Back in the 1950s, there were few cars in Zermatt, partly because they were relatively expensive, but also because the road from St Niklaus was in a pretty poor state.
As is the case today, drivers had to leave their cars on the edge of resort, before transferring to horse-drawn carriages for the final journey into Zermatt.
Horse-drawn taxis were time-consuming
At that time, Heinrich Imboden ran a taxi company with nine carriages and as the number of tourists increased, so did the company.
According to Raphael Imboden, grandson of Heinrich and an engineer at STIMBO, a company that builds electric vehicles in Zermatt, these original equine taxis were an enormous logistical undertaking:
“If a customer needed a taxi in the middle of the night, then my grandfather, my uncle Stefan or my father Bruno had to get up, go to the stable, get the horses ready, drive to the pick-up location, drop off his fare, then put the horses back in the stable and go back home.”
Replacing the horse with electric taxis
That was far too time-consuming for as little as five minutes of work. So to simplify the process, the Imboden family came up with the idea of replacing the horse with a small electric vehicle.
The Imboden taxi company started with two vehicles bought from Pfander, a Swiss car maker that no longer exists today. Heinrich, his sons and staff used the two vehicles for a while until they were confiscated by the police.
The police first said they weren’t allowed to use the vehicles, before allowing use at the peak time on Saturday evenings when more taxis were needed.
However, the police decided that the mix of these small vehicles worked well and the time limit was expanded to include Saturdays during the day, and then eventually midweek evenings as well.
Electric vehicles only
In the early 1980s Zermatt took the decision to convert fully to electric vehicles, but stipulated that vehicles had to be completely electric; no longer than 4m; no wider than 1.4m; and no higher than 2m. A speed limit of 20 km/h was also imposed.
It was at this time that Imboden decided to produce electric taxis and formed ‘STIMBO’ (ST for Stefan, IM for Imboden and BO for Bruno).
According to Raphael Imboden:
“They used their experience from repairs to the Pfander models to produce vehicles that were better adapted to mountain conditions.”
A car production line in Zermatt
Since 1996 the vehicles have been completely designed in the local Valais canton. The Heinrich Brenner workshop in Gampel manufactures the chassis and the frame is made by the Pollinger company in St Niklaus.
You may not realise it but there’s actually a car production line located at the foot of the Matterhorn – even if it only makes around 15 vehicles a year.
After the chassis and frame are combined, the vehicle is transported to the STIMBO workshop in Zermatt, where they add the doors, windows, wiring, batteries, axles, seats and steering. The batteries have a maximum capacity of 43kWh, giving the 1.7 tonne vehicles a range of 120-130km.
Available from CHF60,000
According to Imboden, it can take three months from design to production as every customer has specific requirements. Options can include the number of passengers; payload; and rear, front or all-wheel drive.
The number of electric vehicles in Zermatt is limited by law to around 500 and private ownership is not allowed – any applying companies must prove a need exists before they are allowed to purchase one.
It’s unlikely to be a vanity purchase though, as the vehicles cost CHF60,000 and more. The price can go as high as CHF140,000 with top-of-the-range upgrades.
The good news is that, while expensive, the STIMBO model has a long service life, with many of the 350-400 electric vehicles they have produced still in action.
“The very first STIMBO is still in use. And our current aluminium chassis vehicles last at least 30 to 40 years. Of course, the battery or motor will change, but the chassis is indestructible!”Raphael Imboden, STIMBO
Accommodation in Zermatt
If you are considering a trip to Zermatt, there’s no need to worry about your taxis from the station or out to dinner at night.