Driving the Route Napoleon in historic Vauxhalls

Published: 01 July 2012

Recipe for epic road trip: take four decades worth of Vauxhalls, from the legendary Droopsnoot Firenza to the latest Insignia, add Europe’s most awesome driving road (the Route Napoleon) and set yourself for the 200-mile trip from Cannes to Grenoble. That was our task. What a weekend!

Napoleon gave his name to the route – courtesy of his flight from Elba back in 1815 – but he was mainly on foot, and they hadn’t built these ribbons of cool, inviting Tarmac back then. I’ll wager he didn’t have nearly as much fun as me and my fellow drivers. Here’s how our trip panned out.

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The trip starts in Cannes. I wake on the Sunday morning and open the curtains to a sea view. Just below the window the crew from Vauxhall are lining up the cars, present and past. At this point I can’t identify the older cars; all I know is that somewhere out there is a Chevette HS, Astra 888, Firenza Droopsnoot, Astra GTE and a Calibra. The Insignia BiTurbo I recognise, and who wouldn’t recognise the Maloo – that mad, bright yellow Aussie-style truck.

After a rather unhealthy breakfast of pancakes and honey later the bunch of us gathered at the front of the hotel to ogle the cars. The Droopsnoot is the first one to catch my eye. Wow this looks cool, and although I’m not down to drive it I shall be investigating it later. Stunning.

Cannes – Castellane

The Insignia is mine for the first part of the trip and once out of Cannes it’s easy to see why this route is so legendary: fantastic mountain views and endless snaking road. I make an excuse for my driving partner to pull over for a few photos. Really I don’t want to miss this opportunity and we swap so I can have some fun behind the wheel.

Castellane – Dignes les Bains

We stop at Castellane, a little village tucked down in the throat of the Grand Canyon du Verdon. Coffee and cake is on the menu in a quaint little French café. A LOT of cake – the waitress seems insistent on bringing more each time someone finishes their plate.

A sugar rush later and the cars trail out of the village, most with a little decorum. But not the Maloo: it’s loud, it’s brash and I know I shouldn’t, but I love it. Mind you, the gorgeous Droopsnoot turns my head even more – I’m surprised at my new desire for an old ‘75 classic. Before we set off again one of Vauxhall’s tech guys hands me a bottle of oil. ‘For the Chevette,’ he says. ‘Can you hand it to them at Digne Les Bains?’ Erm okay, but I wonder if maybe they should have had it before they left?

Driving through the Gorge Du Verdon is my favourite part of the trip. Its naturally formed rock archways are truly stunning. We veer around one bend after another, each offering a fantastic photo opportunity, but none is quite as good as the one main archway pictured top right (pic no 14 in our gallery). Shame the VXR8 Maloo, complete with photographer and my colleague from sister mag Practical Classics have beaten us to it. 

Dignes Les Bains – Col Bayard – Grenoble

After a lunch stop at Digne Les Bains we set off for our last break of the day at Col Bayard. There’s a growing unease in the group – especially from those who haven’t driven it yet – that the Droopsnoot hasn’t arrived. We spend a jittery 15 minutes trying to relax in the 22deg sunshine before it eventually roars up, brakes now reeking and squeaking.

I’m in the 15-year-old Vauxhall Calibra for the last stop to Grenoble. Despite the car’s oddly springy steering, which self-centres doggedly as you veer round bends, the V6 engine brings out the boy racer in me. And those looks have aged really well – the Calibra set the aero benchmark back in the day and it still looks contemporary in 2012.

It’s fun for a while. Sadly, due to the premature sunshine this year, we get stuck behind caravans for the remaining few miles of the journey around the mountains. But we still make it to the – haunted –  Chateau De La Commanderie for around 7pm. Okay so I can’t confirm that there are actual ghosts but when you hear the shower switch on and off three times during the night and feel someone walk around the bed, it’s enough to make you wonder: was I dreaming or was I awake? That and the fact that the chateau dates back to the 13th century and was once a hospital just adds to the suspicion…

A blast in the Astra GTE hot hatch 

I take the Astra GTE for a quick spin the next morning and it brings back memories of my old 1988 Micra, my first car. It’s amazing to see how far cars have come in what really feels like quite a short space in time. This trip reminds me how much I enjoy both old and new.

It took Napoleon and his troops 100 days to reach Grenoble back in 1815; we’ve made it in just two days with one stopover, and no breakdowns! Now I want to do it all over again, maybe in a little hot hatch this time.

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