Cars and watches just go together, don’t they? But what are the top five watches for driving? We take a quick look and come up with our own eclectic list: plus five other honourable mentions. It’s fair to say that they might just surprise you….
Perhaps the ultimate driving watch is the Vacherin Constantin ‘Historiques American 1921’ as the whole dial design is predicated on motoring. The dial and crown are tilted, so that 12 o’clock is more or less where 2 o’clock would normally be, with the crown directly on top of it. The chronograph function, by contrast, is the right way round.
This design was arrived at so that pioneering American motorists could glance at the time when driving, even when their wrists were resting on the steering wheel in the classic ‘10 to 2’ driving position. At the time, many early motorists wore their watches on the inside rather than the outside of their wrists, partly to guard against flying stone chips (many cars were open-topped) and also because the outside of the wrist was often covered by a driving glove, which is also the reason why we have ‘glove boxes’ in cars…
The breath-taking Vacheron Constantin takes inspiration not only from practicality, but also from the way that a car’s instruments were often canted to improve readability. The ‘1921’ watch was recently reissued, 100 years after the original, so it’s a significant milestone for this tribute to the golden age of motoring. A variety of styles and cases are available but whichever one you choose; it needs a healthy budget: one of these watches will set you back around £25,000.
Of course, it would be impossible to write anything about driving watches without mentioning Heuer (which became TAG Heuer – a name still seen in Formula 1 now – in the mid-1980s). Without Heuer, there may never have been such a thing as a driving watch. Suffice it to say that models such as the Carrera and Autavia practically defined the genre, while later there were a number of interesting spin-offs that paid tribute to the great racing circuits of the world: Monaco, Montreal, Monza and Silverstone, for example.
There’s even the TAG Heuer ‘Formula 1’ watch, cutting right to the heart of the well-known intersection between cars and watches. And the heritage is as authentic as it gets, because Heuer originally made dashboard clocks that were installed in cars for long-distance rallies, before switching the focus to timepieces that drivers could wear on their wrists. There are many top Heuer driving watches to choose from, but if I were forced to select just one, it would be the stunning Autavia: a crystal-clear chronograph originally from the 1960s (although the name was first used in 1933) that works well in every context and will forever be associated with glamorous grand prix stars such as Jochen Rindt.
First things first: the name ‘Enicar’ actually has nothing to do with cars. Instead, it’s just the surname of the founder (Ariste Racine) spelt backwards. So it’s ironic that, having initially sponsored a Swiss climbing team – which resulted in the creation of the Sherpa Graph name – the company would go on to become much better known for their driving watches, thanks to heroes such as Stirling Moss and Jim Clark, who regularly wore them, especially during their early careers. This was probably because they represented the perfect balance between quality (thanks to the use of the Valjoux 72 movement, which also famously drove the Rolex Daytona), legibility, and price – as back then, drivers either had to buy their own watches or hope to be given them for free (especially if they then encouraged other drivers to buy the brand).
As a result of these high-profile associations, Enicar became extremely successful in the 1960s, without ever quite reaching the status of Rolex or Heuer. Although the Sherpa Graph is superficially similar to the Autavia in looks, it has a number of distinct Enicar signatures, which is why the model has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years with values creeping steadily upwards.
Now for something completely different. If you want a driving watch that’s out there, the Straton is the one for you. It’s unashamedly inspired by the watches of the 1970s, and to my mind, the Heuer Silverstone in particular (more about Heuer later), which was the television-shaped timepiece intended to take over the mantle of the iconic Monaco. To say that Straton picks up that idea and runs with it is something of an understatement, and like all 70s fashions, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the people who like it will absolutely love it.
The 42-millimetre Straton Speciale Automatic Chronograph comes in a number of different colours, from a subtle (yet very period) brown and white, to day-glo yellow to a much more restrained blue. But the one to go for is the purple; a colour that harks back to an era when the bodywork of even a Ford Cortina was as flared as your average man’s trousers. But the Straton is about much more than mere appearance. There’s an ETA 7750 movement inside, so reliability is guaranteed, and a sapphire crystal to keep everything looking pristine. If you’ve got a 1970s car, there’s arguably no better driving watch.
Omologato is a British watch brand that was founded 25 years ago, claiming to have the biggest range of motorsport watches in the world – and the company has certainly forged some impressive partnerships with well-known drivers and circuits. The watches themselves come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, at an accessible price point that starts from £99 with the Tifosi range.
Omologato is not afraid to shy away from bold colours and motifs: if you want a watch with racing stripes or even a cartoon face, you can get it here. As well as watches, Omologato also produces wall clocks for garages. The pick of the bunch? It won’t be for everyone, but the Tiffany blue square Panamericana really stands out.
Autodromo – created in New York in 2011 – believes in a simple aesthetic, using shapes and colours that pay tribute to the iconic cars of the past, with a distinct nod to the 1980s. There are handsome watches from earlier eras too, back when stringback gloves were an essential accessory for driving.
And in fact, Autodromo will sell you those too (along with caps and sunglasses) describing themselves as offering “instruments for motoring.” There’s a much smaller range of watches than Omologato, but a step up in price as well, with most of the watches costing in the region of $1000 USD. For me, the Group B Safari is the pick of the bunch.
It might sound like heresy to some to relegate Rolex to the status of ‘honourable mention’ but although the company is at the forefront of Formula 1 and Le Mans, it’s oddly soulless there: perhaps because of the decision to associate the brand mainly with events rather than people.
Of course there are brand ambassadors too, the most notable of whom is Sir Jackie Stewart. But it’s still somehow hard to feel passionate about Rolex and driving. Maybe it’s just me. Although of course, I wouldn’t say no to a Daytona: Rolex’s biggest legacy to the automotive world.
Another icon stumbles, with Omega relegated to the list of also-rans in our (very subjective) list of driving watches. But that’s because their greatest driving watch isn’t well-known as a driving watch.
We could devote a whole separate feature to this topic – and perhaps one day we will – but the Speedmaster is, to me at least, a driving watch. After all, it was introduced back in 1957 as a “sports and racing chronograph”. There was no mention at all of going to the moon with it, yet that’s the over-riding reputation that has lingered ever since…
Yes, this might also seem a slightly odd model to include on a list of the top 10 driving watches. But think about it. An Apple Watch is the modern day equivalent of the Vacheron Constantin (yes, a bold statement) as it puts all the information you need in the format you want, exactly where you want it: on your wrist. So at a glance you can get navigation, text messages, even car and traffic information – without ever taking your hands off the wheel.
Granted, it may not be as romantic as the other watches mentioned here. But has anyone tried putting an Apple watch on a rally strap yet? It’s bound to look the part.