Up the Amazon without a paddle.

I blame my pal Damon. I’d always coveted his Amazon 131, slowly converted a part at a time for classic rallying. Every so often, he’d send me pictures of it going sideways with him grinning like a loon behind the wheel. The pictures would usually be accompanied by the line “Bought one yet?” His Amazon is a staple of our biennial Le Mans Classic convoy, so this year I was determined I’d be rolling off the ferry behind the wheel of my own Amazon.

I got to work. I’d toured the UK looking at 121s, 131s and 123GTs variously described as ‘perfect’, ‘immaculate’ and ‘superb’. ’Sheds’, ‘heaps’ and ‘wheeled chicken coops’ would have been more accurate. This was a little more challenging than I thought it would be.

But, on the way to a client meeting, I spotted a beauty of a 121 parked less than ten minutes drive from my village. There was only one problem. It wasn’t for sale.

It’s not for sale, y’know.

I wasn’t about to be put off by a little thing like that. Lifting the sprung chrome windscreen wiper arm (they made ‘em properly in 1966), I left a note with my email address. Three months passed with no news. Clearly, the 121’s owner had decided to hold on to his car. I poked at more rust-infected skips, kicked the rotten tyres of ‘recent restorations’ and peered earnestly at ebay pictures. Then, on Christmas Eve 2013, I got an email.

“Hello Mark – Funny enough while I have been over in Afghanistan I was feeling guilty about leaving the Volvo out in the elements and I made my mind up to find it a good home on my return. I put your note on the radiator to dry out so I hope I have the correct email?”

I headed to Faringdon in the pouring rain, took the old girl for a turn round the lanes to make sure everything worked and handed over the cash. I’d done it. I had an Amazon. A 1967, powder blue, single carb 121. It was as original as it left Göteborg and as well-built as a Bramah lock.

Built to last. Allegedly.
Built to last. Allegedly.

Dynamo. None of yer fancy modern alternators. Sealed unit, single candlepower headlights. Fear assisted, non-servo brakes. The two front static seatbelts clamped onto a central hook that had presumably seen duty as a storm lashing on the Tirpitz’ gun deck.

The Amazon and I rapidly became inseparable, if not actually rapid. For the first five weekends of ownership I drove, tweaked, adjusted and improved. I knew the engine would have to come out because she marked her territory by leaking emphatically from the rear crank oil seal. We visited family, clients, moved my partner Pip into her new clinic in Witney. We filled the huge, walk-in boot, rather appropriately, at Ikea.

P1010951
Who says classics aren’t practical?

Driving to the office each day I fell easily into the torquey, ‘stick it in fourth and leave it’ Amazon driving style. Even forty odd years after it rolled off the line, I could see why these daftly capable cars were so popular.

Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)
Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)

Oil consumption overtaking petrol consumption was the first early warning that I might not have bought a pristine car. That and the oily smokescreen that forced even the worst of the photocopier reps in their Audi A6s to keep back on the motorway. She needed rings, clearly. Possibly even valve seals. So I did a quick compression test to be sure. Then, because I didn’t believe the numbers, I did another one. How does an engine manage to run on 20% of its original compression, get up to 70mph and still do 29mpg?

Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.
Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.

Despite this, the call from the engine builder wasn’t encouraging. “The block’s OK, but everything in it’s scrap.” The fuel pump leaked. The single, ancient Zenith carb was shot. The rear crank seal didn’t. The door seals were older and leakier than a politician’s promise. The car was a mess. And the choice was between selling her as the shell for a classic rally car or immolating my wallet on the altar of a full restoration.

I took the coward’s way and offered the old girl for sale. I wrote the listing. I felt mean. Grubby. Faithless. I felt even worse when there were two buyers bidding and keen to trailer her away.

I was at the point of agreeing and waving her goodbye when another pal, Doug, called. As the owner and restorer of a 1930s Roche Talbot, he knows all about the ups and downs of classic car ownership. He took me to lunch and talked some sense into me. No, I didn’t want to sell her and buy a Mercedes 190 Cosworth or an E28 M5, he said. The Amazon suited me, he said. She was lovely, he said. I should keep her, rebuild the engine and restore her, he said. By the time we’d agreed to split the second bottle of red, I was thoroughly talked round and nipped out of the pub to make the call to the engine builder before I sobered up enough to think straight.

In the meantime, I went carb hunting. I knew the original Zenith wasn’t fit for service as a doorstop, so research began into the options. Initial ideas of a Weber twin-choke were dampened by asking a few Amazon afficionados. The view was that if twin SUs were good enough for the rallying 123GT, they were good enough for me. The initial pair I liberated from eBay had been carefully stored for the last six years in chicken guano. No amount of cleaning was going to work. The second pair just needed some advice on needles from Burlen in Salisbury and a rebuild kit.

I wanted the car to look as close to ‘factory’ as it could, but be properly uprated to survive lane 3 jousting with those Audiborne copier reps. So the engine builder (who used to build racing Aston Martin engines) rebuilt the engine from the block up. It’s now running a K cam, lightened flywheel and lifters, a gas-flowed head and a few other trick bits and tweaks. About the only original component is, as he predicted, the block. It goes well enough even if the driver doesn’t.

The brilliant Rob and Emma at Amazon Cars in Suffolk put everything back together, fitted overdrive, a new gearbox and the twin SUs. They also added 123 electronic ignition and an alternator.

Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.
Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.

Yes, I know I should have checked compression – and a whole billful of other things – before I bought her – but I’d argue that buying a classic with your head means you have no heart. If you’re not smitten, look for something else.

At Railway Wood outside Ypres

After that initially shaky start the story, nearly eighteen months later, has a happy ending. The Amazon is back, parked outside the cottage, and does duty as daily transport. I don’t get as far as clients’ reception areas anymore – they spot the car in the car park and come out to see it. When I stop, people talk and tell me about the Amazons they’ve owned. Yesterday, at Wellesbourne Airfield, an ex-Amazonian told me about the 123GT and string of Goteborg’s finest he’d owned. It seems they’re cars held fondly in a lot of memories.

There’s not a Classic this year at Le Mans. Instead, the Amazon and I rolled off the ferry at Zebrugge on our way to the Classic at Spa Francorchamps. And before you ask, yes, we made it back too.

1964 Bulova Accutron - powered by a tuning fork

Tick, tock, hummmm…

Watches are all about oscillations and oscillators.  A watch needs to have something inside it that moves in a way that can mark time.  Since the fourteenth century, this has been a balance wheel, mounted on pivots and powered by a spring.  The ‘tick, tick, tick…’ you hear when you hold a watch to your ear is the balance wheel swinging round, getting caught by the escapement and swinging back.

The more oscillations the wheel can make in a second, the more accurate the watch, by and large.  As watchmakers and metallurgists have got cleverer, so balance wheels have got faster.  The fastest mechanical watches today usually beat at around 36,000 beats per hour – around 10 per second – with a few specialist movements going a whole lick quicker.

The Zenith El Primero, running a 36,000bph movement.
The Zenith El Primero, running a 36,000bph movement.

But there’s only so fast a wheel can rotate before physics gets in the way.  So watchmakers started looking for better, faster, oscillators.  And that’s how they arrived at watches with a tiny piece of quartz as their oscillator.

Today, if you have a quartz watch on your wrist, the tiny quartz crystal tuning fork sealed in a vacuum inside is beating at 32,768 times a second.  Get yourself a Grand Seiko quartz with a 9F movement and it’s so accurate you only need to set it when the clocks change.

But there was a stage between balance wheel and quartz that often gets forgotten – tuning fork watches.

In 1953, sixteen years before Seiko’s first quartz watch, Arde Bulova and Max Hetzel collaborated to file the patent on a movement that used a tuning fork.  This is the watch that became the Bulova Accutron.  When the tuning fork vibrates in an Accutron, it moves a tiny ruby-tipped escapement that allows a 2.4mm diameter wheel to rotate, tooth by minute tooth.  The second hand sweeps, rather than ticks, around the dial.  And, rather than ticking, an Accutron hums.

With just 12 moving parts and a battery for power, the Accutron not only never needed winding, it was as accurate as its name suggests.  A battery meant there was no decay in power each day as the spring lost tension.  The tuning fork was practically impervious to positional errors.

1964 Bulova Accutron – powered by a tuning fork
1964 Bulova Accutron – powered by a tuning fork

Although the watch was accurate to just two seconds a day, this wasn’t that remarkable.  There were already mechanical watches running at this sort of rate.  But accurate watches had always been expensive, maintenance-intensive and relatively fragile.  What marked the Accutron out as different was its price, its freedom from the need for regular maintenance and its ease of use.  Accuracy had become democratic.

The button on the left pulls out to set the watch.
The button on the left pulls out to set the watch.

Accutrons have bounced along the bottom of the watch market since they fell out of favour in the 1970s.   As quartz took over, the Accutron and its heirs, the Omega Megasonic cal. 1220 and 1230, the Swissonic and the HiSonic, became little more than curiosities.  Now, they’re starting to become collectable in the mainstream.  The skeleton Spaceview, the Astronaut and gold-cased models are beginning to fetch serious prices.  Best not hang around if you want something historic in the watchbox that hums.

 

My guilty secret. Vintage digitals.

In theory, we should all love digis. Ask a digi-wearer the time and assuming he’s not an actuary, he’ll tell you, precise to the minute. It’ll be “five-forty-seven”; none of this vague and analogue “about quarter to six”. Digis are robust, never need servicing and are ready to go as soon as you drag them from the watchbox. But for most, they’re the watch equivalent of the slightly seedy uncle who insists that bri-nylon shirts are a good idea.

A G-Shock may still be as socially acceptable as a cartoon character tie, but that distant bleeping you can hear is the start of the vintage digi revolution. While most watchnerds have been busy drooling over the latest ultra-mech innovations, vintage digitals have been quietly lifted out of the musty charity shop glass cabinet into the auction catalogue.

There was even an LCD Speedie.
There was even an LCD Speedie.

It’s started with the earliest LED (light-emitting diode) glowing-digit Pulsars from the 1970s. To get a P2 under your paisley cuff in 1973 would have cost you $395. That’s $10 more than a Sub. Today, apart from being sufficiently well-built to double as a lump hammer, a decent early Pulsar P2, even in stainless steel, will set you back around £350. OK, that’s nowhere near the stratospheric rise of the Sub, but five years ago the ladies at your local Cats’ Protection League shop would have turned up their noses at it. For horological history at pocket-money prices, vintage digital can’t be beat. And, yes, it was the one Roger Moore wore in Live and Let Die… Making it the coolest digital ever made by default.

For example, an Omega TC1 – the Time Computer – Omega’s first venture into LED watches. Like the Pulsar (it shares much of the technology), its red LEDs peer out from an elegant case that feels as though it’s been hand-milled it from billet stainless. But you set the time, not with a button on the side or a crown, but by unclipping a tiny magnet from the strap’s clasp and placing it in special slots on the caseback. And you’ll find one of these – the first prestige digis – for under a thousand today.  To get a Pulsar P2 under your paisley cuff in 1973 would have cost you $395. That’s $10 more than a Sub.

But LED is for the truly dedicated; the digi-faithful who want a watch with a firm place in history. They are practical everyday timekeepers in the same way that an Aston Martin Lagonda would make a good daily driver. Move to LCD (liquid-crystal display) and more established brands and you’ll get a watch that will stand up to being used and where you don’t need to press a button to find out the time.

The early Seiko M series LCDs are a fine bet. They share the robustness of the Pulsars, but with rather more style and a less bulimic attitude to batteries. A chunk of 1970s cool for around £100. This M159 even has the address of its previous Californian owner’s ‘70s, ice-cold plateglass and concrete Capistrano Beach house engraved on the clasp.IMG_6853

Omega weren’t slow in developing their own movements. The cal. 1620 powered a series of new watches from the mid 1970s including this 1977 Constellation. Omega only produced the Constellation with the cal.1620 quartz LCD movement for 18 months. Typically for vintage digi, the movements are exceptionally well made – this one even has a tiny circuit jumper to change the display from 12 to 24 hours. But they weren’t around long. Back then, quartz was still wallet-meltingly expensive. One like this barely makes a dent today at around £500, but they’re going up fast. A '77 Omega Constellation. More functions than anyone had a right to in the '70s

And it’s a fascinating field. Who knew there was a digi version of the iconic Speedmaster and Seamaster, each sharing a calibre with the Constellation above? There’s the jam factor too – for most people, vintage digitals are just ‘old watches’, so there are still plenty of bargains around. The market has started to get smart though… you’ll be lucky to find an Omega or a Pulsar at the local jumble sale, but you can pick something remarkable up before most people get wise.

Omega LCD Constellation
Omega LCD Constellation

Significant mechanical history pieces are out of almost every watchlovers’ reach. Fancy an early Louis Moinet chronograph? Best take up burglary then. One of Rieussec’s? Time for the jemmy, stripey jumper and swag bag. But an example of the world’s first digi quartz chronograph? Get on the web, two clicks and it’s yours for under £500.

Digitals won’t be like this for ever. They’re unlikely to reach the stratospheric heights of vintage Patek or Rolex, but the signs are the better known brands are already on the up. Digis are engaging, a real piece of horological history and they won’t cost you a fortune. In fact, just sell your watchwinder and you could probably pick up a couple of good ‘uns.

This article originally appeared on the splendid, but now sadly deceased, Prodigal Guide. Now – even more splendidly – to be found on Medium: https://medium.com/the-prodigal-guide  

Rock ‘n Roll actually *is* noise pollution.

Oxford City Council has opened a consultation about the dreadful menace that is “non-compliant busking and street entertainment”. Presumably, this will mean that only council-sanctioned, compliant busking and entertainment will be – at a push – acceptable. In the meantime, there will have to be auditions…

Council-sanctioned fun only.
Council-sanctioned fun only.

The scene opens on a meeting room in the City Council offices. At a table sit a group of councillors and council officers.

Officer 1: (shouts) “NEXT!”

The door at the far end of the room opens and a musician peers nervously in, clutching a guitar case. He walks to the chair, puts the case down and sits.

Musician: “Hi – busking auditions?”

Councillor 1: Yes. That’s us. But before we listen to your, er, material, we need to make sure that it is properly compliant. Could you tell us what you propose to perform?

Musician: Yeah, no worries. I’m gonna sing some of the stuff I do on a Thursday night down the Bullingdon Arms.

He reaches down and starts taking out his guitar.

Officer 1: Just one moment, candidate. We’ll consider hearing you sing when we know more about your material. What songs do you believe are suitable for an Oxford audience?

Musician: Well, I do a bit of Zep. Thought I’d kick off with “Stairway to Heaven”.

The officers and councillors whisper as they confer.

Councillor 2: Ah. Have you completed an RA65?

Musician: RA65? Hang on – lemme check.

He reaches into his guitar case and pulls out a sheaf of forms.

Musician (mutters): Gender inclusiveness form…racial awareness form…climate change questionnaire…sustainability form…religious neutrality statement…

Nope. Don’t think I’ve got one of those.

Officer 3: (bristling) If you’re about to sing about “Stairway to Heaven” we’ll need to make sure there are no issues around working at heights.  So it’s a risk assessment, of course.

Councillor 3: I’m not sure about this “Heaven” business either. Don’t think we can really be seen to be promoting religious themes or upsetting people of different faiths. I really don’t think that one will be suitable.

Musician: But…

Councillor 1: (cutting him off) What else have you got?

Musician: Well, how about a bit of Thin Lizzy?

Officer 2: That could be acceptable… it certainly sounds as though it’s advocating healthy eating and weight loss.

Musician: Great! I could play “Whisky in the Jar”!

There’s a collective intake of breath around the table.

Officer 1: Oh no, no, no – that won’t be appropriate at all. If you really must, you should be promoting responsible drinking. Can’t you sing about something non-alcoholic instead?

Councillor 2: Come on, Nigel – I think you’re being a bit hasty here. It might be alright as long as the whisky stays IN the jar?

Officer 1: Well, we’d need to check the lyrics to ensure it’s properly compliant. (To the musician) Would you pass us a copy of the words, please?

The musician hands them over.

Officer 3: This won’t do at all. “I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was countin’.” – that’s obviously promoting the bribery of public officials in breach of Bribery Act of 2010. You’d need a firearms certificate for that next line – I’m assuming you don’t have one?

The musician shakes his head, baffled.

Officer 3: Suspected as much. And as for this: “Whack for my daddy-o” – that’s practically advocating domestic abuse.

Musician: (rather more subdued): How about a bit of Slade? You can’t argue with that – there’s The Slade in Oxford. Practically a local tune.

Councillor 2: That’s a fair point, candidate. What’s it called?

Musician: It’s one of their best – “Come on Feel the Noize”.

Officer 1: No.

Musician: “No”? But they’re an iconic British band!

Officer 1: Surely it’s obvious? Noise at the level where an Oxford resident can feel it would clearly be in contravention of the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993. Haven’t you got anything a little more compliant?

Musician: Oh. Right. Sorry. I could try a couple of Muse numbers – how about “Psycho“?

Officer 2: Nope. Mental Health Act 1983.

Musician: Deep Purple? You can’t mind “Burn”, surely?

Councillor 1: What? In flagrant disregard of the Climate Change Act 2008 – and Oxford’s a Smokeless Zone. Next.

Musician: ZZ Top? How about ZZ Top? Surely they’re OK?

Officer 3: Maybe… which song?

Musician: Well, one of their best has got to be “Legs”. How about that?

Officer 3: No. Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Next.

Musician: OK. You win. The only other song I’ve got I know you’ll hate. And I’m not a fan of his stuff either. I think he’s a sexist git.

Officer 1: Don’t be so hasty – we’re the judges of what’s sexist here.

The musician rummages in his case and reluctantly hands over a song. The councillors and officers huddle around. Soon there are nods of approval.

Councillor 1: Why didn’t you show us this before?

It’s just what we’re after – First line, “Everybody get up…”, encouraging moderate exercise. “If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say…maybe I’m going blind…” Good, sound, inclusive lyrics, those. “If you can’t read from the same page” – just the thing – after all, we can’t promote elitism in literacy, can we?

Yes, yes, this will do splendidly.

I’m not sure about the songwriter’s name though. “Thicke” seems a little judgemental. Maybe if you changed it to…

The councillor is cut off in mid flow by the audition room door slamming shut.

Top Gear = Middle Lane

The camera pans onto the three new presenters of “Middle Lane”, the BBC’s replacement for the disgraced Top Gear.

They are John Prescott, Boris Johnson and Harriet Harman.  Each sits on a special chair, crafted from recycled Routemaster seats, complete with tartan upholstery.  Prescott gets two to himself.  They sit around a (fairtrade) coffee table made from bits of old railway sleeper.

Prescott: Fnarble wibble, where’s my Jag, blurble fnurble?

Harman: Now, now, Johnny. We all know that cars are inappropriate, don’t we?

Boris: (quickly) Oh yes, Harry – errr, absolutely!  Would you like a ride on my bicycle instead?

Harman: Boris! How many times to I have to explain?  My name is Harriet, not Harry – which is a male name and thus symbolic of masculine oppression.  And as for your bicycle, that’s just… ewwwwww!  What’s this?!IMG_0005

Harman, disgustedly with her thumb and forefinger, attempts to pull a blob of chewing gum, perviously attached to the bus seat, from her trouser suit.  The gum stretches as she does so.

Prescott: Harrrr, harrr, wibble, kids today, bless ’em, never allowed gum in me youth, shoebox in’t middle o’road, fnurgle…

Boris: Look, Harriet – don’t worry about that. It’s time for this week’s Mediocrity on a Reasonably Priced Bicycle.  And this week, we’re going to make sure everything’s fair – and nobody loses – by making sure the bicycle has flat tyres!

Harriet: What a splendid idea, Boris!  And let’s make it even fairer by not timing them either!

Prescott: Fnurble, schnurble, well, that won’t be very interesting, will it?!

Harriet: Now, now, John. It’s not about being interesting, is it?  It’s about being fair to everyone.

Harriet disappears offstage… the lights dim.  Then, a single spotlight picks out a white clad figure in a cycle helmet and anti-pollution mask.

Boris: Some say she can telepathically understand Stagecoach bus timetables.  Some say she’s even able to afford a first class rail ticket without dipping into her expenses.  All we know is…. she’s called The Prig!

The lycra-clad and anoracked audience erupts into polite clapping.  Off stage, the BBC Management Committee smile quietly to themselves.

How to start collecting watches.

Starting a watch collection is a dangerous thing.  Like most addictions (for it is just that) it sneaks up on you.  That first step – from having just one utility watch that tells the time to buying the second – seems simple.  “Just one,” you say, “I’ll get one good watch. I only need one. Just one. That’ll do me.”

That’s how everyone starts.  Soon, you’ll have Chrono24, Worn & Wound, Hodinkee and several watch dealers on bookmark.  You’ll have downloaded the WatchVille app to every device you own.  And you’ll be sneaking glances at the wrists of perfect strangers.  And, clearly, you’ll have burned a smoking, ragged hole in your chequebook.

This is normal.  At least, it is for a watch addict.  So, save some time.  Don’t kid yourself that ‘one watch is enough’.  It’s not.  The optimum number of watches is always n+1.  To save a little more time, here’s my list of the classics that every watchie should own at least once.

Rolex Submariner

1966 Rolex 5513 "metres first" Sub. From Oakleigh Watches.
1966 Rolex 5513 “metres first” Sub. From Oakleigh Watches.

 

Yes, I know it’s a cliche.  I know it’s the most faked watch in the known universe.  It’s also the second most splendid piece of form following function in watchworld.  Subs are lovely because they weren’t designed to be.  Before they ended up on the wrist of almost photocopier rep, they were proper diving tools.  So they’re instantly legible, hard to damage, waterproof (clearly) and never need winding up.

Mind you, given the life expectancy of a watch in most collections, perhaps their most endearing feature is their exceptional ease of re-sale.

Yours for anywhere between £2,500 and “HOW MUCH?! I could buy a house for that!”

Rolex Explorer I

1016
Rolex Explorer 1016, 1964, gilt dial.

 

If the Sub is the second most splendid piece of form following function, the Exp I is the first.  Designed to survive pretty much anything, the Exp is plain, clean and built like a safe.  Unlike the Sub, you won’t spend your life saying “Yes, it is real actually…” because no-one will ever spot it on your wrist. Except a fellow watchie.  And there are enough variants of the Exp 1, from gilt-dialed to modern, that you’ll never be bored.

Yours for anywhere between £2,400 and £20,000+

 

 

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso

IMG_1707
JLC Reverso Classique, 2001

 

More refined but no less robust is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso (that’s “Jayjay Lecootrer”).  So called because the entire body of the watch flips over to present its caseback to the world.  Handy to protect your watchface when you’re playing polo, apparently.  Again, plenty of variants to choose.  There’s the smaller Classique (handy if you don’t have wrists like Herman Munster) right the way through to the socking great Répétition Minutes à Rideau.  You’ll see rather fewer of these around than their Rolex brethren.

Yours for anywhere between £1,500 and £150,000+

Navitimer2
Breitling Navitimer 01, with many thanks to Patrick Carr.

Breitling Navitimer

Another unashamed choice of a watch that had a job to do – keep ‘planes in the air.  The Navitimer was intended as a navigational aid for airmen, hence the sliderule on the bezel and dial.  They’re not small watches, but they do seem a lot smaller on the wrist than they should.  There’s a lot of history to enjoy too; from the 1952 806 right up to the “is that a clock on your wrist?” 48mm GMT Navitimer 01.

Yours for anywhere between £600 (quartz) and £1,800 (mech) to £40,000

Omega Speedmaster

Speedie
Omega Speedmaster 175.0032, 1990.

 

If the Navi kept aircraft up there, the Speedmaster kept Apollo 11 on track and helped get Apollo 13 back down again.  That’s reason enough to own one.  But add in the range of variations from model to model and there’s enough interest to keep you engaged for years.  And the Speedie is another reliable, robust, no-babying sort of watch that you can happily put on your wrist every day.

Yours for anywhere between £1,200 and £60,000 (limited editions)

IWC Mk XII

MkXII
IWC MkXII. Year unknown.

 

Another aviation watch, the Mk XII holds one of the most beautifully made movements in a watch you don’t need to sell your soul for.  It’s IWC’s reworked Jaeger LeCoultre 889/2.  And that horological gem alone is worth putting your hand in your pocket for.  XII’s are far from common, so if you want to own almost the opposite of the Sub, this one’s for you.  A wonderful, classic piece of watchmaking.

Yours for anywhere between £1,800 (stainless steel) to £5,000 (gold)

Grand Seiko

IMG_3933
Grand Seiko SBGX083.

 

OK. Calm down.  GS are about as far removed from the £40 Seikos you see in H Samuel as a Mitsuoka Viewt is from a MkII Jag.  GS are, in fact, the watch world’s inside secret.  The quality of Grand Seiko makes a lot of other far, far more expensive makers look a little red and shuffly as they stare at the floor.  Take a proper look at a GS and you’ll wonder how some other makers charge so much for poorer quality.  And, at the risk of kicking off a controversy match, a GS will have a proper authentic in-house movement.

Yours for anywhere between £700 (eye-wateringly accurate quartz) to £22,000 (platinum)

The main thing with watches is ‘buy what you like and what interests you’. I have a thing for functional things, don’t like bling and don’t buy new (so the prices above are all for secondhand kit).  Someone who’s into bling will steer you towards makers like Hublot and some of the more, er, ornamented Breitlings.

Someone with rather deeper pockets will head towards the rarified horological wonders of Patek Philippe. Someone with bottomless ones will snare Richard Mille‘s creations or Roger Smith‘s works of genius.  Someone with shallower ones will look at vintage Longines or perhaps some Heuers.  But even trawling the charity shops and Fleabay for £5 tickers will turn up something interesting.

The only problem is stopping once you’ve started.

What happens if your speedo breaks?

Imagine.  You’re driving – or riding – along and suddenly your speedometer breaks.  The dial in front of you suddenly reads zero and the needle’s not moving. You have absolutely no idea what speed you’re travelling at.

One question…

Can you still drive safely?

A 1967 Volvo Amazon speedometer and dashboard, with a straight, clear road ahead.
What happens when your speedo breaks?

The answer’s rather obvious, isn’t it?  There are probably not too many people who would stop immediately and put in a panic call to the AA.  And if they did, I suspect they’d be more concerned with legality than safety.  After all, no-one wants a £100 fine and a brown envelope through the post.

But if you can drive safely and you’re no more likely to crash or hit a pedestrian with no speedo, why do we place such a reliance on speed limits as road safety tools?  And why do we now talk about speed limits with an almost talismanic reverence?

This is from the South Yorkshire Safety Camera partnership:

You can help us to achieve our aim – and reduce the number of deaths and collisions on our roads. All you have to do is keep to the speed limit.

The Tayside Safety Camera partnership says:

Check your speedometer as frequently as you check your mirrors.

On many of Britain’s roads, where speed limits change as rapidly as the numbers on a fruit machine, drivers are constantly matching the number on their speedo to the number on the stick.  The Slower Speeds Initiative reinforces the case for ‘driving by numbers’ and quotes a TRL study that as little as a 1mph reduction in average speeds can reduce crashes by 5%.

But if a duff speedo is no impediment to safe driving, what is it instead?  If you can still drive safely with no speedo, that leaves the whole question of speed limits and their hardline and automated enforcement rather hanging.

Isn’t this a case of making what’s measurable important rather than measuring what’s important?  And, as a consequence, of mistaking compliance for safety?

I’d argue that we’ve taken relative speed and attempted to make it absolute, backed it with threats of prosecution, then reduced and reduced limits until they’ve become risible.  Leslie Hore-Belisha (who set the 30 limit in 1935) intended limits to reflect the behaviour of the majority.  People drove at 30mph – near as dammit – because it felt ‘right’ for urban roads.  We already know that people drive closer to 20mph on narrow residential streets without 20mph limits.  So it’s not those absolute, nicely round numbers making them safe, it’s the speed relative to their surroundings.

Speed limits are not physical absolutes.  By treating them as such, we’ve returned to the situation that led Stanley Buckmaster in 1931 to revoke them altogether and say “…the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt.”  Of course, Lord Buckmaster didn’t have fleets of camera vans and digital camera technology to make sure the law was enforced.

So we’re back where we started – being concerned with legality rather than safety.  You could drive perfectly safely with no speedometer, but you couldn’t drive legally.  That means we’ve simply equated compliance with safety and backed it with ‘big stick’ automated enforcement.

Driving by numbers.  The same principle as “paint by numbers” but a great deal more dangerous.