What Is It With Car Enthusiasts and Watches?
The founder of Autodromo—a former Automobile intern—helps me work it out.
I don't wear a watch and I think I know why: a permanent injury.
Not to me, but to my father's wristwatch. I accidentally pulverized it, aged five, while pretending to be a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane—as one did in the 1960s—flying with it attached to my wrist, arms outstretched, at an approximate scale speed of 340 miles per hour. Entering the doorway leading to our kitchen (which was doubling as Burma that night), it transpired I'd made a tragic miscalculation of wingspan. So ended the life of my dad's watch, prematurely.
My father was not unpissed about its demise, although he wasn't too bad, given his proven Vmax anger ceiling. But I was so upset I ran away from home anyway. For 10 minutes, at least, as was my practice.
I've mostly gotten over it. But I still don't care to wear a watch. Time-telling devices are everywhere, so it poses less of a problem than it once did. Such as the time when on our way to a meeting I asked Joseph Merlino, president of the New Jersey state senate, then running for Congress, what time it was. He forcefully made the not unreasonable point that, as his press secretary, I ought to know.
With the help of my phone and a steady parade of modern test cars, I'm recovering on the what-time-is-it front. But one of the things that continues to confound me about the car world we Automobile readers live in is the perfect overlap between many of us and committed watch people, those who love both occupying a sizable chunk of the Venn diagram plotting the two groups' interests side by side. A lot of folk who obsess over cars, it seems, also obsess over watches.
My own lingering case of chronophobia was one of the reasons I sought out Bradley Price, the founder of Autodromo, a New York-based maker of handsome, automotive-themed watches. Bradley, who is also a neighbor along the sleepy banks of New York's mineral-rich Hudson River, adores watches and cars, as witnessed by the Alpine A110 and Ferrari Dino 208 GT4 he keeps, along with the Alfa Giulietta he vintage races and the line of watches offered by Autodromo, drawing inspiration from the classic gauge faces of beloved, often Italian machinery.
Here is some background information you should know about Bradley. A Chicagolander, he went in the early aughts to study industrial design at University of Michigan, with an eye on becoming a car designer before turning to industrial design. He was an intern at Automobile in Ann Arbor, (although I didn't know him then), helping out around the office and ferrying cars to the Detroit airport for visiting contributors and corporate dignitaries. Famously, he once got pulled over by the cops while driving the magazine's just-delivered E39 M5. Diminishing the bad-ass-edness of the story is the fact that he was leaving the HQ's parking structure and nabbed while traveling at 3 mph, wrongly suspected of thieving.
Why transition out of car design? "You have to be really good at sketching, really good at iteration, but it's not as much of a focus on production engineering, because there's a whole department for that. When you're doing industrial design, it's often a smaller environment so you have to wear many more hats, which interested me." Furniture design, his next waystation, "gave me a similar sense of satisfaction but I was better at it than sketching cars." Eventually, he came up with idea of going solo to design and sell watches.
"As a lifelong car nut, I noticed that there was nothing to buy at a lower price point that was still high quality, tasteful, and automotive-oriented. If you were an enthusiast and wanted to buy a watch that was car-related, you had to spend many thousands of dollars and it was really only the high-level companies that were offering something: this trifecta of the Tag Heuer Monaco, the Rolex Daytona, and the Chopard Mille Miglia. If you didn't have the money to buy one of those there wasn't a whole lot to choose from.
"Certainly nothing under $1,000, and if there was, it was something really tacky or cheaply made. So, the idea with Autodromo was to start a company that made tasteful, quality watches that express this passion for cars and were inspired by car gauges. I just thought that this was an opportunity to make something for myself that I would like to wear and that I could afford."
Beginning with a watch inspired by the tachometer in a Ferrari 312 F1 car, Price began filling the void he identified with a series of fine-looking watches that today run from $685 to $1,800. He also recently launched an exclusive line in cooperation with Ford available only to owners of new Ford GTs, with faces keyed to the color of their cars. With a fine Swiss automatic chronograph movement and flyback, it is said to compare to watches twice as costly as the $11,500 GT owners shell out for it.
So underserved was the market that competitors have since entered the auto-themed watch fray, but few with his elevated design ethos. "Our idea was to stylize them and take away detail, not to make slavish copies—anyone could just trace over a gauge and make an exact copy of it," and anyone has. "But the goal with Autodromo was to take inspiration from things and abstract, refine, and distill them to a certain elemental level. That's what grabs people in. I created it because I wanted to make things that when you wear them put you in a special mindset and it gives you pleasure that comes from expressing your passion for cars to yourself and to the world. I felt like in the watch industry so many products had become very stale and rote rather than driven by actual passion."
What is it about watches and cars appeals so often to the same people?
"There's a nerdiness side and a connoisseurship side and there's a status side, and I think that cars and watches feed those elements of the psyche. They are something you can be passionate about, something you can learn and get incredibly detailed about, whether it's through the [industrial] history or the mechanical side, there are a lot of ways to look at these things and to learn about them and I think that it's something that people can really sink their teeth into once it's illuminated for them.
"On the status side, it's also something that shows that you have taste or have money or style, and these are the reasons that people buy cool cars or buy interesting watches, to show other people what they have. Watches tend to be a male thing. I think men, generally speaking, tend to have an obsessiveness about things that they collect that's much more extreme, and in my experience the watch realm is even more obsessive than the car realm. People get very emotionally invested in their beliefs about watches."
As a confirmed non-watch wearer, I can confirm that. But I'm working on it.