Drive time: The enduring love affair between watches and sportscars

Alex Doak

Iconic’ is an overused term in the hyperbolic world of luxury wristwatches, but it’s nigh on impossible to avoid mentioning one image in particular when it comes to discussing watches and cars.

It is, of course, Steve McQueen in Le Mans (1971): he’s unzipping his white racesuit and wearing ‘that’ square-dial Heuer Monaco, its cobalt-blue dial positively burning out of the Kodachrome, just like those eyes.

While the film itself may not be quite as memorable, that promotional still serves TAG Heuer’s ad men very well, thank you very much, and on a less cynical note it also serves as a reminder that it was Heuer who established the link between the worlds of watches and automobiles. McQueen wanted to base his character with absolute faith on Swiss F1 legend Jo Siffert and he had no choice when it came to wristwear.

Practically every driver of the era – Jacky Ickx, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve and Emerson Fittipaldi – was wearing one of Jack Heuer’s chronographs, thanks in part to his omnipresence at the start/finish line with the latest timing equipment, and also thanks to his Carrera chronograph of 1964, the first watch designed with the driver in mind; clean, legible, easy to use, utilitarian and über-cool for all these reasons.

Of course, in those days everyone – not just racing drivers – wore watches, because they needed to tell the time; a need that is rendered practically redundant nowadays, what with time displayed ubiquitously on everything from your phone to, yes, your car dashboard. The resurgence in ‘proper’ watches is instead rooted in a newfound passion for something soulful, enduring and beautifully crafted; a similar passion felt by car nuts the world over.

“A high-end car and a high-end mechanical watch are both gloriously, admirably over-engineered,” says Ben Oliver, contributing editor for CAR magazine, “and that's what we love about them. No man needs either, but most men desire both. And there's a natural, historical association between cars, motorsport, racing drivers and timekeeping, underlining this synergy.”

Certainly, the boys’-toys connection is easy to ‘get’, as are the brand alliances that have flourished with the current boom in watch sales – see Breitling for Bentley, Chopard’s 30-year alliance with the historic Mille Miglia rally through Italy, and most recently, Hublot’s appropriately flashy Ferrari numbers.

The awkward question always asked of such collaborations is: which party benefits the most? While in relative terms the watch industry is in ruder health than the majority of car brands, surely the mere difference in cost implies that watch brands are hoping for reflected glory, given the pricetags of modern luxury cars?

“Without question,” attests Oliver. “Nobody ever bought a Bentley because they liked the Breitling dashboard clock. But plenty of Bentley owners buy a Breitling to match their car. After all, an eight-grand watch is still cheaper than many of the options...”

But it does go deeper than the odd decal or dashboard-inspired dial array, thanks in no small part to a certain Richard Mille. When the French luxury-industry journeyman approached Audemars Piguet’s horological thinktank Renaud & Papi in the last knockings of the 20th century, he had a very clear idea of what his new, eponymous brand would be about.

“He showed me two photographs,” recalls APRP’s general manager Fabrice Deschanel, “one of an old Sixties Ferrari engine, and one of a new Formula 1 Renault engine. ‘In horology,’ he told me, ‘there has been no evolution like this for 30 years. I want my watch to be the Renault engine.’ He wanted 30 years of evolution in one watch!”

What the ‘createur’ and the ‘watchmaker’ unveiled in the year 2000 was the closest to a racing car for the wrist that had ever been realised. By applying a no-compromise, stripped-back, high-tech philosophy to its design and construction he effectively opened people’s eyes to the fact the watch case is actually a ‘chassis’ and the movement is the ‘engine’. The two were married in total coherence, just like an F1 car. And what’s more, the first Richard Mille watch gave birth to a new high-tech aesthetic that now informs everything from Snyper to Rebellion to Urwerk.

Thus, we have a new wave of watches that, thanks to ever-improving machining and materials technology, can draw direct inspiration from the mechanical aspects of a car. This year’s extraordinary, breathlessly titled Techframe Ferrari 70 years Tourbillon Chronograph is a case in point – the second of 2017’s watchmaking exploits undertaken hand-in-hand by Hublot and Ferrari. Like the new core-collection Big Bang Ferrari chronographs, whose attention to detail extends to screw recesses that echo the rear diffuser of a Ferrari F12 tdf, this latest bit of epic horological experimentation has genuinely been conceived and designed in Maranello rather than Switzerland, under the leadership of Ferrari’s head of design, Flavio Manzoni.

“The previous watches were a ‘Ferrari version’,” Manzoni admits candidly of the pre-2017 Hublot special editions, “just a watch with a logo on the dial. But this is something much more, something where it was possible to intervene in the design.”

For the Techframe, the starting point for Manzoni’s team was the Hublot movement – the “engine” of the watch – around which they freely designed a high performance chassis. Like that of a Ferrari, its lattice structure offers maximum strength for minimal weight.

It’s an automotive involvement that goes further than any other watch-brand “carlloboration”, making you wonder if the design dialogue could flow the other way. Manzoni, again, is refreshingly candid, revealing earlier this year: “A watch would not inspire a car’s bodywork, but aspects of a watch could contribute to details of the engine bay, the dashboard, the instrumentation and interior.”

Bentley’s Bentayga already has a Breitling tourbillon clock option – for the not-so-much princely as an oligarchly €150,000. Perhaps, very soon, Hublot will be painstakingly hand-crafting titanium bezels for your 812 Superfast’s air vents?

Five to drive

Chopard Mille Miglia Classic Chronograph 2017

There is nothing quite like the Mille Miglia classic-car rally staged every year along the titular 1,000-mile loop from Brescia to Rome and back. Chopard has been synonymous with the event since 1988, making it the single longest watch-brand automotive association – longer than Breitling and Bentley and even Rolex’s sponsorship of the 24 Hours of Daytona. Virtually every year, Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele competes himself with friend of the brand, Jacky Ickx in his silver Porsche 550 A Spyder, and every year each driver receives a special-edition Chopard chronograph in their race pack. This is the 2017 model; nostalgic, racy, classic, just like the cars.

Richard Mille RM 50-03 McLaren F1 Tourbillon

At 40 grams – including the strap – this is the lightest-ever mechanical chronograph, making the surreal experience of wearing a million quid’s worth of watch even more surreal given you aren’t even aware of it on your arm. This comes down to a case made of graphene – a pure lattice form of carbon that’s six times lighter than steel, and 200 times stronger, which is why Richard Mille’s newfound partner in Formula 1, McLaren is working hard on integrating graphene into its Grand Prix cars. And, of course, this is how Monsieur Mille had the opportunity to use it for his watches.

Montblanc Timewalker Date Automatic

The big news at Montblanc is the redux of its sporty Timewalker collection, which now adeptly adopts the “homage” approach to automotive inspiration, rather than drawing on a heritage per se (if you don't count the 1/100th-of-a-second rally timers made by its Minerva facility, back in the day). Case design echoing the aerodynamic lines of racecar bodywork, a knurled ceramic bezel reminiscent of vintage petrol caps, smoked-glass casebacks revealing the mechanics within, a la mid-mounted V12 engine cowlings… you can practically smell the oil.

Breitling for Bentley Supersports B55

Developed in tribute to the new Continental Supersports grand tourer – at 209mph, the fastest Continental ever built – the autonomously developed Bentley Supersports B55 has been designed as a fully fledged professional chronograph, with the smartphone connection used to enhance functionality and to store or transmit data; admittedly more handy for pilots than joyriding petrolheads, but then again, how much of an actual Bentley are any of us able to drive to its limits?

TAG Heuer Autavia Heuer-02

Many assume the 1964 Carrera chronograph to be Heuer’s breakthrough driver’s watch, but it was in fact 1962’s Autavia – probably the least-appreciated sports-watch pioneer beyond the oily pitlanes, its monochrome design and chunky bezel still the de facto style for so many me-too brands today. Last year, TAG brilliantly masterminded the “Autavia Cup” to decide which model would be revived and after 55,000 votes, it was this 1966 model, famously worn by F1 pilot Jochen Rindt, that made the grade – tweaked ever so slightly to suit modern aesthetics.

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