With the term ‘car watches’ I’m not referring to classic automotive chronographs like Omega’s Speedmaster, Heuer’s Carrera, or Rolex’s Daytona. I’m talking about watches designed with the theme of specific cars, car brands, and sometimes car parts (e.g. speedometers, tire treads, cylinder heads) baked into their design.
Generally speaking, I dislike car watches. Until recently, however, I hadn’t asked myself why. As I thought about it, I realized there are a handful I rather like a lot. But I still didn’t know why I liked those and not others. I found myself wondering if a criteria of sorts might be lurking in my subconscious.
The two main gripes I have with many car watches are heavy-handed branding and heavy-handed car-part designs (speedos, tires, etc.). Both design moves are capable of obscuring what I’ll call the watch’s ‘watchness’. Combining heavy branding and unsubtle car-part designs pretty much assures that I won’t like the thing.
In an attempt to go beyond my own distaste, I suggest that heavy-handed car watches break the cardinal rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. If, at a glance, I can see a speedometer dial, a tire tread strap, and a car company’s logo, then the watch has just over-explained itself, thus leaving no room for my imagination. That’s bad storytelling. Subtler cues and mellower branding tend to let the watch just be a watch, and that leaves space for us to weave our own thoughts into the story.
The two Hublot watches above straddle the fine line between success and failure according to my criteria. The one on the left/top is an earlier Ferrari collaboration, with unavoidable Ferrari branding and speedometer font. The second one sinks the Iron Horse logo into the design and employs a less obvious, but still cool, Ferrari-esque font. It’s no coincidence that Ferrari’s designers had direct input on the second design from the get-go, allowing the collaboration to showcase actual Ferrari shapes, materials, and structural ideas, rather than merely the brand’s surface cues. Not only do I appreciate the maturation and deepening of this design conversation between Hublot and Ferrari over time, but I also feel this subtler approach makes the watch far more like an actual Ferrari than a logo and heavy-handed speedometer fonts ever could.
So, to sum up my criteria for a passable – even excellent – car watch, it must:
- show, rather than tell, its story
- present its watchness first, and carness second
- deploy subtle branding, or no branding
- show restraint in deploying car-like features, if any
5 Watches That Meet The Criteria
Autodromo Group B
The Group B from Autodromo exudes 80s styling without succumbing to the pitfalls as exemplified by Don Johnson in Miami Vice. According to Wikipedia, “Group B was a set of regulations introduced in 1982 for competition vehicles in sportscar racing and rallying regulated by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).” So it’s not a watch pointing straight at a specific car, but at a class of rather awesome cars form a very specific (and rather boxy, even brutalist) design moment.
To get an integrated bracelet at this price point is pretty spectacular, as well. And, on top of it all, Bradley Price who runs the company is a really sweet guy with a clear vision for all of his automotive products. And the guy actually races vintage cars, so that’s rad as hell.
$875 and up
Tag Heuer Monaco Gulf Edition
Like me, the Monaco was born in 1970, and everything about this watch makes me want to get on a BMX bike and pretend I’m Evil Knievel. No, Steve McQueen didn’t register on my radar screen as a kid, but this watch which he made famous is dripping with the same 1970s swagger I envied in the local dirt rockers who burnt rubber in American muscle cars while blasting Led Zeppelin at full volume.
At 38mm the Monaco remains a big chunk of steel on wrist because of the corners. The Gulf edition pictured here is no celebration of Big Oil, but an actual icon of 70s car culture. I even put a Gulf sticker on my Mongoose BMX bike’s number plate – which, of course, makes no sense at all. But it was super cool, and all those stickers inspired my 10-year-old self to ride like mad on the local BMX race circuit.
Singer Reimagined Track 1 Emirates
This watch from the renowned Porsche re-builder Singer gets a pass because it’s just so damn well done, and because it resonates so perfectly with what Singer does. Branding is there, but it’s baked into the colorway and high-craft more than it is forced through logos.
One very important detail makes this watch feel like a 70s German car: the cone-shaped cover over the hands at the center. I have that exact same do-dad on the speedo of my 1979 Mercedes 280CE, and it’s just enough of a touch to give the watch the flavor of an older German dashboard without overstating the case. (Not sure about those strap rivets, however.)
Bremont Jaguar MKII
Dangerously close to overstating its case, the Bremont Jaguar MKII gets a pass because it’s so well done. Branding is subtle enough with that vintage logo, and I’m thankful they didn’t use Jag’s cat hood ornament here. The speedometer-style dial still looks and acts like a watch. With the tire-tread knurling on the over-sized crown, there’s just enough detail here to make this watch feel uniquely car-ish without going overboard.
It’s also helpful to know that Nick and Giles English, founders of Bremont, are serious car guys. Nick drives his vintage Jag across America with Giles in his 911 about once a year, and the whole endeavor behind how Bremont bases its timepieces on vehicles of all kinds – especially planes – sets the stage for this successful British co-branding effort.
Porsche Design 911 Chronograph Timeless Machine Limited Edition
It doesn’t hurt that this brand stems from the man who designed the 911, but that’s no reason for me to give this watch a pass. Instead, it’s the subtle silhouette of the 8th Generation 911 (the 992) on the dial that takes this watch close to the transgression point, but not over it. That silhouette is just enough to get the story told without reaching for dashboard gauges or other elements that would steal the watch-ness from this model.
The lugs are a huge part of the story, reminiscent of 911 whale-tails or whatever you might see there.
$5411 (note that 5+4=9, so the price is 911)