The Thrilling Marriage Between Cars and Watches
By Roberta Naas
FROM LEFT: Breitling for Bentley’s Bentley Supersports chronometer is crafted in stainless steel in a limited edition; the Bentley Continental Supersports is the fastest, most powerful Bentley ever
Around the turn of the 20th century, the automobile-racing and luxury-watch worlds collided, with truly remarkable results for both. What is it that drew these two unique realms—one characterized by the roar of V-8 engines, smoking tires, intense speed and adrenaline, the other by the hallowed halls of a centuries-old craft performed at a bench with hand tools in singular silence—to each other? A passion for extremes, for one. Car manufacturers push the limits of power, speed and aerodynamics, while watchmakers defy environmental extremes with timepieces that work perfectly in outer space, deep beneath the sea, in the desert or at the North Pole. The car/watch affinity was further fueled by a shared quest for precision and drive for excellence that perhaps no other realms quite comprehend, as both of these arenas orchestrate the incredibly accurate collaboration of hundreds of mechanical parts under one protective “hood” (be it a car hood or a watch case). And then there is the fact that victory on the racetrack comes down to fractions of a second—measured, of course, with top-notch timepieces.
It Started With a Chevrolet...
in Swiwitzerland In 1911, at around the same time Louis Chevrolet (born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, as the son of a watchmaker) migrated to America and cofounded Chevrolet, the very first wristwatches were coming into serial production. Within just a few years, Chevrolet, who raced cars for Fiat and Buick, would sell his stake in his company and go on to compete in Indy 500 challenges. He also went on to found Frontenac Motor Corporation, which produced racing cars.
In response to the pace, technology, materials and mechanical endurance of competitive motor sport, the finest watch companies in the world aligned themselves with the emerging competition. It was Breitling that in 1930 presented a stopwatch with a 30-minute indicator and center sweep hand, called Vitesse, which was so accurate police officers used it to check road-traffic speeds. The car/watch connection soon gained momentum, and watch brands sped to get involved in the automotive frenzy. TAG Heuer, Omega, Breitling and Rolex were among the first to roar onto the racing scene, and over the decades watch companies have sponsored races, drivers and cars.
FROM LEFT: Race-car driver Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 Formula 1 World Champion, and his TAG Heuer Monaco LS Chronograph. RIGHT: Steve McQueen in the movie Le Mans, wearing a TAG Heuer Monaco watch, the first square automatic chronograph on the market
From the 1930s through the ’60s, as land-speed records were being set and broken at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah by drivers such as Sir Malcolm Campbell, Don Waite, John Cobb and Mickey Thompson (who became in 1960 the first to break the 400-mph barrier, hitting 406.60), watch companies were busy setting their own records in split-second timing and introducing innovative automotive-themed watches. In the 1950s, Heuer (today TAG Heuer) was timing events like the 12 Hours of Sebring, and in 1963 it unveiled the now-renowned Carrera Chronograph with its quietly confident masculine design. In 1969 the world’s first water-resistant square chronograph, the Monaco, debuted; the striking timepiece, with its square counters at three and nine o’clock and blue alligator band, garnered international fame in 1970 when the legendary Steve McQueen wore it in the classic film Le Mans. Today the Monaco, available with a variety of bold vertical racing stripes on its face, remains one of the most important TAG Heuer collections and is worn by race car driver Lewis Hamilton, among others.
Blacktop racing, endurance and rally races, and land rallies that bring vintage vehicles across thousands of miles of terrain continue to attract brands, which create bold, rugged timepieces that salute the speed and precision of the cars and the white-knuckled resolve and split-second decision-making of their drivers. These high-performance pieces use the finest materials, among them high-tech carbon fiber, stainless steel and titanium. What’s under the “hood” of a watch case is, after all, as important as what’s under the hood of a race car, and collectors of both are similarly avid and demanding. In watches, these demands have given rise to high-caliber movements and a host of extra timing functions.
Watchmakers have done more than sponsor and time racing events; they’ve formed partnerships with fast cars (and opulent ones) by making watches that recall interior and exterior features of a prized set of wheels—or even have the capacity to interact with it.
Breitling, a brand requiring serious swagger to carry off, partnered with the storied Bentley Motors in 2003 and has been making exclusive Bentley for Breitling timepieces and designing dashboard clocks for the brand ever since. Breitling also released a limited edition watch that Bentley owners could order with veneer dials and leather straps that echoed the “limousine’s” interior; it sold out. These Breitling for Bentley pieces bear the Bentley winged insignia.
Similarly, Jaeger-LeCoultre (Pierce Brosnan sports its Reverso Duo in The Thomas Crown Affair) struck up a collaboration a few years back with Aston Martin that resulted in the cutting-edge Amvox watch collection. One model, the Amvox2 DBS Transponder (“the watch that unleashes the DBS”), is fitted with a transmitter that, in response to pressure on the sapphire crystal, remotely unlocks the doors of its wearer’s Aston Martin DBS. The Amvox2 Rapide Transponder has a similar relationship with its namesake Aston Martin, except that the special function—again, activated through pressure on the crystal—consists of briefly turning on the Rapide’s headlights to help you identify it in the dark. Brilliant!
A healthy dose of self-confidence lies behind the 2001 marriage of Parmigiani Fleurier and Bugatti: Each wanted, simply, to be first in the world. Parmigiani aimed to be the first watch with traverse movement, while Bugatti sought the title of “fastest car on earth.” After four years of intense research, Parmigiani Fleurier came up with a prototype for the Bugatti watch, with positioning of its five main plates on a horizontal axis offering an unhindered view of the bridges and train wheels. And Bugatti, at about the same time, launched the Veyron 16B, which was indeed, for a while, the fastest car on record. The collaboration continues today with a just-revealed Parmigiani Bugatti Super Sport watch, which was on the wrist of test-driver Pierre-Henri Raphanel when he broke the world speed record, making the new Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport the fastest auto in the world.
FROM LEFT: The Parmigiani Bugatti Super Sport watch features gear wheels cut to resemble car wheels; Jaeger-LeCoultre's Amvox5 World Chronograph, the fifth watch in the partnership between Jaeger-LeCoultre and Aston Martin, is the first Amvox timepiece to combine chronograph function with a world time clock; The Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport
Professor F.A. Porsche—grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, who founded the German automobile company of the same name—started Porsche Design Studios several decades ago and continues to create Porsche timepieces, among other lifestyle items. Newcomers include the Devon Tread 1, with its patented system of interwoven time belts in the watch mechanism that are partially inspired by drive belts on motorcycles. An engineering masterpiece, the Tread 1 uniquely employs a series of fiber-reinforced glass nylon belts that display the hours and minutes. Also just unveiled is the Spyker collection, named for the high-powered Dutch car reintroduced a decade ago following a 75-year absence. Made in Geneva, the watches take their design cues from the car’s intake valves, wheels, logo and more. While the leather for the belts is provided by the company responsible for the car’s interior, color customization is available for Spyker owners.
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