An Exploration of the Cars and Chronographs Connection

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras
We’re committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using links in our articles. Learn more here
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.


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.


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.


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.

[Image: shiv.mer/]

Jo Borras
Jo Borras

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.

More by Jo Borras

Join the conversation
4 of 48 comments
  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Sep 01, 2021

    A friend of mine was the designer for the faces on the Porsche 928 watches.

  • Dawnrazor Dawnrazor on Sep 01, 2021

    Hanhart Racemaster series FTW! I own a Hanhart Racemaster GTM and Chopard Mille Miglia '02 that I acquired, and an inherited '72 Speedmaster and '83 Daytona. All are outstanding pieces dripping with heritage and provenance, but the only one I wear on a regular basis is the Hanhart, which is probably my favorite of all my watches. It's style is simply stunning; it absolutely nails the "vintage" look without being a cliche, and the fit and finish is decidedly better than on the Rolex or Omega at a fraction of the price. It is also interesting in terms of the in-house modifications made to the calibers used in Racemaster line, especially the monopusher "GTM" model and flyback "GTF" models. Finally, Hanhart is not particularly well-known in the U.S., so this very nice watch can be worn with much less risk of being robbed or thought of as a pretentious jerk.

    • See 1 previous
    • Dawnrazor Dawnrazor on Sep 02, 2021

      @olddavid Ha, ha yes! Like all things, I think mechanical watches are making something of a comeback. It is currently virtually impossible to obtain any Rolex at MSRP, and their peers are selling just about as fast as they can make them. I agree about the size creep, especially in dressier watches that aren't divers, chronographs, or pilot's watches. Fortunately many of the makers are reintroducing more 37-40mm models again. Longines (Heritage Collection) and Hamilton (American Classics Collection) in particular are currently offering some stunningly beautiful vintage reissues and "vintage inspired" new models.

  • Kyl65759578 👋
  • ToolGuy I appreciate the thoughtful comments from the little people here, and I would like to remind everyone that Ford Motor Company offers a full range of vehicles which are ideal for any driving environment including New York City. The size and weight our of product portfolio has been fully and completely optimized to be friendly to the planet and friendly to pedestrians while consuming the bare minimum of resources from our precious planet (I am of course a lifelong environmentalist). Plus, our performance models will help you move forward and upward by conquering obstacles and limits such as congestion and your fellow humans more quickly at a higher rate of speed. I invite you to learn more at our website.Signed, William Clay Ford Jr.
  • George Hughes What ever happened to the American can-do attitude. I know what, it was coopted by the fossil fuel industry in their effort to protect their racket.
  • 28-Cars-Later "But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Franciscan Democrat who wrote the electric school bus legislation, says this is all about the health and wellbeing of Golden State residents. In addition to the normal air pollution stemming from exhaust gasses, he believes children are being exposed to additional carcinogens by just being on a diesel bus."Phil is into real estate, he doesn't know jack sh!t about science or medicine and if media were real it would politely remind him his opinions are not qualified... if it were real. Another question if media were real is why is a very experienced real estate advisor and former tax assessor writing legislation on school busses? If you read the rest of his bio after 2014, his expertise seems to be applied but he gets into more and more things he's not qualified to speak to or legislate on - this isn't to say he isn't capable of doing more but just two years ago Communism™ kept reminding me Dr. Fauxi knew more about medicine than I did and I should die or something. So Uncle Phil just gets a pass with his unqualified opinions?Ting began his career as a real estate  financial adviser at  Arthur Andersen and  CBRE. He also previously served as the executive director of the  Asian Law Caucus, as the president of the Bay Area Assessors Association, and on the board of  Equality California. [url=][1][/url][h3][/h3]In 2005, Ting was appointed San Francisco Assessor-Recorder in 2005 by Mayor  Gavin Newsom, becoming San Francisco’s highest-ranking  Chinese-American official at the time. He was then elected to the post in November 2005, garnering 58 percent of the vote.Ting was re-elected Assessor-Recorder in 2006 and 2010During his first term in the Assembly, Ting authored a law that helped set into motion the transformation of Piers 30-32 into what would become  Chase Center the home of the  Golden State Warriors
  • RHD This looks like a lead balloon. You could buy a fantastic classic car for a hundred grand, or a Mercedes depreciationmobile. There isn't much reason to consider this over many other excellent vehicles that cost less. It's probably fast, but nothing else about it is in the least bit outstanding, except for the balance owed on the financing.