Paris - Riviera


The natural sporting element within drivers of fast cars leads them to attempt better elapsed times for journeys which they undertake, especially significant journeys such as the long drive south through France to the Riviera.

By the Twenties, the best steam locomotives such as Gresley's A3 Pacifics Wikipedia - Gresley A3 had exceeded 160kmh / 100mph and the target of most powerful automobiles was to exceed this speed. Trains had the advantage of fast straight tracks without obstacle, but the automobiles had to negotiate all manner of hazards on twisting roads, which added to the excitement.

The Train Bleu and the Bentleys



In March of 1930, Wolf Barnato, one of the Bentley Boys Wikipedia - Bentley Boys, was staying at the Hotel Carlton Wikipedia - Carlton in Cannes Wikipedia - Cannes and entered a wager that he could not only beat the the Train Bleu Wikipedia - Train Bleu Link - Train BleuLink - Train Bleu from Cannes to Paris, but that he would arrive at his Club in London before the Train Bleu reached Paris.

The Train Bleu was one of the famous named trains which were hauled by French railways, but operated by PLM Wikipedia - PLM. Much like the fast luxury liners Wikipedia - Liners Link - of their day, the CIWL trains and trains like them provided a means for the wealthy to travel between ever more distant locations. The quality of transport made the journey a destination in itself, especially the fine cuisine. The Train Bleu trains were perhaps the high point of travel to the Riviera, or indeed travel anywhere, the passengers travelling in style both in dress and environs and arriving refreshed and rested.

This race would be the start of a series Wikipedia - Blue Train Races between automobiles and the Train Blue .

Train Bleu
Photograph copyright Trains-WorldwideExpress Link - Train Bleu

Train Bleu
Photograph copyright Trains-WorldwideExpress Link - Train Bleu

Train Bleu
Train Bleu at Villefranche-sur-Mer Wikipedia - Villefranche-sur-Mer . The harbor is behind the camera left, as are the locations used in Ronin (1998) and The Persuaders! (1971). Photograph copyright Trains-WorldwideExpress Link - Train Bleu

The race began at 17:45HRS and indeed Wolf Barnato entered his club four minutes before the train reached the Gare d'Austerlitz Wikipedia - Gare d'Austerlitz. Barnato drove a H. J. Mulliner-bodied Bentley Speed Six saloon during the race. From the Wikipedia article Wikipedia - Blue Train Bentley:

In January 1930, the Rover Company's Rover Light Six gained a worldwide reputation when it was the first successful participant in the Blue Train Races, a series of record-breaking attempts between automobiles and trains in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It saw a number of motorists and their own or sponsored automobiles race against the Le Train Bleu, a train that ran between Calais and the French Riviera.

One evening in March 1930, at a dinner at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, talk around the table had swung round to the topic of motor cars; in particular to the advertisement by Rover claiming that its Rover Light Six had gone faster than the famous "Le train bleu" express. Woolf Barnato contended that just to go faster than the Blue Train was of no special merit. He raised the stakes by arguing that at the wheel of is own Bentley Speed Six, he could be at his club in London before the train reached Calais and bet 100 Pound Sterling on that challenge! The next day, the 13 March 1930, as the Blue Train steamed out of Cannes station at 17:45h, Barnato, with one of his friends who had gallantly offered to act as a relief driver, took to the mighty Bentley and set off at the double. From Lyons onwards they had to battle against heavy rain. At 4:20h, in Auxerre, they lost time searching for a refueling rendezvous. Through central France they hit fog, then shortly after Paris they had a burst tyre, requiring the use of their one and only spare. And yet, racing non-stop through the night along the bumpy, 1930's Routes Nationales, they reached the coast at 10:30h, sailed over to England on the cross-Channel packet, and were neatly parked outside The Conservative Club in St. James's Street, London, by 15:20h - four minutes before the Blue Train reached Calais. He won the bet, whereupon the French authorities promptly fined him a sum far greater than his winnings - for racing on public roads.

The »cross-Channel packet« referred to in the text is a cross-Channel steamship which carried the mail between Dover station and Calais station. A steamer carrying the mail was referred to as a »packet«



Less well known is the performance of this Bentley Derby four and half liter Top Hat Saloon of 1936, which raced the Train Bleu from Paris to Cannes in 1936.

1935 Bentley Top Hat Saloon
This photograph was taken at Leeds Castle Wikipedia - Leeds Castle in Kent, south England. Several of the Bentley Boys Wikipedia - Bentley Boys used to attend the society parties given at the castle in the Thirties.


1935 Bentley Top Hat Saloon
Bentley Derby four and half liter Top Hat Saloon 1936. Its present owner is only its second. Only four Top Hat saloons were made.

SNCF by Rene Groebli
Thundering southwards, an SNCF locomotive. View from the footplate by photographer René Groebli


DDAC 1940 map of Europa
DDAC 1940 map of Europa. The main railway line from Paris to Cannes is marked in red. The Route of the Route Nationale is marked in purple.


The races would take place on the recently constructed Route Nationale main road system constructed in the Twenties in a number of countries like the US Route system Wikipedia - US Highway (denoted US-numeral) or the English Trunk Roads Wikipedia - Trunk Road (denoted A-numeral). Prior to this, the routes used roads which had been in use for millenium, the tracks which wound from village to village, occasionally widened or surfaced as carriage roads. These were the first all-asphalt roads constructed in response to the increasing use of automobiles. Prior to that surfaces might be hardcore with gravel overlain. These roads are rare now, with the last to be asphalted the highest Alpine passes sometime in the early Eighties.

At the time there was little automobile traffic and the biggest hazards would be horse-drawn vehicles, dogs and chickens. The roads were not lit at night, hence the demand for giant Marchal headlights mounted on the front of fast cars. In the final analysis the absence of street lighting was beneficial because the vision of the driver would have to adjust to the black and white image coming toward him in order to see unlit obstacles. Not a problem in western Europe any longer but common throughout eastern Europe and the Balkans are unlit farm vehicles on the road at night, even on four-lane highways. A friend of mine was killed in Serbia when at night he drove into the back of an unlit hay trailer in his Ferrari 512TR.

Marchal Headlights

These routes were an ideal environment for driving fast over long distances. A halcyon time for driving. Automobile ownership was not common and the roads were clear of traffic. The first ever traffic jam (Stau) seems to have been created by the Schneider Trophy Wikipedia - Schneider Trophy races held at Southampton in South England in the Thirties .

Steam locomotives increased their top speed over 158kmh / 100mph reaching 189kph / 120 mph and finally 198kmh / 126 mph with Sir Nigel Gresley's Mallard Wikipedia - Mallard . French locomotive design was led by France's equivalent of Sir Nigel Gresley, André Chapelon Wikipedia - André Chapelon Wikipedia - André Chapelon, who produced some outstanding fast passenger locomotives and it would be these locomotives which hauled fast trains like the Train Bleu and the Mistral which the drivers of fast automobiles would have to race. Chapelon's designs were so good that his locomotives were more powerful than the French Electric locomotives of the day.

In the Thirties, Germany was the first to build Autobahns, which were not copied in other countries until the late Sixties. The Autobahns when first constructed were four-lane divided highways without, at that time, an Armco barrier. Autobahns provided as bigger leap forward in automobile travel as the construction of the trunk roads in the Twenties.

It would be Autobahns which ushered in a new era in the struggle between locomotives and automobiles.

Autobahns in the early post-war period
Top - 1961 the M1 Motorway and the new E-type Jaguar.
Center - 1958 the Autobahn in the Schwarzwald.
Bottom - 1945 the A8 near München

Autobahn pre-war


Train Bleu



TGV versus the Autoroute

»...because the times ... they are a'changing...«

Construction of the French Autoroute system was begun in the Sixties and eventually provided a six lane divided highway all the way from Paris to the Riviera Wikipedia - French Riviera. This highway channeled the large volumes of vacation traffic from the north to the Riviera, which let the celebrated Route Nationale RN6 and RN7 Wikipedia - Wikipedia - revert to backwaters.

France had, at the same time, constructed new railway tracks which permitted higher speeds from its TGV Wikipedia - TGV electric trains, the fastest in Europe. The first section, between Paris and Lyon, opened 1981-SEP-21. At speeds above 190kph / 120 mph the quest for speed stops being a quest for more power at higher reciprocating speeds and becomes a question of the quality of the track. Ordinary railway locomotives and rolling stock describe a slow sine wave between the two rails: They wander gently. At speeds above 190kph / 120 mph the locomotive would risk jumping from the track because the wandering has become so violent. To increase speeds, new tracks must be laid usually with larger radius curves and even tighter tolerances in the laying and dimensions of its rails. These new tracks are what the Japanese with the Bullet Trains Wikipedia - Bullet Trains and the French with their TGV had to construct. Furthermore, freight trains are usually banned from the tracks, partly because they cause a slow-moving blockage in the traffic pattern and partly because their heavy axle loadings wear out the track and reduce its tolerances. The high speed rail networks are laid in addition to the original railway network.

The new high speed railways raised a new challenge: Where once the fastest automobiles would race the fastest steam locomotives, rails versus Route Nationale, now the fastest automobiles would race the fastest trains, Autoroute versus the much-vaunted and subject of French national pride: The TGV.

In 1985 a French motorcycle magazine Link - TGV versus GPz900R obtained one of the first Kawasaki GPz900R Ninja Wikipedia - GPZ900R Link - shipped into the country and staging pit-crews at the service stations, raced the Paris to Marseille TGV, beating it by a considerable margin.

As the top speed of the TGV was 270kmh / 170mph this was a source of considerable comment in the French press.

The deck was loaded in favor of the motorcycle to some degree. The TGV's new route had been constructed from Paris to Lyon but south of Lyon, it had to use the old railway tracks, where it was limited to the same speed as the Train Bleu. The new route for the TGV from Lyon to the Riviera would not be completed until the late 1990s.

Paris-Marseilles - TGV vs Kawasaki GPz900R Ninja

Paris-Marseilles - TGV vs Kawasaki GPz900R Ninja


Moto Revue 1985 August
Long sections of the Paris-Marseilles track run along side the Autoroute and the Route Nationale, so that you can spot a TGV ahead and, traffic permitting, overtake it. This is immensely enjoyable: My wife asleep in the passenger seat, the harmonious symphony of the Colombo V12 Wikipedia - Ferrari Colombo V12, my hands a relaxed ten to two on the steering wheel, the turning heads of the passengers as they see the train being overtaken.

- Link - GPZ Zone Forum


1981 Michelin Europe

Michelin Map Link - 1981, year of the birth of the TGV. Autoroutes from Paris to the Riviera.

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 (at Maçon Sud) pick up the road for Bourg-en-Bresse.

- Just outside the large cities such as Paris and Lyon, there are positioned across all six lanes of the Autoroute a Grand Peage - the big toll booths. They are also position at various boundaries of the different regions of the Autoroute. This means that you have to brake the car to halt and pay the toll. If you are English and using a right hand drive automobile then you will be able to get your co-driver to hand the cash to the cashier. The actual amount of money for each section of the Autoroute is published on signs but is available on the website. Have the correct quantity of cash ready to minimize delay. As the barrier comes up launch the car. The passageways are on the narrow side and if you are used to a powerful live-axle car like a Detroit muscle car then you will find that your throttle and clutch foot lift off involuntarily after you have launched the car in order to prevent the back from kicking to the left when you deliver power to the axle and right hand rear wheel starts to smoke and colliding with the toll booth. This habit is difficult to break when you come to drive powerful sports cars with independent rear suspension and a well-behaved chassis and suspension which launch as straight as an arrow. The apron is concrete not asphalt but this should not make a difference. The cars make for the three lanes ahead of them but just aim for daylight with the car running at full throttle and pull into the outside lane when appropriate. A French habit on the Autoroute is to leave the left-hand indicator on when on a 'fast lap' so that cars in front know to pull over out of your way.

Michelin 1981 map Paris-Riviera
Michelin Map Link - 1981


- French Autoroute network in 1980 - Period maps of 1980 Autoroutes


1980 Autoroute  A6 Paris
1980 A6 Paris-Lyon

1980 Autoroute A6 Lyon
1980 A6 Paris Lyon

1980 Autoroute  A7 Lyon Orange
1980 A7 Lyon-Orange

1980 Autoroute  A7 Marseille
1980 Marseille

1980 Autoroute A50 Marseilles Toulon
1980 A50 Marseille-Toulon








- During the late 1990s there have been unofficial races back from the Monaco Grand Prix to the Channel Ports at Calais. The fastest time I have heard of was set in a Ferrari 355 at four hours and forty five minutes. This was in the period before digital speed cameras. I am certain of the claimants veracity. A friend in a Ferrari F40 set of time of four hours flat from Halle to Antibes. It may be that as the world closes in around us and Erich Honneker's dreams of a surveillance society come true that that these times may never be beaten. Certainly I would be reluctant to make an attempt to beat them, not because of the sustained speed necessary to do so but because of the danger serious entanglement with law enforcement.




The first Paris-Dakar Rally Wikipedia - Paris-Dakar was staged in 1981 and many of the vehicles, although constructed for off-road use, were very powerful and fast in their own right. While the race was from Paris to Dakar, there was an unofficial race on the return journey. On the first staging of the race I can recall being passed at speed by a Paris-Dakar Land-Rover, which must have been fitted with a V8 of of one kind or another, heading north after Montelimar. Several of the Paris-Dakar entrants have raced the TGV north to Paris.



- 1960s Route-Finding tables for the French Riviera

- The Route Napoleon Wikipedia - - Route North-South through the mountains. In the days before the Autoroute was built down the Rhone valley to Marseilles, the Route Napoleon enjoyed more frequent use as an alternative to the main N6-N7 to the Riviera.

- Crossing from England to France and to Italy in the 1960s - The making of The Italian Job (1969).

- Links for use in Paris

- Links for use on the French Riviera

- Monaco

- Alpine Rallys

- The Italian Lakes

- Border Crossings

- Train versus Boat versus Plane race between Ely and Kings Lynn, England.

- T.E. Lawrence Wikipedia - and Motorbike versus Aircraft west of Winchester Wikipedia - , England.




- Bentley Drivers Club Link - Bentley Drivers Club

- Website of Locomotive and Automotive artist Chris Ludlow Link -

- Photographer O.Winston Link's website and museum Link - O. Winston Link

- Circuit de Périphérique - The French thoughtfully provided a race circuit around Paris called the Boulevard Périphérique Wikipedia - Boulevard Périphérique Wikipedia - Boulevard Périphérique Wikipedia - Prince Noir Link - youtube - The Black Prince on the Peripherique Link - Youtube - Circuit de Périphérique Several motorcycle riders have set very fast times in both darkness and daylight.

- Link - GPZ Zone Forum



- Giants of Steam by Jonathan Glancey

- La Locomotive à Vapeur by André Chapelon Wikipedia - André Chapelon Wikipedia - André Chapelon

- Larousee Gastronomique Wikipedia - Larousse Gastronomique by August Escoffier Wikipedia - Auguste Escoffier and Philéas Gilbert published by Larousee 1938, my edition by Crown Publishers, NYC, 1961 edited by Prosper Montagné - Highly recommended as reading before driving or eating your way across France. The pages in Larousse Gastronomique on the regional produce, wines and cookery make for mouth-watering reading. IGN publish wine maps of France which would be useful in conjunction.





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