Cars and Watches


Like tea and crumpets, or love and marriage, cars and watches go together with an almost uncanny mutual attraction. They may be filed under ‘Boys’ Toys’, but that’s precisely why they mesh so perfectly: both are mechanical marvels, no matter how much electronics increasingly may intrude, and, simply put, both objects fascinate the male of the species. There’s something about the beating of the mechanical heart that seduces bug boys, as inexplicable a pull as shoes have for women.

Nothing demonstrates this natural pairing more than the liaisons that have been formed between the great automotive marques and the great watch ‘houses’, which in turn have formed a litany of shared brands: Breitling and Bentley, Vacheron & Constantin and Maserati, Parmigiani Fleurier and Bugatti, Chopard and Alfa-Romeo, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Aston-Martin, IWC and Mercedes-AMG, and Ferrari and Panerai are but a few of the marriages. Other brands, such as Oris, Omega and TAG-Heuer sponsor F1 drivers, while TAG-Heuer and Chopard commemorate race tracks. Eberhard even has a line exclusively devoted to that pre-war racing giant, Tazio Nuvolari.

While all of the above qualify as suitable subjects for any study of cars and watches, they are on one level mere branding exercises – however successful. The better ones are those created when brands of similar philosophy join together, the result being a line of timepieces that can stand on its own, with appeal not just to owners of the cars. The sublime pieces Breitling has created for Bentley already command a cult following, while Parmigiani Fleurier’s radical wristwatch created for Bugatti is as outrageous as the car it honours. But for some, the real ‘car watches’ are those with intrinsic motoring-related qualities, whether through actual functions or mere styling fillips. And there are plenty that fit the bill.

Given that owning, using, appreciating and/or collecting both cars and watches are pursuits shared by a certain type of enthusiast, it was clear that the two would find synergy in the early days of motoring. Watches (or more precisely, clocks) had a four- or five-century head-start on cars, but from the dawn of motoring, man wanted to race, which in turn created a need for timing devices. As it happens, wrist-watches began to replace pocket watches in the years during and after the First World War, the wrist-watch’s popularity fortunately coinciding with the ascendancy of the motor car. The shared evolution followed as smoothly as movies and recorded sound.

Chronographs, or watches that have the additional facility to measure time intervals, had already appeared in the 19th century. Stop-watches, which only measure intervals such as lap times and which do not serve as 24-hour clocks to tell regular time, had also been around for decades. Sporting gentlemen (and ladies), though, were attracted by the notion of a convenient, wrist-born timekeeper that combined both, so chronographs have become the de facto ‘car watch’ for those who either compete in or merely observe races.

Another type of ‘car watch’ also appeared in the early years of motoring. Even though clocks have long been a feature of the well-equipped dashboard, serious drivers wanted few distractions. Both dash- or steering-wheel-mounted clocks and regular wristwatches meant taking one’s eyes off the road, while the watches required taking one’s hand off the wheel to present the dial to the driver.

This led to the development of a sub-genre called ‘drivers’ watches’, which first appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. They were notable for the way they rested on the side of the wrist at the base of the thumb, rather than on the back of the wrist. Why? So the driver could glance at the watch with a mere glance. Probably the most famous timepiece to represent the genre was the legendary Gruen Curvex, its case closely following the curve of one’s wrist. One brand, Marvin, actually named its offering the Motorist. (Thankfully, we’ve been spared the Motowrist.) The arched cases of certain drivers’ watches were so severe that the Gruen and others were forced to develop curved movements.

But curved watches were for the most part a diversion, although one or two can be found today. Parmigiani Fleurier’s Bugatti Type 370 is precisely such a timepiece, its case as curved as a banana, supremely comfortable and formed in such a way that the dial is vertical to the wrist – making it supremely easy to read.

But most closely associated with motoring and certainly with motor racing are the aforementioned chronographs, and certain brands such as Chopard and TAG-Heuer have built entire reputations on chronographs with links to automobile. Easily recognised because they have two or three smaller, subsidiary dials and a couple of press buttons, typically one above and one below the winder, chronographs are ideal for measuring lap times, a race’s total time (such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans), 0-60 times and the like, and no racing driver of the 1960s would have been seen without a chronograph worn over the sleeve of his fireproof overalls.

It’s through chronographs that most racing teams have forged links with wristwatch brands, and nearly every sports-car badge or team logo, at one time or another, has graced a wristwatch. Most drivers in the upper echelons endorse wristwatches: Michael Schumacher and Michael Andretti, for example, helped to sell Omega chronographs, while Ralf Schumacher and Mark Webber do the same for Oris, and Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen grace TAG-Heuer publicity. These alliances can have short lifespans, if, for example, the contract is with the team rather than the driver and the driver moves on, but the stability of the Omega-Schumacher pact has outlasted many actual marriages.

Even Hollywood gear-heads have injected motoring fever into wristwatches. Actor Paul Newman, himself a successful racing driver, had a Rolex chronograph named after him, however unofficial the honour. He wore the watch in the film Winning, so collectors dubbed that particular model the ‘Paul Newman’ – and a good one today will set you back £25,000. So, too, did Steve McQueen’s name end up on a watch, McQueen, like fellow-actor Newman, being a keen and very serious racing driver. In fact, McQueen is associated with two: the earliest Rolex Explorer 2 and, most famously, the square Heuer Monaco he wore during the filming of Le Mans. Most ably, the watches they wore were on their wrists by personal choice, rather than through financial inducement.

Which leads us to an entire school of watches that appeals to motoring enthusiasts despite the absence of any car, driver or team logos. They’re watches that simply suit regular driving and motorsport, either as a participant or as an spectator. And the most obvious range is the Motorities line from Dunhill, reviving Alfred Dunhill’s original raison d’etre: selling accessories to the pioneer motorist.

Watch expert and designer Tom Bolt created a witty range of wristwatches that acknowledge automotive detailing, incorporating the details into the basic case or dial design. The Acentric GMT looks exactly like an automotive dial, and it features five hands coming from the centre, for easy legibility. One of those hands marks a second time zone, another the date, the remaining three taking care of hours, minutes and seconds. From the same range is the aptly-named Petrol Head, the watch having a case shaped like the hub spinner from a vintage wire wheel. In addition to a line drawing at the bottom reminiscent of a C-Type Jaguar’s prow, the watch boasts a ‘fuel gauge’ just below the 12 o’clock position. It’s function? To tell you how much ‘wind’ is left on the watch, a function known as a power reserve indicator.

Chopard, which for many years has sponsored the Mille Miglia and has enjoyed great success with a line of chronographs bearing the famous race’s name, expanded that line to include a non-chronograph, time-only watch called the Gran Turismo. In the tradition of the earliest driver’s watches, it boasts superb legibility, with its white-on-black numerals and over-sized dial. Like its chronograph siblings, the Gran Turismo sports a natural rubber strap bearing the tread of a 1960s tyre. The chronograph family continues to evolve, Chopard now treating it to annual model introductions to keep collectors hopping: fresh dial colours, strap variations, limited editions. A nice touch on one model is an engraving on the back showing the Mille Miglia’s route.

Oris has respected its racing associations with a handsome stand-alone chronograph reminiscent of one of the company’s 1970s designs. The Chronoris Automatic is noteworthy for its retro case with orange highlights, ultra-clear dial and oh-so-1970s strap. TAG-Heuer, though, created the craze for retro chronographs by reissuing modern versions of its classics, the models named after race tracks, including the Monaco and the Carrera. But the brand also looks to the future: its Calibre 360 is the first mechanical chronograph to split the time into 1/100th of a second.

Whether you want to wear a watch associated with the car you drive, or simply wear a watch that complements driving, the watch houses have the measure of the motoring enthusiast. Just try not to admire the watch while you’re behind the wheel.

(Broughtons Bentley Magazine, 2006)