20 Dec 2014

Before GPS

At the turn of the 20th century France was just starting to become mobile.There were very few cars and motorcycles and a rapidly growing number of bicycles.The roads were poor but people were starting to venture out from their towns and villages on the roads.Pneumatic tyres were critical to the new bicycles,cars and motorcycles but early tyre technology combined with the very poor roads meant that punctures and shredded tyres were commonplace so tyres were big business and there were dozens of manufacturers fighting for a share of the rapidly expanding market.
Michelin were amongst those manufacturers and they were the most innovative in promoting their brand.They were brand building a long time before the term was even coined.They published maps,tourist guide books and restaurant /hotel guides.Michelin became the premier restaurant reviewer in France and then Europe.
I have a collection of Michelin maps.They are jewels.When planning a journey in France,even in the age of GPS,nothing beats sitting down with a Michelin map and looking at the route and picking the most scenic roads and interesting villages as delineated on the local Michelin map.You can still buy current paper Michelin maps -(but for how long?)-and vintage maps can be found by the boxload in s/h bookstores and flea markets all over France.They are worth collecting.
One of Michelin's most succesful brand building exercises was putting Michelin branded directional markers besides French roads.This started in the 1920s and they were welcomed as a major benefit to cyclists and motorists.Many of them remain although many more have been lost as roads have been rebuilt and people have liberated the markers for their gardens.I photographed this one in Azay Le Rideau in the Loire back in July.I suspect that it was once down at street level and has been moved up the building to preserve it.
The most enduring and succesful Michelin symbol is of course the Michelin man-Bibendum.He was introduced right at the turn of the 20th century and has remained a Michelin icon ever since.The photograph below shows the author with the Michelin man at Le Mans in 2009.The Michelin man is the one on the left.

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