The NW–SE-trending sector of the SW Alps includes the Dora Maira massif where Tertiary eclogites record ultrahigh pressures and rapid exhumation. Along a NE–SW crustal cross-section (Italy–France) compiled pressure–temperature–time data in internal zones are correlated with Tertiary stratigraphy in external zones to reconstruct orogen evolution, revealing a coherent two-phase convergence history. During the first, subduction–accretion phase (Eocene, 55–34 Ma) rapid north–south plate convergence caused the subduction and exhumation of high-pressure and ultrahigh-pressure (UHP) rocks in a steady-state subduction channel. This coincided with the north to NNW migration of an underfilled flexural basin across the European foreland. Nappe stacking within the subduction channel did not create significant relief, implying that primarily subduction forces generated this flexural basin. From 34 Ma onward, the second, collisional phase was characterized by slower NW–SE plate convergence. The internal units of the SW Alps underwent considerable anticlockwise rotation as they became involved in a NW–SE-oriented sinistral transpression zone between the European and Adriatic plates. To the north of the orogen the North Alpine Foreland Basin became overfilled as a result of high sediment supply from increasing orogen relief. In contrast, in SE France active flexure of the European plate appears to have ceased and sedimentation became limited to small thrust-sheet-top basins created by continuing gentle NE–SW shortening. Internal units were exhumed slowly from depths of c. 20 km, principally by erosion. In the SW Alps, the transition between these two phases was marked by the rapid subduction and exhumation of the Dora Maira UHP unit. Assuming lithostatic pressure, this unit would have been exhumed from 100 km depth, requiring a rate that exceeds that generated by plate convergence. Therefore, either exhumation was accelerated by additional stresses (locally generated by transpression, slab breakoff or high density contrasts) or, more controversially, the ultrahigh pressure occurred at a considerably shallower depth as a result of local overpressure.