By on August 31, 2021

shiv.mer/Shutterstock.com

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?

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.

[Image: shiv.mer/Shutterstock.com]

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48 Comments on “An Exploration of the Cars and Chronographs Connection...”


  • avatar
    Flipper35

    Today, just a basic Citizen but when I flew more often I had a fancier watch that was a chronograph.

    • 0 avatar

      Citizen makes a quality piece. My stepdad has had the same one since AT LEAST the late 1990s.

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      Both Seiko and Citizen make quality stuff, Seiko goes a good bit higher in price range.

      The Seiko Presage line goes up to $3-4k, and then you have the Grand Seiko which can go into the tens of thousands.

      Most expensive Seiko recently was their Credor Tourbillon for around half a million.

      Just too bad that when most Americans think of Seiko or Citizen, it’s the cheapo $100-$200 watches.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        I do have a Lassale, which was Seiko’s first foray into the ‘luxury’ watch market. They purchased the rights to the Lassale name from I believe Cartier but not the rights to Lassale’s movements. So they used the ultra thin Seiko movement. It is not worth much as ultra thin watches are not currently in vogue. Lassale had originally been a Swiss watchmaking company.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I prefer the watch/astronaut connection, personally.

    https://www.omegawatches.com/en-us/watches/speedmaster/moonwatch-professional/product

    Good luck on the Zenith bid.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      I’ve had an Omega Speedmaster Professional (the “Moonwatch”) for close to 50 years. I sent it back to Omega in Switzerland for cleanup and checkup just last year. Great timepiece, used for timing procedures and many other things during my career as a nuclear power plant operator but, sadly, never in connection with automobiles. I bought it from a guy on the ship back in ’74 for $100 almost brand new; he was broke and needed beer money for the week…

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      I love Omegas – especially the moon watch – but I don’t run with that crowd. A nice alternative is Bulova’s Accutron Lunar Pilot Chronograph, which also made it to the lunar surface.

      https://www.bulova.com/us/en/lpc-content.html

      For a watch with a real motorsports connection, I’d recommend checking out the YEMA Rallye Andretti Limited Edition, which is on sale at a 30 percent discount right now.

      https://en.yema.com/collections/heritage-chronographs/products/yema-rallye-andretti-limited-edition-yral2019

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Timex Marathon from the outlet mall, twelve bucks. Tells time just as well as the fancy, $20 Casio.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    [ctrl F] is300 [enter]

    Huh…

  • avatar

    I like watches there is for sure a connection to cars, but sometimes some writers go a bit far with it. I find watches mechanically fascinating and practical as well as something to add style.
    I have had a few somewhat expensive watches that I destroyed when I was younger (Sekio, Victrorix Swatch) But the G Shock I have had on my wrist for the last 3 years is awesome and while I someday hope to have another mechincal watch for a night out I think G shocks will stay as my everyday watch.

    • 0 avatar

      I always take my G on vacations. My daughter “bought” it for me for father’s day when she was 5. I may have other watches, maybe even better watches, but that one’s going to be my favorite for a LOOOOOONG time.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Automatics and fine motoring? I’m starting to think Jo Borras is a pseudonym for someone else…

  • avatar
    kcflyer

    The watch I most closely associate with flying is the Casio Databank. I used those for years. When I flew single pilot freight and scheduled part 135 I would use it to do weight and balance . They were dorky looking but I could store phone numbers and used the calculator function several times a day. Pilots are notoriously cheap and the Casio’s were cheap and reliable. I’ll admit to wanting a Breitling because of their ties to early aviation but doubt Ill ever spend that much coin on something a $30 casio does just fine.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      My late father had a Breitling that my mom keeps saying will end up as mine, but I don’t think she’s ready to let it go yet.

      Problem with standard watches for me is that I’ve incorporated a lot of fitness activities into my life, and they don’t work for that; my Apple watch does.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    I understand the association between the two, and am a watch fan with multiple Swiss and Japanese pieces, but never put a close personal tie between them.

  • avatar
    jmo

    To me watches and nice cars denote a certain level of masculine prosperity. Think of the guy who bought his first Rolex at the base PX in Vietnam when he was an Air Force lieutenant. And now, after a successful career, he’s the type of guy who retired to Naples and his 10th S-Class and pays for everything with a wad of $100 bills.

  • avatar
    Varezhka

    Cars and mechanical watches are both toys with lots of moving mechanical parts and make interesting noise. No surprise that it appeals to the same types. Those Jacob & Co Bugatti watches are just as gaudy (and fascinating) as the cars that inspired them. Not my cup of tea, but I can understand the appeal.

  • avatar
    rolandoblomblando

    Interesting article! More like this and less about health policies please! :)
    I guess I am one of those people that likes watches and cars, just can’t afford expensive examples of either lol

    • 0 avatar

      LOL– thanks for the endorsement. The bosses read this stuff, right? :)

      • 0 avatar
        rolandoblomblando

        I really hope so, because if I see another ridiculously off-topic Matt Posky article (I mean off-topic for TTAC, like talking about health policy) where he calls people who disagree with him cowards, fools, weak-minded and “perpetually afraid” (whatever that means) in the comments, I might just have to move on from TTAC. I come here to indulge in my love of cars, to hear honest independent takes on cars and the car market, to learn about the car industry and for interesting car history like this. When I’m reading here I get to set aside all the political BS out there in the world. That Posky article kinda pissed all over that.

        Sorry to get on my soapbox, but just want to say again that I enjoyed this article and that this is what I come here to read.

        Thank you!

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    An IWC Porsche Design in black titanium with the flip-up cap that conceals a compass and a mirror.

    Worn about 4 times in 30 years.

    https://www.ssongwatches.com/products/iwc-porsche-design-compass-3510

  • avatar
    dal20402

    I have a couple of Citizen Ecodrives but, honestly, I haven’t put one on since I got an Apple Watch about a year and a half ago. The Apple Watch looks ugly but it’s just too convenient and does too many useful things.

  • avatar
    NigelShiftright

    I got a Breitling Navitimer (the one with all the junior birdman features) as a graduation gift. Tried to use it a few times when I used my pilot’s license a lot more than I do now, but the E6B+stopwatch was just a lot more convenient.

    On the other hand, it’s probably worth nearly as much as a new one. Try that with your 2021 Apple watch in 2061.

    Speaking of expensive clockworks, anyone here own a Curta coffee grinder?

  • avatar
    olddavid

    When my own money is involved, it’s hard to argue with a quartz movement that splits seconds into thousanths. However, my Father perceived his time piece as a measure of his success. Hence, I own a Patek he was given by GM in 1939, and a Tissot from just a tad earlier. Guess what? The expensive one is in the safety box and the gold Tissot goes out for dinner or around town. My son wears his G-Shock but also owns both a Tudor and its big brother. They are next to mine in the bank. What a dumb way to measure your worth. If they weren’t heirlooms with their family stories they would have been turned to cash when gold was $2000/ounce. Yet I treasure the memory of the day he passed them to my possession. Go figure

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I actually like mechanical watches more than cars and have several mechanical chronographs.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    HP-01 LED.

  • avatar
    tsarcasm

    Want an inexpensive way to get into mechanical watches?

    Seiko (5 and Prospex lines) and Vostok divers.

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      Another is the Swatch Sistem51 Irony – I have one as my main ticker that set me back less than $200, is astonishingly accurate for a mechanical watch, has a 90 hour reserve, and appearance & build quality that belies its affordability. It does have some issues – it’s a bit heavier and thicker than I’d like, and it takes proprietary straps or bracelets. Still an excellent value.

    • 0 avatar
      Dawnrazor

      The Vostoks are about the most fun one can have with a watch, and due to their evolution mostly in isolation from the Swiss and Japanese makers, they march to a different drummer in several ways that actually make a lot of sense functionally:

      The most noticeable trait is the wobbly crown; this was done intentionally to minimize someone with gloved (or numb from the cold) fingers accidentally putting too much lateral pressure on the stem.

      Also, the case backs are 2-piece units. The piece responsible for sealing the case is held in place by an outer ring that screws down (sort of like a mason jar); this allows for a gasket with greater surface area and also allows the seal to become tighter as water pressure increases.

      Finally, the crystals are mounted to the case from the outside, which again results in a tighter seal against the gasket as water pressure increases.

      My favorite ones are the “Amphibia Komandirskie” models with 24-hour dials (designed for personnel working in conditions that isolate them from normal day/night cues such as submariners, Arctic/Antarctic workers, personnel sequestered in bunkers, etc); it takes a minute to get accustomed to reading the time at a glance, but they just look SO cool (especially a blue-faced one on a navy-blue NATO strap).

  • avatar
    Flipper35

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

  • avatar
    Dawnrazor

    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.

    https://www.hanhart.com/en/product/racemaster-gtm/

    https://www.hanhart.com/en/product/racemaster-gtf/

    • 0 avatar
      olddavid

      Beautiful watches with great engineering. However, until modern makers embrace the thin elegance of the 1930’s watches I inherited, they hold no attraction. I’m not educated enough to quote year and model, but it seems important so I will make a note when checking them later. What does make me smile is that just when I thought those GD cellphones are taking over a counter movement also arises with appreciation of the fine workmanship of a well-built timepiece. I still encourage everyone under 40 to stay off of my lawn.

      • 0 avatar
        Dawnrazor

        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.

        https://www.longines.com/en-us/watch-the-longines-heritage-classic-l2-830-4-93-0

        https://www.hamiltonwatch.com/en-us/h38429710-american-classic-intra-matic-chronograph-h.html

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