TH CENTURY MUSEUMS.

THE ART OF WATCHMAKING, FROM MONUMENTAL CLOCK TOWERS TO ASTONISHING MINIATURES, IS PORTRAYED ALONG A ROUTE SPANNING FIGURATIVE ART, PHILOSOPHY AND SCIENCE.

AS YOU KNOW, CHARLES-EDOUARD JEANNERET-GRIS, KNOWN TO ALL AS LE CORBUSIER, WAS BORN AND STUDIED IN LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS. HIS FIRST CREATIONS, TWO PRIVATE VILLAS, STILL UNRECOGNISABLE IN THEIR TRADITIONAL STYLE, ARE CLEARLY VISIBLE FROM A HILLSIDE ROAD. BUT NOT FAR AWAY, THE “MAISON BLANCHE” – DESIGNED BY THE MASTER FOR HIS PARENTS – WHICH WAS TURNED INTO A FOUNDATION A FEW YEARS AGO, HAS BEEN COMPLETELY RENOVATED AND CAN BE VISITED BY APPOINTMENT. THE HOUSE, SURPRISINGLY WHITE AND MEDITERRANEAN IN ITS ALPINE SETTING, IS SURROUNDED BY TERRACES AND HANGING GARDENS. THE STYLE PROVIDES A GLIMPSE OF THE ADMIRATION THAT THE YOUNG CHARLES HAD FOR FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT AND THE INTERIORS, MAGNIFICENT IN THEIR BRILLIANCE AND PROPORTIONS, ARE SURPRISING IN THEIR COLOUR CHOICES.

THE POSTHUMOUS MONUMENT TO LOUIS CHEVROLET (PARC DE L’OUEST), ON THE OTHER HAND, IS MORE OF A REFLECTION ON THE MEANING OF LIFE THAN A TRIBUTE TO HIS WORK. HE TOO WAS BORN AMONG THESE VALLEYS BEFORE SETTING OFF ON HIS EXCEPTIONAL TRANSATLANTIC ADVENTURE IN 1900. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, AMERICA WAS IN FACT ONLY THE ADOPTED HOMELAND OF THE HEROIC DRIVER AND CARMAKER, AND WAS NOT EVEN VERY GENEROUS TOWARDS HIM, SEEING AS CHEVROLET SOON SOLD THE COMPANY THAT STILL BEARS HIS NAME AND DIED POOR.

ON LEAVING LA CHAUX, THE ROAD TO SOCHAUX GOES UP, DOWN AND THEN WINDS STEEPLY ACROSS THE JURA MASSIF UNTIL IT CUTS ACROSS THE WILD BANKS OF THE RIVER DOUBS, WHICH MARKS THE BORDER. AFTER A BLOWOUT (AUTOMOTIVELY SPEAKING, BUT ALSO GASTRONOMICALLY, AT THE BRASSERIE OF THE PEUGEOT MUSEUM), AND BEFORE LEAVING FRANCHE-COMTÉ, MAKE AN OBLIGATORY STOP-OFF IN RONCHAMP, TO MARVEL AT THE CHAPEL OF NOTRE DAME DU HAUT, BY LE CORBUSIER AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS INSPIRATION. ON THE WAY BACK, VIA BASEL, WE OPTED FOR A DAY IN ZURICH WHICH, DESPITE THE UNFORTUNATE RESTORATION WORKS (EVERYTHING SEEMS BRAND NEW) AND SOME OF THE WORST EXAMPLES OF URBAN ARCHITECTURE IN EUROPE, IS STILL A BEAUTIFUL CITY, WITH ITS CENTRE PERCHED BETWEEN THE RIVER AND THE LAKE, ITS ART MUSEUM AND ITS ELEGANT RESIDENTIAL HILLS. THE THREE HUNDRED KILOMETRES THAT SEPARATE IT FROM MILAN, FIRST ON TRUNK ROADS IN THE BEAUTIFUL REGION OF THE LAKES, THEN ON THE GOTTHARD-LUGANO MOTORWAY, ALL IN ALL PASS BY QUICKLY. THE BROGEDA CUSTOMS MARK A THOUSAND KILOMETRES IN ALL, WHILE THE BROKEN ASPHALT TELLS ME IMMEDIATELY THAT WE ARE IN ITALY. I THINK BACK TO THE FRIENDLY MAN FROM MARSEILLES WHO SOLD ME THE 403 A FEW YEARS AGO. “LET’S NOT TURN A PLEASURE TRIP INTO A NIGHTMARE”, I HAD WRITTEN TO HIM BEFORE LEAVING. “TELL ME IF I NEED TO HIRE A TOW TRUCK.” “IF YOU WANT TO THROW MONEY OUT THE WINDOW, THEN GO AHEAD AND HIRE ONE”, HE REPLIED. “THIS IS A CAR THAT WILL ALWAYS GET YOU BACK HOME.”

GIOSUÈ BOETTO COHEN