Aston drive to Blofeld’s lair to Bond Hideaway. Infiltrating Blofeld’s mountain lair ‘Ah, Mr Dixon. We’ve been expecting you’ On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of Mark Dixon’s favourite Bond films – and arch-villain Blofeld’s mountain hideaway still exists. Time to fire up the Aston and head for Switzerland. Photography Tom Salt archive images Alamy.
By Aston to Bond Baddie’s lair. Infiltrating an Alpine hide-out in the swansong DB9 GT.
It’s one of those moments that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. I’m relaxing in the Club Lounge of P&O’s cross-Channel flagship, the Spirit of Britain, idly wondering whether to have another complimentary coffee while I flick through a copy of The Daily Telegraph. Several decks below, an 2016 Aston Martin DB9 GT rests patiently, waiting to whisk me across the Continent to Switzerland, where our destination is the mountain-top restaurant known as Piz Gloria – and familiar to generations as Blofeld’s lair in the 1969 Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
I’m about to toss the paper back onto a nearby table when the obituary page catches my eye. Half of it is given over to a handsome Italian actor called Gabriele Ferzetti, who has just died at the age of 90. And my heart skips a beat… because, in the film, Ferzetti played the part of Marc-Ange Draco, a mafia boss and father of Bond’s love interest Tracy (acted by contemporary star of The Avengers, Diana Rigg). The coincidence is spooky.
OHMSS is chiefly remembered for its one and only appearance by George Lazenby as James Bond. It’s long been fashionable to mock Lazenby’s performance but I genuinely don’t understand why. I think he did a good job and the film itself is actually one of the best – perhaps the best until Skyfall came along 43 years later. It surely has the most powerful ending, too: an unusually downbeat scene in which Bond, married to Tracy for just a few hours, cradles his murdered wife to the strains of Louis Armstrong singing We Have All The Time In The World, after she has been assassinated by SPECTRE’s Irma Bunt (the grim-faced woman who looks like an East German shot-putter).
The film is also unusual in following Ian Fleming’s original novel, first published in 1963, very closely. The essence of the plot is this: Bond rescues Tracy; her father Marc-Ange Draco, a mafia boss, is grateful; Draco and Bond join forces to defeat Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas in the movie); Tracy and Bond marry; Tracy dies; The End.
Along the way, both novel and film feature some fantastic chases by car, ski and bobsled, with a lot of the action taking place in Switzerland. Blofeld has a private clinic perched on the very top of an Alp, where he’s brainwashing beautiful girls under the pretence of curing them. Remarkably, that ‘clinic’ still exists – as a restaurant and jumping-off point (literally) for what Drive-My’s Robert Coucher calls ‘controlled falling down mountains’, and what other people refer to as skiing.
If you’re making a Bond pilgrimage then it surely has to be in an Aston, even though, in the book, Bond drives a supercharged Bentley Continental – ‘the R-Type chassis with the big six engine and a 13:40 back axle ratio,’ says Fleming – and in the film it’s the then-new DBS. Petrolheads will particularly appreciate Fleming’s description of how Bond first encounters Tracy when she overtakes him in a Lancia Flaminia Zagato Spider, ‘the sexy boom of its twin exhausts echoing back from the border of trees’.
Drive-My’s tribute will be paid in the latest DB9 GT, the final iteration of the car that really brought Aston Martin into the 21st Century. Finished in black with black alloys, and Piano Black interior, it is (if you’ll forgive the pun) suitably low-key, as befits a secret agent, or anyone hoping to travel through France without a brick being heaved through their windscreen by someone who hasn’t forgotten the Revolution.
Funny thing is, although les grenouilles can come over all Republican when it comes to flash motors, the Aston attracts nothing but admiration. It is, undeniably, a gorgeous car. Because it’s a relatively old design, styled by Henrik Fisker in the pre-Reichman era at Aston Martin and first shown at Frankfurt in 2003, it would be very easy to dismiss the DB9 as yesterday’s hero. But the current car, its bodywork sharpened and engine uprated, shows the benefits of well over a decade’s honing and improvement.
It is also remarkably, blissfully, user-friendly. You just get in and drive. Touch-sensitive switches operate most of the secondary controls, so there’s no need to swot up on the owner’s manual first or scroll through endless menu options. The prospect – both literal and metaphorical – is simply beautiful.
So the DB9 GT is that very desirable thing, a car that makes you feel good just by sitting in it. But you’ll feel even better when you’re driving. The GT’s V12 is the most powerful version fitted to a DB9, offering 540bhp and 457lb ft of torque, so there’s rarely a need to exercise the tendons in your right foot. Yet it’s always worth selecting the engine’s Sport option because the car feels so much more alive. Its reflexes are faster and that V12 becomes a whole lot more vocal, taking on a seductive throatiness that sounds like James Brown gargling with mouthwash, and pop-pop- popping testily on the overrun. The DB9 GT may not have the luxury of the eight-speed gearbox fitted to its more modern siblings but the six-speed Touchtronic 2 works seamlessly and, let’s face it, six forward gears is not exactly slumming it.
After a night-time halt at Reims, Zurich airport is easily reached by 3pm the following day for my rendezvous with photographer Tom Salt. We then plunge into the heart of the Swiss mountains, heading for a valley road south from Interlaken. Just before it dead-ends there’s a cable car station, where we must abandon the faithful DB9. Our destination is the tiny resort village of Mürren, on the lower slopes of the mountain called the Schilthorn, at the very top of which is Piz Gloria. But no cars are allowed in Mürren, so there’s no alternative but to take the cable car.
This cable car system is a marvel of civil engineering, the longest of its type in the world. In OHMSS there’s an exciting chase scene at Piz Gloria, which involves Bond hanging off one of the cables to escape Blofeld’s henchmen. Stuntman George Leech doubled for Lazenby here, suspended below the icy cable by a concealed hook. The story goes that he started sliding unchecked down the cable, and was only prevented from disappearing into the valley by a quick-witted assistant, who caught him at one of the supporting pillars.
The original cable cars used in the movie were replaced a couple of decades ago but the experience hasn’t changed since the system opened in 1967. As you sway gently in a glass box suspended from a wire, hundreds of feet above the unforgiving rocky terrain, the steepness of the initial ascent is mind-blowing – and yet Mürren is relatively low down the mountain. From here to the top it’s the best part of a mile. That’s not a mile cross-country, or a mile as the eagle flies, but a mile straight up. Vertically.
‘Ah, Mr Dixon. We’ve been expecting you,’ says the receptionist at the Hotel Alpenruh. Actually, he doesn’t quite say that, but he really should, because the Schilthorn doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to its OHMSS association. Mürren served as the headquarters for the movie’s crew and many of the locals were recruited as extras. About 20 local ski instructors were also hired to obtain the thrilling shots needed for the chase scenes – some of which involved cameraman Willy Bogner skiing backwards down the mountain on custom-made skis that were bent up at the back as well as the front.
No-one is more aware of the benefits for tourism than Schilthorn Cableway sales manager Alan Ramsay, an ex-pat Scot who has lived here for 16 years, and we’ve arranged to meet in the morning for a guided tour of Piz Gloria, the hideaway of Ernst Stavros Blofeld. ‘The story goes that a German called Hubert Fröhlich was tasked with finding a suitable location in the Alps, and came upon this place when it was part-built but running out of money,’ explains Alan, as we take breakfast (complete with 007-dusted cappuccinos) in the famous revolving restaurant – which actually is revolving, at a speed slow enough to be only mildly disturbing.
‘Eon Productions agreed to finance the construction in return for using it as a location. They built the helipad and also helped to finish the cable car extension to Piz Gloria. After filming, they simply handed it all back to the owners.’
While this conversation is taking place, a dense mist is swirling around the huge picture windows. It’s intensely disappointing because we know the view must be spectacular, and yet we’re in the middle of a cloud. Still, at least we can play ‘spot the movie prop’ inside the restaurant – the decorative latticework in which Diana Rigg jams a henchman’s head during the fight scene is still there, although it was actually replicated in painted wood rather than wrought metal for that particular shot.
Although Piz Gloria is still instantly recognisable as the movie location, it’s been extensively re-modelled since OHMSS ’s time.
The biggest change has been the addition of the revolving outer circle to the restaurant during the 1980s, which has made it much larger in diameter. At the time of our visit, yet more rebuilding work was in progress – and we were treated to a preview of the hologram images of George Lazenby that will pop up in front of ladies visiting the female facilities. The helipad that had such a prominent role in the film – not least for the sequence in which Bond, pretending to be heraldry expert Sir Hilary Bray, plays a game of curling with Blofeld’s girls – has been replaced by a 12-sided building that houses an OHMSS exhibition. It has lots of movie trivia and some clever interactive exhibits, such as the Aérospatiale Alouette helicopter fuselage that is tricked out as a basic kind of flight simulator. Amusingly, not to say kinkily, you can watch an interview with George Lazenby from inside the semicircular enclosure of a giant kilt, and hear Lazenby’s explanation as to why he never played Bond again after OHMSS : ‘It was the time of “make love, not war”, the opposite of what James Bond was all about, and I wanted to be fashionable; Easy Rider was the movie then, and I thought Bond was finished. They offered me a million dollars to do another Bond movie, but my manager told me I’d make that by doing two movies in Italy… I should have done the Bond one!’
Lazenby admits that he was very lucky to have been given the gig in the first place. ‘They wouldn’t let me in the casting office because I wasn’t a union member! I could see some dudes in there with the suits and everything, while I had a French haircut with long sideburns… So I went and got an English haircut, an English suit, a Rolex watch, and I waited until the receptionist ducked under her desk and then I ran past and up the stairs. If I hadn’t have done that, I would never have got the job.’
It’s mesmerising stuff for any Bond fan but we’re about to experience something even more exciting. While we’ve been inside, the fog has lifted, and Piz Gloria and the surrounding peaks are suddenly bathed in brilliant sunshine. We emerge on the viewing platform to find it bitterly cold, the railings of the viewing platform coated in ice, but the scenery jaw-droppingly beautiful in every direction. Whichever way you turn there are snow-capped mountain peaks. There has scarcely been a Bond location as spectacular as this, and snapper Salt and I both agree that it would make a fabulous location for an Aston Martin launch – the latest model could be helicoptered up, no problem…
No chance of bringing our DB9 up that way, unfortunately, so we board the series of cable cars that will take us back to the valley floor. On the way down, Alan points out the remains of the bobsled run at Mürren that was used for one of the chase sequences. Closed back in the 1930s because it was too dangerous, it was re-opened specially for OHMSS. Up to 22 runs a day could be filmed, with the racing sleds lifted back to the start by helicopter after every run. It was hugely dangerous work.
Although it’s well into winter, there’s been an unusual lack of snowfall in the weeks leading up to our trip. We’re determined to find some in which to shoot the Aston, however, so Alan pulls out his mobile and starts networking. He has the bright idea of calling the local bus company, which agrees that we can follow one of its rural services up a road that’s closed to private vehicles, which will take us above the snow line. Our suitably Bondian orders? ‘Be at the bus station at 9.30am. Make yourself known to the driver’.
Our driver is a cheery young chap who, like pretty much everyone we meet, confounds the stereotype of the Swiss being a humourless nation. He leads us up a twisty mountain road to a point where dry tarmac ends and compacted snow and ice begin, checks that we have snow chains ready to fit – which we do – and departs with a cheery wave in his four-wheel- drive, studded-tyre-shod machine.
Although the Aston is wearing Pirelli Sottozero winter tyres, they can’t even begin to cope with the polished, slippery surface. So, how to fit these snow chains to the wheels…
It takes me a mere 30 minutes to work it out, after which we get back in the car and progress maybe a whole 50 yards further – before the Aston comes to a slithering, shuddering halt, its rear wheels spinning helplessly. The reason quickly becomes obvious: the snow chains only cover the outer 40% of the tread, which means that as soon as they dig down into the compacted snow, the rest of the tyre sits on the surface and stops them getting any more purchase. They are, quite frankly, useless.
Ah well, at least we tried. Instead we content ourselves with seeking out further locations from the movie. The railway station at Lauterbrunnen is just down the valley, but it has been heavily rebuilt since Bond arrived there in his guise of Sir Hilary Bray, to be greeted by Irma Bunt in a horse-drawn sleigh. No, what we really want to find is the site of the ice racing sequence, the centrepiece of the movie’s brilliant night-time car chase.
Tracy has just rescued Bond in her Mercury Cougar Cobra Jet convertible and the pair are being hotly pursued by Irma Bunt and assorted baddies in a ‘fintail’ Mercedes when they drive into the middle of an ongoing motor race on ice – cue lots of stock-car style shunts involving Minis and Mk1 Escorts.
In the film, the ‘hero cars’ have to drive down off the road and onto the ice track, and that’s the giveaway: we reckon the race must have been staged on some low-lying, billiard-table- like fields just outside Lauterbrunnen, even though no trace now remains.
Mission accomplished, it’s time to go home. Tom Salt is deposited back at Zurich airport and I settle in for the long haul to Calais. The DB9 GT has become thoroughly dirt-streaked after our adventures but, if anything, the signs of hard use just make it look cooler, and I’ve really fallen in love with this handsome, characterful Aston Martin. It would be all too easy to dismiss this old-stager in favour of its younger siblings but that would be a grave mistake. Understated and effortless, it’s a fine complement to Bond’s DB5, and thoroughly worthy of a modern-day 007.
Thanks To P&O Ferries, www.poferries.com; and Alan Ramsay at Schilthorn Cableway. To find out more about the Bond-related exhibits at Piz Gloria, and how to get there, visit schilthorn.ch.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2016 Aston Martin DB9 GT
ENGINE 5935cc V12, DOHC per bank, 48-valve, electronic fuel injection
MAX POWER 540bhp @ 6750rpm / DIN
MAX TORQUE 457lb ft @ 5500rpm / DIN
TRANSMISSION Six-speed automatic (ZF 6HP), rear-wheel drive
STEERING Power-assisted rack and pinion
SUSPENSION Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
BRAKES Carbon-ceramic discs
PERFORMANCE Top speed 183mph / 0-60mph 4.4sec / 0-100mph 10sec
Left and below The DB9 may be 13 years old but it has aged superbly and has been developed into one of the all-time great Aston Martins; interior is beautiful as well as comfortable.
Facing page There’s plenty to amuse the Bond enthusiast at Piz Gloria, including a flight simulator based in a genuine helicopter fuselage and a clever touchscreen table packed with OHMSS trivia, but the highlight of any visit has to be a meal in the outer circle of the restaurant as it slowly revolves. Clockwise from top right Dixon struggles to fit snow chains to the Aston; Piz Gloria as it appeared in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; DB9 GT above the snow line; Piz Gloria today – the nearest 12-sided building houses a Bond exhibition; a helicopter pad was built especially for the film.
‘Kinkily, you can watch an interview with George Lazenby from inside the semi-circular enclosure of a giant kilt’
‘Finished in black with black alloys, our DB9 GT is suitably low-key, as befits a secret agent’
‘A lot of the action takes place in Switzerland, and Blofeld’s “clinic” still exists as a restaurant’