An Exploration of the Cars and Chronographs Connection
They say that the first auto race happened about five minutes after the second car was built, and there was probably an obvious winner (heck, the first “official” US auto race only had six starters, and two finishers). But progress begets parity. Before long, the cars started to get closer to one another in terms of performance and the drivers’ relative talents became more and more important to ensuring victories – but talent is a tough thing to eyeball. You need something a little more precise.
What you need, is a watch. Ideally, something you can depend on to deliver accurate results, lap after lap, shine or rain. Maybe something Swiss, you know?
Alas, anyone who wears a Swiss luxury watch is a douchebag… right? Maybe not.
QUALITY CHRONOGRAPHS BECOME ESSENTIAL
In the early days of aviation, before radar, you needed to know four things to know where you were. First, you needed to know where you started from, which was relatively easy. Next, you needed to know what direction you were headed, but we’ve had good compasses since the 12th century, so that’s also easily done. After that, you need to have some idea of how fast you were going – which, weirdly, people figured out way back in 1732. Finally, you had to know how long you’d been up in the air.
If you knew those four things and some basic geometry, you could figure out where you were. This was important for all kinds of reasons, and became more important with the advent of aerial reconnaissance during the first World War, because what good is spotting the bad guys’ crucial military installation if you can’t tell the good guys back at base precisely where it is, right?
Back in the early days of flight, though, dependable, accurate chronographs were nowhere to be found. Not until Breitling introduced the world’s very first modular automatic chronograph movement.
Almost immediately, Breitling chronographs found their way into any and every aircraft that was worth a damn. Pilots started wearing Breitling wristwatches, too, carefully synced up to the one in their instrument panel – and pilots were cool. Pilots flew in the fucking sky, and that was basically magic back in the early 1900s. Most people just lived and died on the ground, which sucked. Flying didn’t suck, though, and pilots didn’t suck, so if you wanted to at least look like you didn’t suck you bought a thing that made you look like a pilot.
That thing, more often than not, was a Breitling wristwatch. That made the Breitling family one of the wealthiest in all of Europe, and that brings us to Willy Breitling.
BENTLEY AND BREITLING
Willy was the grandson of Léon Breitling, who first invented the modular automatic chronograph movement. By now, you know that those chronographs were in all the cool airplanes and on all the cool wrists. And, eventually, they found their way into Walter O. Bentley’s race cars.
It’s not entirely clear if Walter O. chose the chronograph for functional reasons or if the collaboration was an early exercise in branding on Willy’s part. What is clear, however, is that Willy Breitling was delighted. He was a huge fan of Bentley’s racing efforts – and how could he not be? The only British entry at the inaugural 1923 LeMans race, Bentley finished fourth. Bentley raced again in 1924 and took its first victory that year. From 1927 to 1930, Bentley won every race, cementing its place in automotive lore and making English nationalists super proud, probably.
Obviously, Willy had to have one. Not just one, either – throughout the 1940s, it would seem that Willy’s was a familiar face on the roads between Geneva and La Chaux-de-Fonds, and ( according to Breitling’s website) he was almost always spotted behind the wheel of one of his beloved Bentleys.
That’s where the connection between Breitling and Bentley was born, if not the connection between watches and cars. It makes sense, in a way. If you wanted to look like a cool-guy pilot and had a bit of money, you could buy a watch that made you look like a pilot. Pilots weren’t the only cool guys, though. Racecar drivers were cool, too. If you wanted to look like a cool-guy race car driver and had a lot of money, you could buy a car that made you look like a race car driver.
All of which, if we’re being honest, kind of makes Willy Breitling the arch-prototype of the expensive car/expensive watch, second-generation member of the lucky sperm club douchebag, right?
I mean, kinda. Yeah, but there’s more to it than that.
A GAME OF INCHES
It’s been said that football is a game of inches. At the highest levels, the fastest guy on the field can get to where the ball is being thrown a fraction of a second before the second-fastest guy. Racing is the same thing. The recent dominance of Sir Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes factory team is made even more incredible by virtue of the fact that the slowest guy out on the track (these days that’s a spoiled, egg-headed Russian playboy with a penchant for sexual assault) is driving a car built with less than a third of the budget that Mercedes has and has yet to be more than 7 percent slower on any given track.
It’s the miracle of parity – and we can be properly astonished by it, in part, because of incredibly accurate timepieces that can tell us when three different drivers in three different cars absolutely nail the same lap time to within a ten-thousandth of a second.
So, yeah. Expensive watches are a bit douchey, but that’s OK because we can take the good with the bad and pretend to ourselves that we can quantify the talents of the Schumachers and Montoyas and Sennas of the world based on the tickings of our man-jewelry.
Besides, we’re all a little bit douchey for caring about our wheeled A-B appliances the way we do, anyway. I mean, sure, some of us care a little bit more about some cars because their all-wheel-drive systems, turbochargers, and oversized rear wings make us feel like cool-guy race car drivers. Another bunch of us can probably think of a joke about Subarus that doesn’t start with, “knock-knock”, too. Me? I’m a sucker for fatally flawed cars like hideously unreliable Lancia coupes from the 70s and the quirky, slab-sided Consulier GTP. I’d even be tempted to swing on a Suzuki X-90, too, if I ever stumble across a clean one.
What about you? Whether it’s a techno-hyped Tesla or an air-cooled bug, you can probably find some analogy in the constant connectivity of your Apple Watch or the miracle of mass-produced industrial efficiency that is the $19.95, 10-year battery life, dead-nuts reliable Casio F-91W. If you can care about the gears and springs and electronics that form your car, is it so weird to care about the gears and springs and electronics that form your watch?
I don’t think so. Now, help me write off this limited-edition Lancia Stratos Zenith collaboration box set I’m about to win on eBay by sharing your opinion about the connection between cars and wristwatches in the comments section and letting us know what that connection means to you. Are you inspired by the legend of Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona or impressed by the exclusive, hand-built, ultra-lux timepieces being rolled out by Richard Mille. RM is certainly sponsoring enough motorsports to be worth a mention here, no? What about Tudor? And what about the original car/watch combo of Bentley and Breitling? Did the brand’s sponsorship of the VW-owned Bentley’s Speed 8 LeMans racer add legitimacy to that connection, or cheapen it? You’re the Best and Brightest. You tell us.
I've been in and around the auto industry since 1997, and have written for a number of well-known outlets like Cleantechnica, the Truth About Cars, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can also find me talking EVs with Matt Teske and Chris DeMorro on the Electrify Expo Podcast, writing about Swedish cars on my Volvo fan site, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.
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