Autoroutes in France (1980)
Mitteleuropa: The Alps crowning the top of Italy are visible with the valleys of France to the west and the plan of Hungary and Slovenia to the east.
Geographically, France occupies the left hand flank of the Alps, and Austria the right hand side. Italy sits directly underneath the crown of the Alps, between the two. In the summertime the Italian Riviera (and Adriatic) and the French Riviera have always been popular destinations. In the age of railways, the traffic this created mattered little. The increasing prevalence of automobile ownership throughout Europe in the Thirties increased pressure on France's trunk road system, the Route Natiionale. France's geographic position meant that traffic heading for the Riviera or Spain from Germany or the low countries would have to travel south through France. By the Sixties, throughout Europe the two-lane blacktop system of asphalt roads built in the Twenties were overloaded and other European countries looked to build a new divided highway system like Germany's pre-war Autobahns. The French state was a socialist monolith and large infrastructure projects could be both conceived, funded and constructed with all the advantages of a single will gives to such endeavors. This advantage was not only reaped by the French themselves but by Germany and the low countries, who used the southern routes through France to the coast. The French Autoroute system could cut the elapsed time in half. I drove a new Ferrari F40 from Halle to Antibes in only four hours, using the newly built Autoroute. The six land divided highways provided a new environment which permitted automobile designers to focus on cars which performed well at speeds over 160km/h (100mph). On the old two-lane blacktops, these speeds could be reached on long straights but maintaining high speeds meant maintaining speeds through 100km/h corners and accelerating to maximum velocity between them. This was a different focus of design. German drivers heading for the French Riviera would join the French Autoroute as darkness fell and reach the stretch of A7 south of Dijon in the small hours of the night. The advantage of this journey timing was that they could avoid the daytime traffic chokes, with the inside lanes filled with lines of caravans. The night time traffic would be punctuated by the powerful Mercedes-Benz and BMW saloon cars drafting down the outside lane with their outside indicators on, flashing like aircraft strobes, to warn impending vehicles to pull over into the inside lane. Many Parisiennes would also wait until the small hours of the night to make their journey to the Riviera.
Like most change, it produces benefits and nostalgia for the advantages of the old system. Pushing a fast car through the night across France's Route Nationale system was tremendous fun and some respectable elapsed times could be set using two drivers. English drivers heading to the Alps to ski our mountaineer still had to reach the French Autoroute system from the coast at Calais and then leave the Autoroute system at Macon Nord on the A7 to head cross-country for Bourge-en-Bresse then climb through the foothills of the Alps through the gorge at Nantua. On the way back, fast straight D-roads parallel the Autoroute on the eastern side and it was common to head north on these for a further two junctions and join the Autoroute further north. In fact there were good routes from around Bourge-en-Bresse which took your north west to join the autoroute much further up. A friend who had just collected his Ferrari 288 GTO from the factory used one of these routes he knew well when we drove the car to back to Paris.
In the Sixties a friend was driving his Bentley on a cross-country journey through France and during the afternoon as they sped through a village they heard a gunshot and looked in the mirror to see an irate Gendarme striding into the middle of the street behind them. He had been in the town square and seeing the Bentley flying past he drew his pistol and shot into the air. They pretended not to speak French and so gave them a stern lecture in German and sent them on their way with an admonishion to observe the speed limit.
The Autoroute extended in the Nineties. Travel from north of Paris to the A6 required joining the Periperique , which in the day time would be choked with traffic. A by-pass around Marne-le-Vallee was added, as well as an entirely different autoroute system going to the east of Paris via Troyes and joining the A7 north of Dijon. In the east, the Swiss autoroute system and the south, the connection between Bordeaux and San Sebastian was put in. This particular stretch of autoroute was superb for testing top speed. The construction of new autoroutes provided navigational hazards particularly if driving without a co-driver, as on what were once well-known routes suddenly would appear new junctions and which required a flurry of map reading as the present crash-landed on the past at 200km/h (126mph). There is something in the genetic make-up of GT-Man which prevents him from lifting-off or, heavens, actually pulling over and stopping to look at the map. Assuming he is actually carrying one.
Michelin Map 1980 showing French Autoroute network.
The A1 Autoroute north to Lille did not have a branch to the Channel Ports until the late Eighties
Michelin map of France 1980, Paris, Marseilles, Nice
In 1974 the A6 Autoroute from Paris to the Riviera was completed. After this, the Autoroute A1 to Lille. In the late Eighties, the branch of Autoroute from Lille to Dover and the Channel Ports, and an autoroute from Maçon through Bourg-en-Bresse up to Geneva, eliminating the last of the cross-country stretches. The mountain gorge up to Chamonix is too narrow to accommodate a four lane highway and so they built a single expressway on stilts to take heavy traffic up from the valley through the gorge into the Chamonix Valley . The old road with its switchbacks is still there and takes traffic down the mountain. It is still a dangerous descent as it ever was and brake fires on trucks are just as common.
Michelin map of France and Europe 1980. Red area mark marks the Iron Curtain and the East German border.
The following are schematic maps of the Autoroute network
1980 A1 Paris Bruxelles, Lille, Calais
1980 A6 Paris-Lyon, Melun, Auxerre.
1980 A6 Paris Lyon, Villefranche, Vienne, Maçon, Bourge-en-Bresse. At this time, the to head for Geneva, you would come off at Maçon-Nord and head cross-country to Bourge-en-Bresse, then up through the gorge at Nantua and on to Bellegarde on the 400m plateau which Geneva and the Genfersee lie. The rising, twisting road was best navigated on a motorcycle because of all the overtaking required. Clusters of automobiles would gather behind trucks and delivery vans chugging up the gorge, while the downward traffic had plenty of speed, which compressed the overtaking window. There were never any speed traps, however.
1980 A72 Clermont-Ferrand. St Etienne
1980 A7 Lyon-Orange. Valence, Montelimar, Avignon. It was usually in the small hours of the night that these names came up on the road signs.
1980 A40 Maçon-Chamonix, Lyon, Geneva, Grenoble, Chambery.
The constrction of the autoroute above the N84 in the gorge above Nantua. The long elevated section which runs along the mountainside is to the left of frame. To the right of frame the autoroute comes out of a long tunnel through the mountainside.
1980 Marseille. Aix-en-Provence.
1980 A50 Marseille-Toulon
1980: A7 Marseille-Spain
The A6 runs from Paris to Lyon, where it becomes the A7. The old RN7 runs south from Paris to Moulins, thence bears south east to Lyon, then turns south down the narrow valley of the Rhône to the Avignon and the Riviera beyond. The RN6 followed the main route south from Paris to just south of Dijon, then south down the valley of the Sôane to Lyon, where it swung east to Chambery, Modane and the Italian border. The fastest route in the pre-Autoroute era was a combination of the RN6 out of Paris to Lyon and thence continue directly south onto the RN7 to Avignon and the Riviera. That is why the Autoroute from Paris to Avignon and the Riviera starts as the A6 and continues from Lyon at the A7. The valley of the Rhône is narrow and all of the communications within it are pressed against the river. This is advantageous because you can see easily the train you are racing. Traffic for Geneva and the Alps used to peel off to the east just after Maçon to pick up the road for Bourg-en-Bresse.
Michelin Map 1981
+ SEE ALSO
- Paris-Riviera: Racing the Train Bleu and the TGV
- Crossing from England to France and to Italy in the 1960s - The making of The Italian Job (1969).
- The Persuaders! (1971).
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