PALM SPRINGS, California — Rocks slide all around as I look out of the Range Rover Velar’s window. The professional driver in the passenger seat is an ex-Camel Trophy terrain-challenging competitor; he tells me to move the wheel a little to the left, then a little to the right, and then to give it a shimmy as we plow through rutty roads high on San Gorgonio Mountain.
On my wrist is the newest collaboration between watchmaker Zenith and Land Rover, the $8,700 Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Range Rover Velar. With its black ceramic-coated aluminum case and brushed gray dial offsetting copper-colored hands, it’s a handsome piece. This watch is all the more special because it’s powered by a classic movement, the El Primero, which in the watch world is akin to a classic Porsche flat-six and is one of three movements that changed the modern watch industry.
Later that evening, chatting about cars and watches, Land Rover’s nattily dressed chief design officer, Gerry McGovern, who sported a gold Audemars Piguet Royal Oak on his wrist, remarked: “People don’t really need these things—cars and watches—but they desire them.”
That desire and connection between watches and motoring began in 1919 with Vacheron Constantin. Vacheron was one of the first manufacturers to the flip the movement and crown 45 degrees so drivers could better read the time while keeping their hands on the wheel. In 1919 the dial was aligned to the left, and then in 1921 it flipped to the right. Although these driver’s watches couldn’t time laps like a chronograph, they sure looked good behind the wheel of a Bugatti Type 30. They still do; Vacheron Constantin has sent out a slew of reissued Historiques American 1921 over the past few years, which dazzled even the most jaded collectors.
Not until the 1950s, though, and the launch of the hand-wound Valjoux 72 chronograph movement, did the idea of watches and cars begin to burrow deep into the minds of watch and car collectors. That movement powered, among other things, early Rolex Daytona, Heuer Carrera, and Universal Geneve Compax models, classic and much sought after automotive-themed watches from the golden age of hand-wound chronographs. Later—but before the quartz-watch revolution of the 1980s put the classic Swiss watchmaking industry under threat—the 1970s saw the release of the workhorse Valjoux 7750 and ETA 2824 movements, many of which power the grail watches now on collectors’ wrists. Although many high-end watches have shifted toward in-house-developed movements, the vast majority of today’s watch internals are still based on the design of these two movements. The situation isn’t much different than Pagani or Aston Martin using engines sourced from AMG, as these movements, like the engines, feature their own custom parts and tuning.
Although these objects’ mechanical souls have much in common, anecdotal evidence suggests a car person is often a watch person, yet watch people are rarely into cars—and not for lack of trying on the part of watch brands.
“Like a lot of car dealers, my first big watch purchase in the mid-1980s was a Rolex Presidential, in yellow gold, of course,” says Ed Tonkin, an affable Portland, Oregon-based watch collector. “It’s a wonderful watch but very cliché, as every car dealer has one strapped to his wrist.” From there, Tonkin amassed an insane collection of more than 400 rare watches from Greubel Forsey, Audemars Piguet, and the first “super watch,” a Ulysse Nardin Freak #1.
Tonkin’s family owns the oldest Ferrari dealership in the U.S. and also collects cars, including a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTS, a 1986 Ferrari 288 GTO, and a two-tone red and black 1953 Ferrari 212 Vignale Coupe.
Tonkin also has an affinity for automotive-themed Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore models, like his pair of F1-themed examples—one each for drivers Rubens Barrichello and Juan Pablo Montoya. “I like to collect watches that appeal to me aesthetically, and with the APs, I love the connection to cars—where the pushers look like brake pads and the movements like clutch pieces,” Tonkin says. “I had a visceral reaction to these watches when I first saw them.”
It is in this tempest that car and watch companies keep launching collaborations. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing colors, dials, and case materials and calling it a day. Other times, watchmakers develop new tools and technologies to appeal to car enthusiasts. Take, for example, British brand Bremont’s range of Jaguar watches or the long-standing Bentley and Breitling partnership. Each stands on its own as a wonderful example of watchmaking, even if you don’t own one of the cars. Bentley, though, has extended the collaboration from the wrist to the dashboard with the Mulliner Tourbillon by Breitling, the optional and over-the-top $168,100 diamond-studded mechanical clock available across the Bentayga SUV range.
“The art of handmade British carmaking and the tradition of great Swiss watchmaking have much in common,” Alison Lacy, senior licensing manager at Bentley, says. “There stretches an invisible connection, a common appreciation of mechanical perfection.”
Eneuri Acosta, COO of the popular online watch publication Hodinkee, says that “it’s a new fairly new phenomenon, this idea of using watches and cars as a way to build off each brand’s ethos.” Acosta worked in marketing for Cadillac before moving into the watch industry. “Look at the classic watches of the ’60s. These were plain and simple tool watches. Now the watch, along with the car, is viewed as a luxury, aspirational product.”
Spike Feresten, who hosts “Spike’s Car Radio” on PodcastOne, wryly says he has “more than some, less than others” when asked how many cars he owns. But when it comes to his watch collection, which he’s pared down to a single watch box, he says, “It could be tool watches or tool cars, the first thing I am drawn to is the aesthetic. It’s all about the patina. Look at a vintage Rolex 5513 or 1680—it’s the patina that makes me feel good for some reason. That aged dial, that creamy lume, they make me nuts.”
Like many collectors, Feresten doesn’t like when his watch matches his car too closely, but there’s always something for those who do. “I
think Hublot did what it took to have a Ferrari-labeled watch that a Ferrari guy actually wants to wear,” ablogtowatch.com founder Ariel Adams says. “You also don’t need to be a Ferrari owner to enjoy it.”
Ultimately, car-branded watches like the Zenith Velar exist to highlight the two companies. “Why do fans of beautiful cars often also have a pronounced weakness for high-quality wristwatches?” Zenith CEO Julien Tornare asks. “Maybe because they always exhibit their owner’s taste and values everywhere they go.”
For those who forge their own way and aren’t beholden to the past, there is one small watch company that holds an outsized presence on the wrists of, shall we say, higher-net-worth individuals around the world.
“I want to be the best. With McLaren, I wanted the world’s lightest chronograph Tourbillon. We start with these concepts.”
Richard Mille is the founder of his eponymously named brand and the maker of the Richard Mille RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1, whose name is as long as its $1 million price tag. “Even when I was young, I always loved cars and aircraft and bikes,” Mille says. “Though I am not a technician, I love extreme technique, and I always thought the high-end watch business was a little boring—you know, where they just copy watches from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.
“I was always captivated by high-performance and racing cars, and I thought that it would be very interesting to have a more drastic and cutting edge, something sharp, and something without any compromises,” Mille continues. “Where a lot of brands approach watches and cars in a first-degree manner—you know, a strap that looks like a tire or hands that look like a steering wheel—I always felt that was a gimmick, and I don’t like gimmicks.”
Mille’s approach is working, as he can’t keep stock on dealers’ shelves.
“In 2015, I sold 3,500 pieces,” he says. “[We did] 4,000 in 2017 and [will do] 4,600 pieces in 2018. The demand is much higher than what I can produce. The more I raise my prices, the more I sell. I went to one of my boutiques, and I only had eight watches to sell. It’s a good problem to have, but I can only sell what I can produce, and I can’t sell the watches until they are complete. I won’t prostitute myself.” Then, Mille admits with a laugh, “That said, I didn’t know when we launched that we would sell. At the price—starting around $180,000—there was no information on the segment.”
But Mille thinks he knows what is behind his company’s success. “The pillars of most high-end watch brands are very boring, where they are always contemplating the past, which is nonsense,” he says. “All modern watches are made with computers. From day one I have been open to sport and to niche lifestyles, and every time I do something and with every segment I go into, I want to be the best. With McLaren, I wanted the world’s lightest chronograph Tourbillon. We start with these concepts.”
Mille is also the sponsor of one of the greatest automotive events in the world, the Chantilly Arts & Elegance just outside of Paris. “I am a car collector, too, and I think this is why my wife wants to kill me sometimes,” he says. “I have a collection of [race] cars from the 1960s to the 1990s, including a Porsche 917. When it comes to my clients, 90 percent of them are crazy about cars, and we all share that same crazy, crazy passion.”