It all started as a bit of a joke. Invited by Vauxhall to drive some of their cars – both new ones and classics – on the famous Route Napoleon from the French Riviera, over the Alps to Grenoble and onwards to Geneva, I opted to pair up with good chum and fellow Women’s World Car of the Year judge Maggie Barry.
Two girls on the road together, we mused. Just like Thelma and Louise! Well, maybe with not quite the same ending though. We reckoned that lunching in Geneva would be a lot preferable to launching off a cliff. We had even identified a prospective Brad Pitt to pose for a destination photo alongside our Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon characters. Step into the limelight, new Vauxhall chairman and managing director Rory Harvey. He agreed, good sport that he is.
Dawn in Casino Square, Monte Carlo, was the start of our cinematic motoring adventure. Which car to choose for our opening scene? We quickly bagged the oldest and grandest one there: a magnificent 1930 Vauxhall T Type 20/60 Melton Golfer’s Coupe. What a beast! It was also the only open-top model, echoing the car in the film. It is usually the pride of Vauxhall’s heritage collection, and housed in Luton.
Oldest to newest
I longed to drive it, but that would come later, on a memorable trip around Grenoble. Instead the car we shared for the start of the glamorous road trip was the newest of the bunch, a just-off-the-production-line Astra Sports Tourer. Built at Ellesmere Port on Merseyside, the new Astra estate car was a smooth and civilised sprinter for the first leg of the journey, with its 1.6 litre, 134 bhp diesel engine and tidy manners. On the road price: £23,490.
Naturally our route out of Monaco had to include a drive around the Grand Prix circuit, in its rest-of-the-year guise as public roads. Come May, Lewis Hamilton and co will be scorching the tarmac where we sedately drove a lap. Then it was head for the hills, or rather, a thrilling drive through snaking gorges into the Alps. Mindful of the film, we studiously ignore the soaring cliffs we were passing.
First stop, Entrevaux. This charming little town in the mountains was a brief halt for an energising coffee, a place to change cars, and the start of the snow line. Ah, tricky. Our next model? The most powerful vehicle on the trip: a hunky Australian-built VXR8 GTS with a 6.2 litre V8 engine and rear-wheel-drive. Hardly ideal for a climb over an Alpine pass on icy roads, but with care we managed it, relishing that majestic V8 burble as we did so.
One car, two turbos
After lunch at Digne-les-Bains it was car change time again, now another Astra Sports Tourer CDTi with a new 1.6 litre Bi-Turbo, 158 bhp engine. This car is the peach of the new Astra estate range, briskly efficient with an 8.4 seconds 0-62 mph time, and a 67.3 mpg combined economy figure. Price for the SRI Nav version: £23,385. It carried us rapidly to Col de Bayard for an afternoon coffee-cheese-and-cakes stop at a fromagerie.
Onwards to our overnight base at Grenoble, where Napoleon rested his marching troops two centuries ago. Our car now was an Astra 1.6 Turbo hatch, newly named as European Car of the Year, and a worthy winner. This latest generation Astra has taken a quantum leap forward in driver appeal, and the 1.6 Turbo, 197 bhp version we were in is one of the range-toppers at £21,885.
Final destination: Lunch with ‘Brad Pitt’
Two more cars were on the agenda for day two of our girls-together drive trip. First, a well-preserved 1964 FB Victor Estate, as a nostalgic reminder of the new Astra estate car’s heritage. It was also a memory nudge of the progress cars have made over the past 50 years. Its figures: top speed 76 mph, 0-62 in 22.6 seconds, and fuel consumption 28 mpg. The ‘60s price was nice though, at £861.
After morning coffee beside Lake Annecy, the final leg to Geneva was in a modern classic Astra from 2008, the VXR Nurburgring. Sporty, fast – capable of 155 mph – and snow-white, it whisked us rapidly to our destination. Just as well. We had a rendezvous, and no cliff involved!
Images: Sue Baker