The Stelvio Pass is both a unique geographical wonder and a major engineering achievement. At 9,045ft (2,757m) above sea level, it’s the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and as such it’s featured numerous times in automotive television shows, magazines and websites over the years. Quite simply, it’s breathtaking.
Recently, I made my second visit to famous road on the Northern Italy and Switzerland border, and on this occasion I couldn’t have timed it better.
On my first visit here, I made the mistake of heading up into the mountains a little late, so by the time I arrived at the peak it was dark. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make this journey again, and this time I built an extra couple of hours into my schedule.
Even though we were driving a little rental Fiat 500, my body and mind felt the adrenaline rush after tackling the pass’s 60 hairpin turns. Road ‘SS38′ is short for ‘Strada Statale 38′, but I like to think it stands for ‘Special Stage 38′, such is its rally-like nature.
In 2007, one famous British car show named Stelvio Pass the ‘Greatest Driving Road in the World’, and ever since then SS38 has been a victim of its own success. During the holiday season, the road is such a hot-spot that it’s impossible to get a clear run up to the peak. That said, the authorities have been improving the pass for the increased traffic, adding little pockets and run-off areas so that slower traffic can safely pull over the side of the road and not hold others up.
If you’re a driving enthusiast, I feel like the best time to visit is in autumn as it’s far less crowded than it is in summer, but the later you leave it the more you risk bad weather, or missing out completely as the pass is closed from November to May. On this dreary September day, only a few cars – Abarths mostly – squeezed past us coming down the pass as we made our ascent.
You might wonder what the typical soundtrack on a mountain pass in the Alps is. Wind? Engine roars? There’s both those things, but mainly it’s cowbells and the occasional moo.
While I was photographing the surroundings at the peak, the weather really closed in with more snow. Unfortunately, the valley and cascade road was barely visible.
I met two guys up top, and they told me that there was an Abarth club meet happening at a nearby town, and around 30 of the members had been driving the pass for fun, which explained the oncoming traffic we had experienced on the way up.
Soon after, a red Mazda Miata reached the parking lot. Being a Miata owner myself, I was a little envious and had to go and have a chat to the owner. This particular NA version has had a later NB model BP-4W 1.8-liter engine swapped into it, and combined with semi-slicks it’s surely a recipe for fun times on the pass.
The Miata owner told me he was taking part in The European Mountain Summit rally with a few friends, and that soon enough there’d be a many more cars emerging from out of the mist.
Over the next hour, an eclectic mix of machinery, from classics Minis and BMWs to Jaguars and even a Mercedes-Benz Unimog arrived at the top of the pass. Apparently there was even a limousine in the rally, but I’m not sure how that would have fared with so many tight hairpins.
For me, this 1977 Opel Kadett GT/E was the highlight. This model was one of the Golf GTI’s earliest rivals, and this particular car is obviously setup for proper competition use with over-fenders, wide wheels with semi-slick tires, and a roll cage. Unfortunately the crew stopped only for a brief second in the carpark before heading back down the mountain.
Despite the conditions, it seemed like the pass was more popular with motorbike riders and cyclists than it was cars. Stelvio is steeped in two-wheel history, with the famous Giro d’Italia bicycle race passing through the area since the ’50s.
After some time at the peak it was our cue to leave; the temperature had dropped and it was getting dark. Unfortunately, the downhill road to Bormio was closed due to a big dumping of snow, so we took the other only available option (not counting going back) – Umbrailpass through Switzerland. Because who doesn’t like to tick another country off the list on a road trip?
I wasn’t sure would there be a story at all up here in the mountains, but the fellow speed enthusiasts I talked to on this day reminded me that wherever we go we are all united by the passion for driving, machinery, and road adventures – even if we don’t speak the same language or come from a different cultural background.
So despite the Stelvio Pass being busier than it’s ever been, it’s still the perfect place to meet like-minded petrol-heads.
Additional Photos by Elin Celuyco