OUR GEAR: Driving Watches

OUR GEAR:  Driving WATCHES

The link between cars and watches has always been a strong one, and it doesn't take more than a glance at the names of some legendary timepieces to see this.  The Rolex "Daytona," the Monaco and Camaro from Heuer, and, of course, the specialty editions from companies like Chopard and Breitling, styled for (or at least named after) classic motorcar companies and/or events.  In recent years, a host of new, small, boutique brands have jumped into the game, offering timepieces overtly adorned with automotive graphics, logos, colors, or in some cases, even dials patterned after the dashboard instruments of historic car models.  Some of these are more elegantly executed than others, but although I appreciate the effort (and marketing chops) at play here, I have to admit that most of these feel overly contrived and usually downright corny to me - like the wrist-worn equivalent of yellow "Scuderia Ferrari" sneakers.  Do we really have to try that hard?

All this got us talking the other day here in the Den of Adventure.  What makes a great driving watch?  Not a watch that looks racy or has Gulf Racing stripes on it, but a watch that actually fills the bill when we're sawing at the wheel, doing what we love to do? 

 

TO CHRONO OR NOT TO CHRONO...

Conventional car watch wisdom says you need a chronograph.  Why?  To time stuff, of course.  Lap times.  Rally stages.  Calculate your speed.  You know... car stuff.  I think this is an evolution of pilot watches of the mid 20th century, which often were (and often still are) packed to the bezel with all manner of calculators and timers and whatnot.  And that's great, I guess.  But the folly of this approach in modern times was driven home to me in the 1980's, when at a young age I saw the watch my father (a lifetime professional pilot) had on his wrist.  It was a simple, clear, military field watch.  I asked him why he didn't wear a traditional pilot's watch.  Why didn't his wristwatch have all the gadgets and gizmos that pilots need to navigate?  He smiled calmly and replied:  "Trust me, if I have to start navigating with my watch, the plane is in so much trouble that it isn't going to make a goddamned bit of difference what's on my wrist."

The Unimatic Modello Due.  If you want a dial as simple and readable as a classic Porsche gauge face, plus diving grade water resistance and robust durability, Unimatic's field watch is tough to beat.  Only niggle?  When darkness falls the lume will let you down.

He was as right then as he still is today, of course.  Timing things and calculating things with your watch in a modern world is an anachronism.  You may do it because you want to do it, and I'm down with it if that's the way you roll, but we each have a telephone in our pocket that has timing functions which are vastly more accurate, more readable, and less fiddly to operate than any watch ever made.  If you drive a competitive rally car, you probably have rally clocks on the dashboard specifically designed for the purpose, and if you need to know your speed, just ask yourself, would you rather try to precisely maintain a constant velocity for fifteen or thirty seconds and consult your bezel-mounted "tachymeter," or simply open a free speedometer app on your phone and have your answer instantly?  All these little subdials and calculators on your watch face aren't really being used much - they're just mucking up the readability.

I drive a lot.  I take old Land Rovers across Spain on desert trails, I run my Alfa Romeo GTV fast through the coastal mountains just to blow off steam, I raced a Range Rover Classic across Morocco once, and I try to get to the Grand Prix circuits in Jerez or Catalunya as much as I can, for... what I call "mental health therapy."  And no matter how I'm driving, I find I'm checking my watch regularly.  I'm looking to see if I'm behind schedule, or trying to hit little time goals I have set for myself.  But I'm doing that while I'm on the move, and it takes the form of a quick cock of the wrist and a glance.  That's it.  And for that kind of use I find a bold, uncluttered, high-contrast dial to be the most effective.  Like the tachometer on an early Porsche 911, my driving watch shouldn't try to do everything for me, it should just function perfectly as a bold, clear, easily readable dial that does what it does.  Nothing more.

 

WILL IT LAST?

I've owned almost sixty motorcars in my life, and some of my favorites have been, well... let's say a little finicky.  A little fragile.  And although I fell deeply under the spell of some of those cars while they were working, the spell was as quickly broken and the emotions just as intense when they weren't.  The way I drive varies, but the relative constant is an overarching sense of adventure.  I can find myself in the middle of nowhere, driving something half a century old that I don't know anything about, far too regularly to surround myself with tools I can't trust.  I am as likely to take my kids surfing in an old Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen as I am to time a rally sage, and I am as likely to find myself on my back underneath a car with wrenches in my hands as I am to find myself behind its steering wheel.  My watch will get bashed into a chassis crossmember, it will crash through salty waves, and it will be subjected to occasional desert sand storms.

I bought my Omega Speedmaster brand new in 1985.  I was in high school and used a Diners Club card they had foolishly issued me.  This watch will be with me forever, until I give it to one of my kids, and I love it, busy chrono dial and all.  Right up until it breaks, which it does with alarming regularity.

In other words, it needs to be tough.  It needs to take a beating physically, it needs to shrug off a beating cosmetically, and it needs to be waterproof enough for an active person to never have to even think twice about.  Which seems like a pretty simple order to fill, but it's not quite so.  Most watches talk the talk of being tough, but I have found that far too few of them really walk the walk.  I have broken, in the last four or five years alone, a Tissot, two different Certinas, a Victorinox, and a TAG Heuer, all of which have rugged, active brand identities.  I break my much-loved Omega Speedmaster at least once a year if I am wearing it regularly (which I find lately I am not.)  You may not be as tough on your timepieces as I am, and I kinda hope you aren't, but if you are, you'll find your choices somewhat more limited.

 

so what do we wear?

Well, a number of things.  Adam swears by his Marathon "Search & Rescue," but will probably add an Oris at some point.  For the past couple of years I have been alternating between a Unimatic Modello Due and a Seiko SRP777 "Turtle."  The Modello Due is a tough little bugger, stunningly good looking and extremely simple, with an unadorned "field watch" aesthetic backed up by diver-grade water resistance.  Every time I look at it I am reminded of the old adage: "A good design is achieved not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be removed."  For reading the time quickly and easily, it is the single best implement I have ever used, hands-down, and as close as I have found to the "early Porsche 911 tachometer" standard.  A boutique watch crafted in small numbers by a small firm in Italy, I had expected to break it long ago, but despite being subjected to as much harsh treatment as I subject everything mechanical in my life to, it keeps plugging away and looks as good today as it did the day I bought it.  My only niggle?  Poor lume.  When I'm driving at night, I wish the lume was brighter.  Other than that, it's bang on.

You can find the current Unimatic range, including a new version of the Modello Due, here: www.unimaticwatches.com

My trusty Seiko SRP777. Vintage aesthetics, rugged performance, and iconic history.  It's a tough watch to beat when it comes to value, and should be a staple in anyone's collection.  This photo shows the factory original rubber dive strap, which is excellent, but I usually have a vintage inspired "Tropic" rubber strap on mine, which I bought from Uncle Seiko.  Highly recommended. 

The Seiko is a well-known timepiece, so I won't say much about it here, other than that it's essentially a modern re-issue of Seiko's legendary cushion-case professional divers, such as the 6309 or 6105 that Martin Sheen wore in "Apocalypse Now."  I like it because it's immensely strong, supremely reliable, and eminently readable.  Seiko lume is in a class by itself, and when fully charged the dial glows brightly enough to use as a flashlight in very dark rooms.  (I'm not joking.)  Further, the dive timer bezel comes in handy on trips.  When I know my estimated time to a checkpoint, I can set it on the bezel and know roughly where I am on time at a glance, which is simple and convenient as hell.

You can buy the Seiko pretty much anywhere, but you can see their range here: www.seikowatches.com.  And although the supplied strap is excellent, I have mine on a vintage-inspired "Tropic" rubber strap made by Uncle Seiko.  If you're a Seiko lover, or just want the vintage look of classic watch straps with modern strength and reliability, you need to know Uncle Seiko.  You can find everything he makes here:  www.uncleseiko.com

Both of these watches, it should be noted, are extremely affordable, and even Adam's Marathon is under a grand, proving you don't need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a quality watch for adventure driving.  But if you just want to, then some of my favorites in the higher price range include the Rolex Air King, Oris TT1, Tudor Black Bay, and Panerai Luminor.

 

what are we forgetting?

What do you wear when you're on a driving adventure?  Why?  Leave a comment with your favorite motoring timepieces and be sure to tell us why we're missing out.  It's always nice to have an excuse to do a little more timepiece window shopping...