The timeless bond between wristwatches and luxury cars

Alex Doak delves into the history of the now-ubiquitous partnership between watchmakers and luxury car brands.

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"A sports car for the wrist." That is the very modern and undeniably commercial notion of mechanical wristwatches. Think about it: an engine - the movement - suspended within a purpose-built chassis - the case - engineered and tuned to within incredibly narrow tolerances for maximum performance, allowing one to express one's status, distinguished taste and - at a stretch - love of fine engineering. The fact that even the most basic automatic watches on the market have see-through case backs is down to the same reason Ferrari's V8s and Lamorghini's V10s are proudly visible just behind the cockpit.

The watch industry has long recognised the link between performance cars and mechanical watches and has tried to capitalise on it in some form or another. This continues today from the top of the industry to the bottom; take, for example, these two very similar accounts from two very dissimilar individuals at the top of the watch game. The first is from Fabrice Deschanel, head of Audemars Piguet, on his chat with Richard Mille from the company's Renaud & Papi horological think-tank based in the Swiss Jura mountains.

"When Richard Mille first approached me with his idea for a new watch brand, he showed me two photographs: one of an old Ferrari engine and one of a new Formula One Renault engine," says Deschanel. " 'In horology,' he told me, 'there has been no evolution like this for 30 years. I want my watch to be the Renault engine'. He wanted 30 years of evolution in one watch."

The second is from Christoph Behling, a Frenchman designing 95 per cent of TAG Heuer's output from his studio in London's Notting Hill.

"At the beginning of the Monaco V4's development there were two visuals I put on the wall: the engine of a Ferrari from 1967 and the engine of a Ferrari from 2003. And I said why is it that the two engines are so beautiful? One had the modern beauty of mechanical engineering, the other one is sentimental. The watch is the engine still unchanged in 40 years - I challenged TAG Heuer and asked shouldn't we find today our own aesthetic, our own beauty?"

Despite their polar-opposite remits - one highly complicated "haute horlogerie", the other mainstream sports watches - they've both had acknowledge the importance of the car industry and its impact on the consumer appeal of watches.

Behling eventually came up with a near-impossible V-configuration movement, driven by rubber "timing belts" as thin as a human hair. Pure collector territory. For Richard Mille, on the other hand, Deschanel and his team came up with a brand in its entirety, a novel, new concept that continues to revolutionise modern watchmaking as we know it since the RM001 Tourbillon burst onto the scene in 2000. "A racing machine for the wrist" it was subtitled. Although the mechanic principles were still the same, much as an F1 engine still works on the same basis as that in your family car, a new, zero-compromise, ultra-light approach to material science, rendered in a stripped-down, high-tech aesthetic that shook up the traditional, stuffy watchmaking world was born.

The new, young money lapped it up. And you can guarantee every other wrist in the F1 paddocks - Felipe Massa's included - has one of Mille's chunky spaceframe devices strapped on. And if not a Mille, a watch that's trying its best to look like it.

In fact, it's the paddocks and pits where the motor industry's mutual love affair with watches began, more than 40 years ago. Rolex devotees will harp on about Paul Newman's tenuous Daytona chronograph connection, but everyone knows it was TAG Heuer which did the legwork. It all started properly with the classic, round Carrera - a watch that speaks vividly of Jack Heuer's days in the pitlanes, where, sleeves rolled up, oil stains, the lot, the Heuer honorary president was setting up super-accurate timing equipment for all manner of formulae. On the side, he was kitting out gentlemen racers from Indianapolis to Silverstone. A lifelong fan of motorsport, Heuer knew what was needed: a wide-open, easy-to-read dial and a shock-resistant case rugged enough to withstand a primitive road surface and unforgiving chassis. It was 1964 when he launched the result, a mechanical, manual-wound chronograph called Carrera, named after the notorious Carrera Pan Americana: a five-day, 3,380km race across Mexico. Meaning "competition of the highest order", the Carrera remains synonymous with excitement, danger and heroism - and for all the same reasons was also adopted by Porsche as the nickname for its 911.

Its clean functionality combined with Heuer's reputation for precision chronographs made the Carrera hugely popular among motorsport royalty. Wearers included legends such as Jacky Ickx, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Jo Siffert, Emerson Fittipaldi and John Surtees. This year's Heritage collection is a grainy Kodachrome throwback to the Carrera's high-octane heyday - a nice balance to the wrist candy sported now by Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton (TAG, the holding company that bought Heuer in the 1980s, is a major shareholder of McLaren).

It was a certain Michael Delaney who cemented Heuer's petrolhead credentials. The fictional endurance driver perpetrates perhaps the most famous starring role of any watch in cinema, despite the relative obscurity of the film itself. Played by Steve McQueen, his Heuer Monaco chronograph in Le Mans (1971) looks as cool as you'd expect from Hollywood's grittiest playboy - its cobalt-blue, square dial contrasting with his white race suit to vivid effect.

Unfortunately, the slew of car/watch tie-ups that have arisen since "proper watches" started to regain popularity in the 1990s has numbed anyone with half a brain for a marketing ploy. And made us unnecessarily cynical of what occasionally amounts to a straightforward, good-old sponsorship.

It started promisingly enough, though. Girard-Perregaux's Pour Ferrari collaboration was the first tie-up to produce watches that properly reflected the quality of the cars in question, and actively drew from the partner's brand values. Not only were the watches up to Maranello's standards, the origins of the partnership had undeniable petrolhead pedigree. G-P's genial Italian boss, Gino Macaluso, was a champion rally driver for Fiat in the early 1970s and was already good friends with Luca di Montezemolo when he approached the Ferrari CEO in 1993. As is still the case with the majority of Ferrari's unscrupulous, over-licensed merchandising, the watches at the time were ubiquitous and cheap (Longines' early eighties attempts aside). Macaluso wanted to change that - his concept was not to be a meretricious exercise in brand extension, limited to slapping a prancing horse on the dial; his customers would never be fooled. In his words, "this has to be the [Ferrari] 456 of watches".

The first Pour Ferrari watch in 1994 was an exquisite yellow-gold chronograph with split-seconds timing, a hugely complicated bit of kit, and a bold statement of intent. It was also limited to 499 pieces, cheekily echoing Enzo Ferrari's philosophy of producing just one less than the needs of the market.

One of Switzerland's most venerable "maisons", Girard-Perregaux is best-known for its delicate hand-craftsmanship and traditional looks, which may chime with the cars of Enzo's day, but it wasn't entirely reflective of Ferrari's modern, high-tech sports cars. Macaluso recognised this, though, and duly sent his watchmakers to the Fiorano test circuit to spend some time with Jean Todt's Formula One boffins. The result? A car-watch milestone: the incorporation of special aluminium alloys (renamed GP Al, of course) and still-relatively rare carbon fibre into the cases and dials of the watches. Without this unique "fusion" approach, Hublot as we know it wouldn't even be in existence, let alone be boasting its status as the new official Ferrari watch partner. Let's see if it does better than Panerai, which took over from G-P in 2005 to mixed reviews.

Since G-P Pour Ferrari, we've had Chopard and the Mille Miglia (again, given credence by its CEO's regular participation behind the wheel), Breitling for Bentley (both winged-B logo's, but little else in common) and Parmigiani and Bugatti - a car-llaboration that has yielded three extraordinary watches, and a rare case of the watch's price tag almost encroaching that of the car. In fact, the first Parmigiani Bugatti watch, the Type 370, was in gestation as long as its automotive muse, the Veyron. In celebration of the engine, its movement was flipped perpendicularly, "exploded" along a sapphire crystal tube that sat across your wrist, the dial clearly readable without having to release your grip on the steering wheel.

Aston Martin, meanwhile, continue to do no wrong. Its partnership with Jaeger-LeCoultre wasn't particularly obvious at first, but within two years of nice-enough, appropriately silver-grey watches, the AMVOX2 was unleashed. This was a watch that, for the very first time, directly and vividly reflected your interaction with the car: a chronograph activated by pressing the glass, just as you press the Start button. Two years after that, the same watch was released, only this time a key fob was incorporated into the mechanics; simply open and close your DBS by tapping at eight or four o'clock. Clever, but unreliable - and prohibitively expensive, if you count the cost of the car (Dh906,000) on top of the watch (Dh170,000).

The AMVOX2 watches, however, highlight the one major failing of the watch-carllaboration genre: the irreversibly one-way direction of influence. Let's be honest, no matter how esteemed the watch brand, or how chummy the CEOs are, the car brand will always be the crutch in the relationship. Plus, it's easy to make a bezel look like a brake disc and even easier to give a strap a tyre tread. Try turning a bonnet into a clock face, on the other hand, and you'll quickly come unstuck.

There's one notable exception, however, and it's Girard-Perregaux again. In perhaps the only example of watch design influencing car design, beyond the odd decal or dashboard clock, the sunken lugs of G-P's rectangular 375 MM chronograph of 2004 inspired di Montezemolo to specify the distinctive scooped door panels on the four-seater 612 Scaglietti. The fact Macaluso was originally inspired by a photo of the 375 that Roberto Rossellini commissioned for his wife, Ingrid Bergman, is neither here nor there, of course.