Clocking miles: The inseparable histories of car racing and timekeeping 2
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Clocking miles: The inseparable histories of car racing and timekeeping

Blame it on their common quest for speed.
IƱigo S. Roces | Dec 26 2018

Whether it's their complication and craftsmanship, use of gears and cogs, or their common quest for speed, cars and watches have shared a long, storied connection. Some argue that this mutual pursuit first began with the first grand prix, when the need for accurate lap timing arose. And, when it comes to timing, no watch complication is better suited for it than the chronograph.


Stars to finish line

The chronograph traces its inception to 1816. Louis Moinet created the first official chronograph as an aid for astronomy and complex calculations. It was not until 1821 that the chronograph was first applied to racing. King Louis XVIII accurately determined how long it took each horse to run a race, when French royal watchmaker Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec brought his timing device to a horse race at the stands of the Champ-de-Mars. Rieussec's invention used two rotating dials, one for the minutes and another for the seconds, and a small nib to mark an exact time interval. The judges used the device as an effective stopwatch.

Edouard Heuer would improve upon this idea, with his first chronograph in 1882 and "oscillating pinion" patented in 1887 that would serve as the mold for today's modern mechanical chronograph.


Dunhill's Motorities

Yet, the timepiece's first application to an automobile is owed not to an horologist, but a saddler. The early automobiles were spartan machines, having little more than wooden benches and railings. Coachbuilders took it upon themselves to improve these modes of transport with touches of luxury. Among the early coachbuilders and accessory suppliers was Alfred Dunhill.

After he inherited his father's saddlery business at the age of 21 in 1893, Dunhill responded to the growing demand for automobiles by developing a line of accessories called Dunhill's Motorities. This first collection included car horns and lamps, leather overcoats, goggles, picnic sets, and timepieces, which provided the company with a strapline, "Everything But The Motor." Dunhill's business moved towards the luxury motoring attire in a few years, but not without leaving a lasting impression upon the automobile. After all, the most sought- after accessory was the onboard clock.

Clocking miles: The inseparable histories of car racing and timekeeping 3
Sketches of the Chopard Mille Miglia watch show its purposeful connection to cars.

Heuer's hand

The advent of auto racing created a need for more accurate and durable means of keeping time. Heuer would meet this need in 1911, with timepieces specifically designed to be mounted on the dashboards of automobiles, aircraft, and boats.

The first dashboard chronograph was called Time of Trip and featured two large hands mounted from the center pinion indicating the time of day, as on a traditional clock. A small pair of hands, mounted at the top of the dial (12 o'clock position) indicated the duration of the trip (up to 12 hours). A top-mounted crown allowed the user to set the time; a button mounted in that crown operated the start / stop / reset functions of the "duration of trip" counter.

The Time of Trip would eventually be miniaturized into the first wrist chronograph in 1914 and the first Micrograph in 1916, allowing measurements accurate to 1/100 of a second and later, with split-second function. It would eventually evolve into the Autavia, a dashboard timer for automobiles and aviation ("AUTos" and "AVIAtion").

In 1925, Edmond Jaeger and Jacques-David LeCoultre founded a small workshop in London, Ed Jaeger London Ltd., which specialized in automotive dashboard instruments. Among its most famous creations was the instrument panel of the 1.5-liter Aston Martin LM from the 1930s, a class winner in international motor sport.


Quid pro quo

It should have come as no surprise that from the 1950s to the 1970s Heuers became popular watches among automobile racers, both professional and amateur. As a nod to their support, Heuer produced special versions of chronographs with logos of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as the names or logos of racing teams or sponsors. The iconic Carrera chronograph, designed by Jack Heuer in honor of the Carrera Panamerica race, was introduced in 1963 and later, the Monaco, after the Monaco Grand Prix, in 1969.

Clocking miles: The inseparable histories of car racing and timekeeping 4
Chopard's collaboration with racing has produced its latest tribute to the Monaco Grand Prix.

The chronograph watch's biggest boon came from Hollywood film star Steve McQueen who used the Heuer Monaco in the 1971 film Le Mans. The move would make the watch synonymous with McQueen and chronographs with racing.


Breitling's initiative

Though the link between racing and watches was well established, it was not until Breitling paired with Bentley that car and watch marques began to look seriously into brand partnerships.

Free from the ownership of Rolls-Royce and determined to revive its racing roots, Bentley sought to create its first sports car in decades (the Continental GT) and return to motorsports. Bentley approached Breitling to lend its touch to the design of the technical instruments and the onboard clock. Equally inspired by Bentley's penchant for perfection, Breitling also launched its line of co-branded watches, Breitling for Bentley.

The move sparked interest in auto-inspired watches. Jaeger-LeCoultre and Aston Martin soon followed with the AMVOXi in 2004. More luxury names sought alignments like Parmigiani Fleurier with Bugatti, IWC with AMG, Audi with Chronoswiss, Ball with BMW, Blancpain with Lamborghini, and Hublot with Ferrari.


Originally appeared in Vault Magazine.