Hands-On: Bremont DH-88

It’s a cold and damp fall morning in Mildenhall, a small town in Suffolk, England. Despite the early hour and unpleasant weather, a large crowd has gathered at the town’s aerodrome. The place is nothing more than a wide field, a few short runways and ramshackle buildings. Just the day before, the King and Queen had visited and were taken aback by the mass of people and general sense of confusion. This was, after all, to be the launch site of the greatest airplane race the world had ever seen.

It was Saturday, October 20, 1934 and a motley collection of flying machines, everything from World War One-style biplanes to passenger aircraft were taking part in the MacRobertson Air Race. It was to be one of the most ambitious races ever held, seeing who could make it to Melbourne, Australia first. The trip would take at least three days, with stops in Athens, Baghdad, Calcutta and Singapore, amongst many other places along the way. Many planes wouldn’t last the full journey, suffering various types of mechanical and navigation failures during the grueling trip. But the British had their hopes pinned on one plane in particular. Well, three planes: The de Havilland 88 Comet, three identical versions of which were built for the race.

The dh88 Comet was a sleek single/low-winged plane with cutting edge technology, like a retracting undercarriage (which had to be forcibly retracted by turning a large wheel in the cockpit), variable-pitch propellers (which had numerous problems during the flight) and a stressed skin wing structure. It was also, I think, the most elegant, most graceful airplane that has ever been built. I wouldn’t want to fly it, though. Not only was the cockpit cramped, the plane was designed in such a way that the pilot could never see the runway over the nose. They also had no idea if the landing gear was fully deployed without someone on the ground telling them.

The restored Grosvenor House in September 1988 [Photo: Wikipedia]

The MacRobertson race had been conceived as a way to demonstrate British aviation innovation in the face of threats from the Americans. And so all hopes were pinned on the three Comets: the red G-ACSS Grosvenor House, the G-ACSP Black Magic and the green G-ACSR (which, sadly, didn’t get a cool nickname). Sorry to spoil the results, but Black Magic never made it, running into numerous technical problems along the way. The green comet did make it to Melbourne, but disappointingly in fourth place. However, three’s a charm, because just over 70 hours after leaving England, Grosvenor House arrived at the finish line first, just ahead of a KLM Douglas DC-2.

I first heard about the DH88 a couple of years ago when I was researching scale airplanes. I’ve been building models for almost two decades, starting with Japanese robots and mecha. Recently, however, I switched over to airplanes, especially ones I remembered from my youth, like the Concorde and the F4U Corsair (thanks to watching Baa Baa Black Sheep). I came across the Comet while researching racing planes, as I was looking for something sleek and stylish. An exceptional book by David Ogilvy on the history of the plane completely won me over.

And then, a few months ago, I started doing a deep dive into aviation watches. Flightmasters and fliegers and Big Crown Pointer Dates. On a whim, I searched for “dh88 watch” and came across yet another mind-blowing result: the Bremont DH-88. Mind-blowing not just because it is British (like the plane) or that the design is inspired by the Comet, but that most importantly, for me, the watch contains an actual piece of the original Grosvenor House dh88. When Bremont were kind enough to offer me a test flight with the watch (ok, there was no flying involved), I jumped at the chance.

The red Comet, flying again in 2014 [Image: Wikipedia]

When I opened the handsome leather wallet the DH-88 arrived in, I was immediately taken aback by the heft of the watch. Even on a leather strap, this thing has presence. In other words, it’s heavy. It also oozes elegance. I was happy to see, after getting a really good look in person at the dial, that is it not attempting to replicate features or dials from the original Comet. Instead, for me, it evokes a sense of 1930’s design: not so much an Art Deco vibe, but having the watch on the wrist, using the crown and pushers, gave me automotive cues from that era.

The dial deserves a deeper dive. While there are touches of the G-ACSS red throughout, the design has it’s own language which, again, feels inspired by the past, not a replication of it. The elegance emanates from the champagne subdials and GMT bezel. Not to mention the numbers: under a loupe, I could see that each hour number, which is a creamy off-white, is surrounded by an outline of silver. This gives the numbers a soft edge, which I think contributes to the understated elegance. The date window is so well placed, at the bottom of the lower subdial, balancing out the dail. And the finishing is exquisite: under the loupe the only blemish I could see was the slightest, and I mean slightest, bleed on the GMT bezel pip. The design of this bezel, by the way, is one of the watch’s quiet moments of brilliance. Controlled by a crown at 8 o’clock, the GMT is so understated, I didn’t realize until I had the watch in hand that it was more than a chronograph.

As I mentioned, the dial design is not overly reliant on nor derivative of the G-ACSS. In fact, with all the black elements, it feels more closely connected to the livery of Black Magic, but not in its original incarnation. After the MacRobertson race, this Comet was sold to the Portuguese government, who re-classified it as CS-AJJ and renamed it Salazar, after the country’s fascist dictator. My parents are Portuguese so this was the livery I decided to use on the 1:78 scale model of the Comet I built. I liked the idea of having a Portuguese plane in my collection, even if it regrettably has that man’s name on the side. However, it was building the model that really give me a connection to the plane. Scale model building requires an awful lot of planning and preparation, carefully pouring over plans in more and more detail, to understand the project long before you start cutting and gluing. Despite how tiny this model is (it can fit in the palm of my hand) I built the cockpit as detailed as I could, even painting the original wood paneling along the insides. Going through this process almost makes me feel like I’ve been in an actual Comet.

Moving on to the element of the watch with the most impact, and that is the case. It’s heavy and thick, there’s no two ways about it. With a diameter of 43mm and a height of 16.2mm, this thing is a beast of a watch. But even though it wears heavy – I was always aware of its presence – the height is masked, somewhat, thanks to Bremont’s trademarked “Trip-Tick” case construction. You’ve got stainless steel on top and bottom but a row of black in between. This strip in the middle helps to visually minimize the height of the case, a very clever optical trick. According to Bremont, they came up with this three-part case construction to differentiate their brand, and to add a touch of aerospace engineering to their watches. And I have to say, even though it is hefty, the case manages to be elegant. Whether it’s the way the lugs sweep back from the case top or the exceptional polishing, the case continues the visual language of the dial seamlessly. Not to mention the aviation style crown or the perfectly balanced chronograph pushers.

Turning the watch over and I am greeted by perhaps the most breathtaking aspects of this watch: the rotor and the movement finishing. The rotor, which uses an actual thin sliver of the original Comet’s spruce plywood, is painted the same red as the plane, with its iconic number 34. This was the moment when I really felt like I was holding a piece of history, a physical connection to this plane I had so thoroughly studied and deeply connected with. However, I have to admit I was surprised that I often could both hear and feel the rotor spinning as I wore the watch. Perhaps this is because the rotor is so substantial, but in addition to the watch’s weight, this was another factor that made me aware at all times I had it on my wrist. Behind the rotor is the calibre 13 1/4’’’ BE-54AE automatic chronometer movement, finished with so much artistry, it is a wonder to look at. And, as you would hope, it keeps exceptional time. About a second a day fast for the time I wore it.

As you might expect, even though I’m supposed to be an objective product journalist, I do ask myself the same question whenever wearing a watch to review: would I buy this? The Bremont DH-88 would connect me to one of the most iconic airplanes in history. It is also a supremely elegant and well designed watch that just drips with the kind of luxury feel I love. You can hear the ‘but’ coming, can’t you? For me, it comes down to personal preference on two fronts. First, I am becoming more and more concerned with slim cases. They feel better on my wrist and work better with my wardrobe. Second, as much as I love the way they look, I have never enjoyed wearing chronographs. It’s a movement I don’t find useful and just adds clutter to the watch. Come at me, Speedy fans.

Regardless, returning this watch to Bremont felt different than other in-person reviews I’ve done. The presence of a bit of the original Comet imbues the watch with a kind of spirit I could feel. It felt sad to give back. However, the thought of that little sliver of the original plane, flying again on it’s way back to Britain – even if it’s in the cargo hold of a courier plane – puts a smile on my face.