Are EVs And Smartwatches Going To Kill The Link Between Cars And Watches?
Mercedes-Benz 300SL at the start of the 1000 Mille Miglia, Brescia, 15 June 2022. Photograph by Mr Greg Funnell, courtesy of Chopard
The histories of the car and the wristwatch are closely intertwined, not least because they were invented around the same time, at the end of the 19th century. Wrist-worn chronographs in particular were of genuine use to early drivers and racers and some of the greatest watch designs were inspired by their needs. Anyone who is drawn to precise, mechanical, gear-y things like cars will probably also like watches, and that affinity has kept the relationship between the two going long after electronic telemetry made mechanical timing obsolete.
Over the years, most premium carmakers have had an association with an equally premium watchmaker. The watch brands remain major sponsors of motorsport, and some produce watches which celebrate vintage cars, or vintage car events. Alongside diving and aviation, driving remains one of the great influences on watch design and marketing.
But is that about to change? Both cars and watches are undergoing a radical, disruptive technological transformation. The carmakers are moving quickly to phase out the internal combustion engine. Some have already stopped developing them, and their sale will be banned in many major markets in the next decade.
The electric vehicles replacing them are to be welcomed for almost every reason: not only their emissions, but their design and performance, too. But they’re increasingly digital devices; judged more on their charging speeds or the quality of their user interface (as we would a new phone), rather than the seductive chemistry that a combustion-engined car can create with its driver. An association between an electric car and a wilfully anachronistic mechanical watch just doesn’t seem appropriate.
There’s a demographic shift worrying the carmakers, too. An increasingly urbanised younger generation is less likely to drive and less enthusiastic about cars generally. They’re getting their licences later and spending less on a car when they do. Today’s 15-year-olds are far less likely to have a Ferrari poster on their bedroom wall than their fortysomething fathers were at the same age, and less likely to want a watch that reflects a passion for cars once they have the means to afford one.
Watches are changing, too. Having just about survived the introduction of quartz watches in the 1970s and 1980s, the watch brands now have to deal with the ubiquity of smartphones, which not only duplicate every function of a mechanical watch, but have also invaded its physical real estate with their associated smartwatches. Of course, an Apple Watch isn’t as pleasing an object as a Rolex, nor can it convey status in the same way. But when the constant presence of your phone makes wearing a watch a choice rather than a necessity, the watch brands are having to work hard to encourage the habit among a new generation of buyers – the same generation the carmakers are worried about.
So, will motoring-inspired watches be squeezed into oblivion by these seemingly ineluctable technological and demographic trends? Probably not, for two reasons.
The first is that the influence of the car is so deeply ingrained in men’s watch design that it will continue to be an influence for as long as there are watches. The first “car watch” was, arguably, the Vacheron Constantin 1921 American.
It wasn’t actually designed for driving, but simply to be worn on the inside of the wrist, with the dial rotated slightly in the case so the 12 appears where the two usually would. That way, when you turn the inside of your wrist upwards to read the time, the 12 is more likely to be pointing straight up. This was ideal for early motorists, who generally clasped their huge, upright wheels around the bottom in a pugilistic stance, rather than at 10-two as currently advocated.
The practicality and popularity of the 1921 among drivers made it a classic. Its appeal is such that you can still buy a version on MR PORTER today, more than a century after it first appeared.
“The influence of the car is so deeply ingrained in men’s watch design that it will continue to be an influence for as long as there are watches”
But the car-watch relationship really hit its stride in the 1950s and 1960s, as the major Swiss houses produced a series of chronographs designed for and genuinely worn and used by racing drivers, with names that leave you in no doubt as to their inspiration: the Rolex Daytona, the Omega Speedmaster and the Heuer Carrera, Autavia and Monaco, among others.
Many of these watches are near-perfect pieces of industrial design, still in production today and bought by people who have no interest in their motoring origin, but who simply want a good-looking, prestigious, accurate and legible chronograph. We would need to be in the end times of mechanical watchmaking before Rolex axed the Daytona.
The second cause for optimism is the obvious synergy between increasingly connected electric vehicles and smart devices of any kind, watches included. Almost every EV comes with an app that allows you to view its status and control some of its functions from your phone. You can see where it is, how quickly it’s charging and when it’ll finish. You can stop and start the charging, lock it if you forgot to and heat or cool the cabin before you get in. You can even summon your Tesla from its parking space, albeit at rather lower speeds than those at which Mr Pierce Brosnan’s Bond drove his BMW 750i around a German concrete parking lot with his 1990s Ericsson flip phone. So much for progress.
A few leading EV manufacturers, including Hyundai, Volvo and Porsche, already offer apps allowing you some of this functionality on your smartwatch. Apple also offers its Car Keys function on both iPhone and Apple Watch, allowing you to open and start a compatible car with either using NFC (near-field communication) technology, and to send a digital key to anyone who might need to drive your car unexpectedly.
All of this shows how cars and smartwatches can interact, and that relationship will deepen. But they’re all just apps on existing devices, rather than smartwatches made specifically to celebrate a specific marque or model. That will come, however.
Heuer made the very first motoring chronograph – the dashboard-mounted Time of Trip – back in 1911, and this summer TAG Heuer dropped the first true motoring smartwatch, too: a Porsche version of its Connected Calibre E4. You can pair it with most recent Porsche models – both EVs and petrols – to control functions such as the air-con and see data such as the remaining range. The usual smartwatch functions also appear: the LED heart rate monitor might prove interesting when doing standing starts in Porsche’s eye-wideningly rapid electric Taycan.
“People who love combustion-engined cars will always love them, and folks who love mechanical watches will always love them”
It all comes in a 45mm sandblasted black titanium case with a calfskin strap and detailing in the same Frozen Blue offered on the Taycan, which together elevate it over a smartwatch from Samsung or Apple. The price is elevated, too, at £2,300 in the UK, but while it’s more than most other smartwatches, it’s less than a third of the price of the limited-edition Carreras TAG Heuer just revealed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revered lightweight Porsche 911 2.7 RS.
There will be casualties. Mechanical watches linked to new combustion-engined cars will probably fade away. As modern motorsport moves into a new hybrid or fully electric era, the watches made to celebrate it will need to reflect that. But EVs and smartwatches will make the links between motoring and horology deeper and more useful than ever before. And brands such as Chopard, Bremont, Breitling and so many others that make mechanical watches paying homage to vintage cars and classic motorsport will no doubt to do so.
Mr Bradley Price has more skin in this game than most. The New York-based designer founded his acclaimed Autodromo brand just over a decade ago, making gorgeous (and good value) mechanical watches and other accessories inspired by the history of motoring and motorsport. The rise of smartwatches and a decline in interest in cars could kill his brand stone dead, but he’s sanguine about the future, and welcomes the new tech.
“People who love combustion-engined cars will always love them, and folks who love mechanical watches will always love them,” he says. “And those people aren’t all octogenarians. There are plenty of people under 50 who love mechanical watches and cars that burn fossil fuels and make noise.
“I think there is a strong case to be made for connected watches that actually have a real functional value to your car, rather than just being a branding exercise,” he adds. “But as to the question of whether all these smartwatches will just be in landfill 40 years from now, as opposed to being collected and treasured and traded by aficionados, as mechanical watches are now and will be in the future... Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”