How car design has influenced the world of watches

By Simon de Burton

It has become a truism that people who like interesting cars usually like interesting watches. But the marriage between horology and the automobile that nowadays seems as natural as the pairing of horse and carriage is nothing new. In fact, it has been a 'thing' for more than a century.

It was way back in 1918 that a young watchmaker called Georges Schaeren kick-started the car watch trend when he launched his Mido dial name in Biel in 1918. He had the ingenious idea of designing watches in the shape of radiator surrounds to demonstrate allegiance to a particular marque, with his first and most successful creation being a horseshoe-shaped Bugatti watch featuring a winding crown at 12 o'clock to mimic a radiator cap. 

 

Heuer Carrare Mido Bulgatti and Richard Mille RM 11-03 McLaren cut out car designed watches for A Collected Man London

Three periods of cars influencing the design of watches.

 

The sales psychology was brilliant, because only extremely wealthy people could afford cars, meaning Schaeren could attach hefty price tags to his watches - and the drivers all wanted one because they liked to be able to demonstrate that they owned a prestigious, sporting car even when they weren't behind the wheel.

Surviving examples of the Mido Bugatti watch are now highly collectable (one fetched Euros 35,700 at an Artcurial auction in Paris in 2013) but, as the popularity of motoring burgeoned, so more watches dedicated to driving began to appear. During the 1920s, brands including Craftsman, Cartier and Patek Philippe developed wristwatches with side-mounted dials designed to enable a driver to keep holding the steering wheel while checking the time. 

Vacheron Constantin, meanwhile, came up with a more elegant solution in the form of a 1921 model with a diagonally-placed dial and a winding crown in the top right corner of its cushion-shaped case. The design was first reprised in 2009 as the Historiques American 21 and the 'driver's watch' story was (of course) resurrected to promote it.

 

Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 in yellow gold cars influencing watch design for A Collected Man London

The 2009 rerelease of the Historiques American 1921.

 

The 1930s saw more motorists adopting wrist chronographs (originally invented for pilots - in the form that we're familiar with - by Gaston Breitling in around 1915) and, during the 1940s, Rolex produced around a dozen Reference 4113 split-seconds watches with large, 44mm cases.  

Back in 2011, one of these temporarily held the record price for a Rolex when it crossed the block at Christie's for more than $1m. In the course of compiling the catalogue notes for the watch, it was discovered that the split-seconds/large case combination was chosen for a very good reason, since every known example of the Reference 4113 had a link with the world of car racing.

More specifically, those that have been offered for sale during the past 40 years have connections with Sicily, the home of the 'Giro Automobilistico di Sicilia,' once the biggest closed-circuit races in Europe and later known as the Targa Florio. 

 

Rolex 4113 split second chronograph in stainless steel from Phillips auction in Geneva for A Collected Man London

A highly sought after Rolex 4113.

 

Although the event was postponed from 1940 to 1948, it seems possible that the Reference 4113s, which were all completed in 1942, were in some way connected with it - not least since one notable owner was Stefano La Motta, Barone di Salinella, who died in the 1951 race after his Alfa 1900 collided with a, er, house.  

Even before then, however, another horological giant had been influenced in its design approach by the demands of a motorist. In this case, the dial name was Patek Philippe and the motorist was a typically high-echelon client called Count Felice Trossi, an aristocrat racing driver, aviator and speed boat 'pilota'. 

If you believed that, save for the odd early aviator, the late and famously stylish Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli was the first prominent individual to wear a watch over the top of his shirt cuff rather than beneath it, you probably haven't seen a photograph of Trossi.

 

Count Felice Trossi on a Scuderia Ferrari ad signed by the count wearing a watch over his shirt cuff for A Collected Man London

Count Trossi with his Patek Philippe 'monopulsante' over the cuff, courtesy of Blackbird Watch Manual.

 

Born in 1908, he was elected president of Scuderia Ferrari at the tender age of 24 and was pictured on the cover of the team magazine wearing his Patek Philippe 'monopulsante' wristwatch over the pristine white cuff of a contrastingly dark, button-down shirt. The magazine was dated February 13, 1937, at which point Gianni Agnelli was just 15 years old and yet to make his mark on the world of fashion, horological or otherwise.

But Trossi's watch certainly made a mark when it appeared for sale at Sotheby's in 2008. Despite being made between 1925 and 1932, an era when most men's wristwatches rarely measured more than 34 mm in diameter, the Trossi Leggenda (as it came to be known) boasted a stonking 46mm case - big even by today's standards, and undoubtedly the largest single-button wristwatch chronograph ever made by Patek.  

Being unique and having impeccable provenance, it sold for a then-remarkable $2.2m to an anonymous buyer. Its value today is anyone's guess.

Anyone who has absorbed the 'Moon Watch' history of Omega's fabled Speedmaster, meanwhile, might have overlooked the fact that the maker actually had motorists in mind when it launched the Speedy in 1957. 

 

Omega advertisement for the Speedmaster from the late 1950s for A Collected Man London

A classic Omega Speedmaster advertisement.

 

'Our picture shows two sports car enthusiasts racing the clock,' read an early Speedmaster advertisement, 'the clock being no clock at all but the new Omega high-precision wrist computer. When the co-driver stops the large second hand at the end of the test mile, he reads off at a glance the time as well as the speed, the latter on the tacho-productometer etched into the rim of the case.'  

Indeed, the Speedmaster can probably be credited with being at the vanguard of the 'golden era' of driving watch design that truly came into its own in the 1960s with the arrival of what many consider to be the king of the car watches, the Rolex Cosmograph. 

 

Sir Malcolm Campbell the Rolex Testimonee in overalls and driving cap and goggles for A Collected Man Londno

Sir Malcolm Campbell in his standard driving gear.

 

Although the brand's association with speed on four wheels can be traced back to 1935 when Rolex-wearing Sir Malcolm Campbell ripped along Utah's Bonneville salt flats at an astonishing 301.337 mph in 'Bluebird' to establish the final record of his long and illustrious career as 'the fastest man on earth,' it was the launch of the Cosmograph in 1963 that really put Rolex on the automotive map. 

Designed to be resistant to the jarring and vibration typical of an uncompromising competition car and sealed from dust, water, sweat and grime, it soon came to be regarded as the perfect watch for everyone from the 'gentleman driver' to the grand prix star.

So strong and immediate was the Cosmograph's link with motor sport that, two years after the watch first appeared, Rolex USA requested that the name 'Daytona' be inscribed on the dial of  American market models in tribute to the celebrated Daytona 500 race with which Rolex had been associated since Florida's Daytona International speedway first opened in 1959.

 

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Paul Newman owned by Paul Newman auctioned for a record price for A Collected Man London

The Paul Newman Daytona, courtesy of Phillips.

 

The 'Daytona' marking was subsequently extended to the entire line of Cosmograph models and, since the mid 1960s, the winner of the gruelling 24 Hours of Daytona endurance event (which was renamed the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1992) has traditionally been presented with a Cosmograph Daytona as part of the prize. American driver Scott Pruett has won it five times, and two years ago Rolex even made a special Cosmograph to mark his 50th year in motorsport - he started racing karts aged eight. 

Few regular visitors to A Collected Man won't know, however, that the Cosmograph's finest hour came in 2017 when Phillips sold the example that Joanne Woodward had given to her Hollywood idol husband, Paul Newman, for an eye-watering $17.8m, making it the world's most valuable wristwatch. 

Motor racing also inspired that other all-time classic driver's watch, the Heuer Carrera, named after the insane no-holds-barred Carrera PanAmericana road race, first run in 1950 to inaugurate the completion of the PanAmerican Highway. 

The event was originally designed for five-seat sedans and, although the first grid comprised wannabe racers, taxi drivers and countless other amateurs, La Carrera instantly became infamous and, over the following five years, it attracted some of the world's top drivers and produced some of the most thrilling four-wheeled competition ever seen. 

The route was littered with natural hazards (Karl Kling and Hans Klenk suffered a vulture through the windscreen of their Mercedes-Benz 300SL in 1952) and deaths were frequent due to the prodigious speeds: in 1954, Umberto Maglioli won after completing the 2,100 mile course at an average speed of 138 mph, while other famous competitors included Juan Manuel Fangio (1953's winner with Scuderia Lancia) and top American driver Phil Hill. 

The race was scrapped in 1955 after 27 fatalities in five years but, in 1963, Jack Heuer - the great grandson of TAG Heuer's founder, Edouard - was attending the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance event at which the legendary Rodriguez brothers, Ricardo and Pedro, were competing for Ferrari.

The pair were idolised as Mexico's most famous racing drivers, and present on the day were their parents, with whom Jack struck up a conversation in the pits. Soon, talk turned to their country's most famous race - La Carrera PanAmericana - and Jack immediately became enthralled both by the idea of the event and by the evocative 'Carrera' name.

 

Heuer Carrera-12 chronograph in stainless steel over vintage Heuer advert for A Collected Man London

An original Heuer Carrera.

 

He quickly determined to use it for his next chronograph design and soon registered the exclusive rights for watch use - at almost the same time, incidentally, that Porsche acquired exclusivity to use it on its sports cars.

By December 1963, the new Heuer Carrera driver's chronograph was ready for launch. It featured a 36mm steel case, a Valjoux 72 manual wind movement and the reference number 2447D. Known as the 'Carrera-12' due to its 12-hour totaliser at six o'clock, the new watch retailed in the U.S. at $98.45 cents - and quickly became the default choice of both professional drivers and enthusiastic amateurs. The rest, as they say, is car-watch history.

 

Porsche 904 Carrera GTS on a race track starting grid in silver for A Collected Man London

A Porsche 904 Carrera GTS.



The 1970s saw the arrival of a whole slew of Heuer driver's watches, among them variations on the Carrera as well as the Monaco, the Silverstone, the Autavia and the Montreal (to name but a few) with other makers such as Universal, Yema, Tissot, Breitling  -  and so on and so on - also getting in on the act to greater or lesser degrees. 

It was only in the closing stages of the last century, however, that driving watches began to take a new direction as the popularity of partnerships between car marques and dial names really began to manifest itself, notably when Girard-Perregaux began to make its 'pour Ferrari' watches in 1994 . 

Prior to that watches which paid homage to specific car brands had been rather amateurish affairs, usually being created by 'private label' makers who simply adorned dials with marque names or their logos.  

Cartier, however, did make a couple of Ferrari watches at the behest of Enzo himself when 'Il Commendotore' wanted a special gift to present to Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Ferrari factory on June 4, 1988. In the event, 90-year-old Ferrari was too ill to attend but is said to have spoken to the Pontiff on the telephone from his sick bed - beside which was one of the two engraved gold Cartier watches he had commissioned especially for the occasion. 

But it was in 2002 when Breitling joined forces with Bentley that the trend for car/watch partnerships really found some traction. The original Breitling for Bentley launch more or less coincided with that of the now ubiquitous Continental GT, the car that democratised Flying B ownership. It also dovetailed nicely with the marque's victorious return to Le Mans, for which a special 24-hour dial watch based on the old Cosmonaute space model was created.

There have since been dozens of different 'Breitling for Bentley' models, ranging from a chronograph to commemorate a Bentley capturing the world record for high speed driving on ice, to a couple of one-off pocket watches costing six-figure sums. Not to mention the odd dud such as the hideous, rectangular-cased 'Flying B' of a few years ago that deserves a prime spot in the horological hall of shame..... 

 

Jaguar D-Type that would go on to win the 1956 Le Mans 24 hour race in France for A Collected Man London

The Jaguar D-Type that went on to win the 1956 Le Mans 24-hour race.



Aston Martin and Jaeger-LeCoultre, meanwhile, announced a partnership in 2004 having seen how mutually beneficial such a deal could be (a cross-pollination of marketing, client lists and media coverage being just a few of the positives).  JLC first jumped on the car watch band wagon with the AMVOX1, the name being a contraction of the car marque and 'Memovox,' JLC's much-loved alarm watch.

I remember meeting with Jerome Lambert (then Jaeger-LeCoultre's CEO) just before the official launch and finding him wary of my suggestion that the brand should capitalise on its obvious links with that other 'Jaeger,' the offshoot of the company that was once famed for making instruments for the dashboards of cars, planes and boats. That, insisted Lambert, should not be alluded to.

Eight years later, however, and the serendipity of the story suddenly became an official part of the history of the relationship between JLC and Aston. Edmond Jaeger, you see, established a business making rev counters as long ago as 1914. By 1915, 70 per cent of French, English and U.S. automobiles were fitted with them, and by 1918 Jaeger and Cie. was also making speedometers and eight-day car clocks.

Indeed, demand was so great that a 'counter' workshop was set-up in London in 1918 and the firm soon established a speciality in vehicle instruments. And now for the serendipity: in 1923, one of Aston Martin's main patrons was the young Count Zborowski, a great grandson of a member of the Astor family who inherited £11 million in 1911 at the age of 16 - and refused to have any instruments other than Jaeger ones fitted to his cars.

It was a nice story, but the modern-day partnership didn't last - and Aston is now in bed with TAG Heuer. 

The aforementioned Ferrari, meanwhile, has been courted by several watch makers over the years, all keen to create the 'official' watch of the prancing horse marque. After Girard-Perregaux came Panerai in a failed tie-up that lasted just three years (and was rumoured to have cost the watch maker $10m) before Hublot took over in 2011, since when it has produced more Ferrari limited edition watches than you can shake a tricolore at.  

Other car-watch collaborations from the first decade of the 20th century (all of which have stalled) included Parmigiani with Bugatti, TAG Heuer with McLaren, Ball with BMW and Bulgari with Maserati - while owners of the gorgeous Alfa Romeo 8C supercar were encouraged to buy a complex and imaginative timepiece made especially for them by ManoMetro, the brand established by Italian designer Giuliano Mazzuoli. 

The 'Contagiri' watch turned normal timekeeping on its head: its dial was inspired by the 8C's rev counter and places the numbers one to 12 in a 270 degree arc starting with one at the usual eight o'clock position. The retrograde hour hand was complemented by a digital minute indicator and the watch was wound and set by turning the bezel.

Stirring stuff indeed - and it's that strong emotional and mechanical tie between automobiles and timekeeping that has made the 'car watch' concept a seemingly unstoppable success. Often, people who can only dream of owning a supercar by, for example, Ferrari or McLaren, 'live the dream' in a small way by owning the watch that complements them. 

 

Richard Mille RM11-03 McLaren automatic flyback chronograph cars influencing watch design for A Collected Man London

The futuristic design of Richard Mille.

 

Although McLaren is probably a bad example, since some of the 'official' watches made by Richard Mille cost more to buy than an actual McLaren car.....

Yes, like the world in general, the car-watch genre has gone more than a little bit mad. Don't believe me? Take a look at the latest Bugatti model created by Jacob & Co. 

Plenty of watches are heavy in automotive design cues - wheel-shaped winding rotors, speedometer-type dials, petrol-gauge inspired power reserve indicators and disc brake-style chronograph counters, for example - but few have embraced the nuts and bolts of a car to the extent of the Chiron Tourbillon.

In Jacob and Co's words, it aims to 'reproduce the visceral sensation of the iconic Bugatti 16-cylinder engine' by incorporating a miniature representation of the 1,500-horsepower motor within the movement. Activate a pusher and the 'crankshaft' turns, the 'pistons' pump and the 'turbos' spin.

The whole performance takes place beneath a massive sapphire crystal affording a clear view of the 578-part flying tourbillon movement, a 'clean sheet' design that took more than a year to perfect. 

The tiny crankshaft is hewn from a single piece of steel and, as with the Type 370, the entire mechanism is suspended on four car-type shock absorbers. 

The 60-hour power reserve, meanwhile, is monitored by a car-type fuel gauge (complete with 'gas pump' symbol) while a window allowing a clear view of the tourbillon regulator is modelled on the horseshoe shape of the Bugatti grille.

Despite measuring 54mm by 44mm, the fully customisable, $280,000-plus watch is deceptively light due to having a case made from blackened titanium, while a rubber strap with titanium buckle should keep everything in place as extreme G-forces pin the wearer to the driving seat of his or her Chiron. 

It certainly brings to reality the words of the late, great watch maker, classic car enthusiast and Bentley restorer George Daniels when he summed-up the inextricable link between automobiles and timepieces while chatting about the subject around 20 years ago.

"The reason cars and watches go together so well is that, essentially, they do the same thing, " he told me sagely.

"It's all a question of propulsion....."



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