Automobiles and timepieces have gone hand-in-hand for years. Nearly as soon as people started driving cars, they started racing them. And as soon as they started racing them, they needed something to keep time.
So engineers started putting little clocks into dashboards – and onto their wrists. All the better to keep track of who has the fastest lap time, my dear.
Enter the wristwatch designed to suit the driver. Rolex, Heuer, and Zenith, among others, perfected the models that became iconic. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Ayrton Senna, and Mario Andretti wore them – and won.
While the glory days of the automobile racing watch have passed, the most iconic races from those times are still run: the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans, the Paris Dakar Rally, the Monaco Grand Prix. And those original watches have spurred interesting, innovative offspring. Here are seven of our favorites on sale now.
TAG Heuer Monza Heritage Calibre 17
One of the most iconic vintage car watches you can buy, a version of which was introduced late last year, is the Heuer Monza – the brand’s first model to get completely blacked-out on the dial and case, a treatment which in 1976 was totally new to the watch scene.
The modern version is a hair bigger than the 39mm original, with a 42-mm case coated in PVD and lume glowing across the dial, aged in the factory to look vintage. (Lume is a quick way to refer to the luminous phosphorescent solution applied to some watch dials.)
Functions on this Monza include hours, minutes, seconds, chronograph, date window, and a tachymeter bezel. Plus, it comes with a black strap made of perforated calfskin; it’s meant to evoke the steering wheels of the 1970s. Along with such other gold standards from Heuer as the Carrera, the Monaco, and the Autavia, the Monza sits atop the drivers’ heap.
Nomos Glashuette Autobahn
Founded in the 1990s in Berlin, independent watchmaker Nomos Glashuette developed its latest, a line of three car-influenced models, last year and has since won multiple awards for good design. As the name implies, it’s inspired by the great federal highway system that runs through Germany, the Autobahn.
It also takes cues from earlier automotive design, especially the clocks set in the dashboards of cars from the 1950s. The most arresting feature is the lume spread from eight to four, which looks like an old speedometer set in the 41mm case. The fact that it is curved slightly along the back case, its crisp topography, and the facile date-set adjustment add to the ease of use it offers modern drivers on the move.
Porsche Design Chronometer Series 1 Matte Black
As the most respected automaker-related design firm, Porsche Design has a long history of racing-inspired timepieces – not to mention accessories worn by stars from Al Pacino to Yoko Ono. This darkly modern watch is taken from the first series Porsche made, so it comes by its vintage feel honestly and then adds some excellent modern components.
It has a bead-blasted, 42mm titanium case and bracelet with matte-black titanium-carbide coating. The dial shows plenty of functions such as minutes, hours, small seconds at nine o’clock, chronograph seconds, 30-minute and 12-hour counters, a date window and a tachymeter scale, to name a few. There’s a power reserve of 48 hours. Leave it to German engineers to think of everything. But don’t worry: Even though Porsche is German, this movement is Swiss-made.
Oak & Oscar Jackson
Based on an 1895 car race in Illinois, the Jackson watch is named to commemorate the 54-mile route from Jackson Park to Evanston and back. (It took eight hours for the winning car to complete the course that November.)
This is the latest, most complicated watch to date from the brand; it comes with a 40mm case and a 60-hour power reserve, with date, minutes and hours shown on the slate-gray dial.
The column-wheel-activated chronograph is primed for crisp, concise pusher action. The stacked register set at three o’clock has each five-minute stretch blocked off in color, with color-coordinated hands to help the wearer note elapsed hours and minutes.
If you like this one, move quickly: Tthe company has announced it is currently building the last one it intends to produce, for the present.
Autodromo Group B Series Automatic
This is the sportiest, least-expensive of our group, with a heavy early 1980s vibe. But some people are into that sort of thing. It’s built on the premise that “The Group B era – which spanned from 1982-1986– was arguably the last romantic era of motorsport,” as Autodromo materials put it. (The name commemorates a set of rules introduced in 1982 for sports cars used for racing and rallying and regulated by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile.)
The company lauds the “gladiatorial danger for drivers and co-drivers pushed to the very limits of human endurance” of the era.
That might be a little dramatic for this watch, but you can’t deny its retro-mod allure, considered high-tech at the time: an automatic movement in a super-light titanium 39mm case, with a stainless steel bracelet integrated directly into that capsule. A variation on the line, the Group B Series 2 (not shown), was launched in late 2018.
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
This is the 56-year-old granddaddy of them all, the iconic car lovers’ watch and the most elegant of Rolex’s sport watches. It's telling that Jackie Stewart, the British Formula One racing champion, is the spokesman for the line.
This watch was designed as a tool for professional drivers in endurance races on the beach sands of eponymous Daytona, Fla., and little has changed since Rolex debuted the revolutionary earliest models – after all, you can’t improve perfection, right?
The watch works most singularly by chronograph functions activated by pushers on the crown; you press it once to start, stop, and reset the timer. This one, in particular, has a central sweep seconds hand that allows precision to 1/8 of a second. Two counters on the dial show time past in hours and minutes. It’s all perfect for tracking lap times and sprint splits.
The Cosmograph Daytona comes in a 40mm steel case and black ceramic bezel, though many other variations are offered. This is the old standard of the group, but it's still more than current. This year, at the 2019 24 Hours of Daytona, winner Fernando Alonso received one of these, along with the winners in each driving category.
Bremont MKII Jaguar Chronograph Watch
Made to evoke the golden days of 1960s sports car racing, this watch by Bremont has a black dial that carries the Jaguar logo and hour markings in the style found in the renowned Jaguar E-Type car.
It’s both subtle and stunning, with a blacked-out chronograph layout: two small subdials and a red line on the 60-minute counter that mimics the tachometer on the E-Type. The Jaguar Chronograph has a 42-hour power reserve and a 43mm steel case, which is relatively big.
But it’s the small details that make the watch – a tiny “JAGUAR” text in the winder made to look like the tread of a tire and the name “E-Type” written on the side of the clear back case. The strap comes with big, round stamps cut out of the center, all the better for fresh air reaching sweaty, road-weary wrists.
Bremont first collaborated with Jaguar in 2010 during the launch of the Jaguar C-X75, developing a unique, analog dashboard clock for that one. In 2014 and 2015, Bremont debuted several other limited-edition wristwatches, such as the MKI and MKII. This is the latest of the line.