Introducing: Baume & Mercier’s Motorsport-Inspired Watches
The Clifton Club Shelby Cobra collection captures the spirit of one of the most iconic racing cars of all time
It takes a lot to win at Le Mans. Courage. Stamina. Skill. Above all, though, it takes speed. Running along the north-western side of the track is the famous Mulsanne Straight. At 3.7 miles long, it accounts for more than a third of the track’s 8.5-mile length.
Before two chicanes were introduced in 1990, effectively splitting it in three, it wasn’t uncommon to see cars reaching speeds of up to 255mph on the Mulsanne Straight. This emphasis on full-throttle racing meant that a difference in top speed of just a few miles per hour could easily translate to a loss of several seconds per lap. For the competitors in motorsport’s most brutal race, the conclusion was obvious. If you couldn’t win in a straight line, you couldn’t win at all.
That was the challenge facing racing legend Mr Carroll Shelby in 1963. Having won Le Mans as a driver in 1959, he now had his sights set on winning as a constructor.
And it’s the car that he would eventually design that is celebrated by Baume & Mercier in its latest collection of limited-edition timepieces, which land on MR PORTER this week. Standing in his way was one of the era’s most dominant racing cars: the Ferrari 250 GTO. Mr Shelby had already had some competitive success with the Shelby Cobra, a roadster built in Britain by AC Motors and adapted to fit a 289 Ford V-8 engine, but the ferociously powerful Ferrari outstripped the Cobra’s top speed by some 30 miles per hour. Mr Shelby was left with two options: increase the horsepower or reduce the drag.
He opted for the latter, and handed control of the project to a 23-year-old by the name of Mr Peter Brock. Applying aerodynamic principles pioneered in Germany in the late 1930s, the young designer took the chassis of a Shelby Cobra and hammered out a controversial new bodyshell defined by a cut-off Kammback, named after aerodynamic engineer Mr Wernibald Kamm. A mere 90 days after the initial sketches were made, the first prototype was complete. At a test session at Riverside Raceway on 1 February 1964, Mr Brock and his team got their first glimpse of what the car could do. What they saw silenced their critics. It was balanced, stable and lightning fast.
It had to be. The car’s big debut – the Daytona 2000 Kilometers, an endurance race from which it took its name – was in just two weeks. There wasn’t enough time to go back to the drawing board. Driven by Messrs Bob Holbert and Dave MacDonald, the car outran the competition, building up a lead of seven laps before a fire in the pits spelled the end of its race. It was an inauspicious start, but promising nonetheless. Despite registering a DNF (Did Not Finish), Shelby-American broke the lap record.
Next up was the 12 Hours of Sebring race in March. This time, there were no mechanical issues. The car coasted to an inaugural victory, finishing four laps ahead of its nearest competition. The win was the proof of concept Mr Shelby and his team were after, and instilled Ford with the confidence to fund the car’s entry into that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. On the biggest stage of all, the Daytona Coupe passed with flying colours. It didn’t just beat the Ferrari 250 GTOs, it lapped them. And it did so at a blistering pace. Hurtling along the Mulsanne Straight, it registered a GT-class record of 196mph.
If the success of the Daytona Coupe marked a turning point in American racing history, when the first cracks began to appear in Ferrari’s decade-long spell of dominance, it also marked the end of an era. Never again would a car crafted by so few hands on such a small budget reach the very pinnacle of motorsport. “We were a bunch of hot rodders determined to do whatever it took to win,” recalled Mr Shelby. But even as his team was on its way to claiming the 1965 FIA World Sportscar Championship with the Daytona Coupe, a new car was emerging from the shadows to take its place: the Ford GT40.
Ford reassigned Mr Shelby and his best engineers to this new, multimillion-dollar project and funding for his Cobra racing team was swiftly withdrawn. To the powers-that-be at Ford, who were now fixated on making the GT40 a success, the Daytona Coupe was yesterday’s news. It disappeared from competitive motorsport as quickly as it had arrived, and to shamefully little fanfare.
The spirit of the Daytona Coupe lives on, though, and is celebrated by Baume & Mercier in its Clifton Club Shelby Cobra collection, a series of limited-edition timepieces created in collaboration with none other than Mr Brock himself. Countless watches claim to embody the spirit of automotive engineering; very few can claim to have been designed by a carmaking legend. Subtle details from this iconic car have been cleverly replicated in the design of these automatic watches, from a vivid red second hand that features the Cobra logo to chronograph push buttons shaped like the pedals, and an oscillating weight, visible at the back, in the shape of the wheels.
Ultimately, though, what Baume & Mercier pays homage to with this new collection of timepieces is not the shape of the Daytona Coupe’s pedals or the design of its wheels, but something altogether less tangible – the spirit of innovation, and the determined belief that nothing is impossible, that pushed car and driver to 196mph down the Mulsanne Straight in 1964.