Watches, Writing

Happy Birthday, M. Breguet

Today will pass in most people’s diaries with never a thought for the man behind so many elements of the watch on their wrist.  Abraham Louis Breguet was born 270 years ago today in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Automatic winding, tourbillons, gong-repeaters, more accurate escapements, better hairsprings, shock-absorbing escapements, lubrication-free escapements… Breguet was responsible for either inventing or significantly improving them all.

Yet, for a man who brought such ordered beauty to watchmaking, he lived and worked through some of the most chaotic and ugly times in European history.

Imagine. It’s the 1780s, you’re a French watchmaker and your work is not only being bought by Marie Antoinette but the titled and wealthy glitterati of the day. Even better, the French Queen is – in modern parlance – your brand ambassador, telling anyone who’ll listen that you’re the finest watchmaker in France, if not the world.

Cut to May 5 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. Proof, if ever it was needed, that celebrity endorsement can end up being rather more of a burden than a boost.

Welcome to Breguet’s turbulent life. As watchmaker to the rich, royal and famous, hanging around in revolutionary France was likely to cut Breguet’s career short in more ways than one. Being both smart and commercial, he packed his tools and headed home to Switzerland.

And that’s where he conceived the idea of his single-handed Souscription watch. It was a perfect idea commercially, horologically and democratically. Anyone could make a down-payment (a souscription) for their watch which allowed Breguet to keep his cashflow running and start making it.

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Breguet’s Souscription No. 580 from 1800. Image from http://www.artcurial.com

The watches were simple (by Breguet’s standards), and were designed to be repaired by any watchmaker. You’d set the single hand with your finger or a sliver of wood and wind it through the hand’s centre. That’s because the barrel is in the middle of the watch with the balance and second wheel engineered symmetrically around it. No need for friction-generating motion work either. Genius.

You could even have your Souscription fitted with Breguet’s montre à tact system that allowed you to feel – rather than see – the time by touching tiny protrusions from the watch case.

62mm of simple, classical gorgeousness with so much history inside the case there’s barely room for that beautiful movement. The only thing better than owning one would be the chance to have met the man whose workshop made it.

Happy 270th birthday, M. Breguet.

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Heuer 2447S restored
Watches

Rare vintage watch turns up in auction.

They always say ‘never meet your heroes’. The same often applies in Watchworld. That gorgeous IWC Portofino you thought was the pinnacle of refinement and gorgeousness turns out to look like an oversized Christmas chocolate coin on your wrist.

But sometimes it works out. Continue reading

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Writing

Cargoes. Updated.

Car goes.

British racing Jaguar from Surrey’s leafy verges,
Wafting home to pebbledash in sunny Haslemere,
With a cargo of brown envelopes,
And sherry and golf clubs,
Sandalwood aftershave and a crate of beer.

Gleaming blacked-out Bentley coming from the night club,
Growling through the avenues to a Mayfair mews,
With a cargo of blondes,
Brunettes, footy mates,
Gold Rolexes, paparazzi and a boot full of booze.

Thrusting little Audi with its foglights blazing,
Butting down the M6 to the sales away-day,
With a cargo of laptop,
iPhone, Boss suit,
PowerPoint, pointy shoes and bonus pay.

With profuse apology to John Masefield.

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Driving, Musings

Brooklands

There weren’t many better places to enjoy clear, blue sky and things with engines than Brooklands last Saturday. It must have been a study for the English country idyll in 1906 when Hugh Locke King (the chap who owned most of Weybridge) decided to build the world’s first motor racing track on his fields and woods.

All the best ideas need a bottle or two.

Like most good ideas, it was hatched over several bottles, a good supper and some good pals. And, despite a conspicuous lack of key performance indicators, service level agreements and “official” suppliers of branded anything, it became the crucible that produced British motorsport and British aviation.

One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

A proper Rolls Royce. One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Selwyn Francis Edge, a businessman, car importer and noted motoring enthusiast. Even before the track was open, he decided that he would set a record for driving at 60mph over 24 hours.  That was an impressive ambition in the days when cars broke more than they ran and injured their drivers about as often.

Mr Edge and the Napier.

Mr Edge planned to use his seven-and-a-quarter litre Napier with a heady 60bhp, on tyres barely wider than a motorcycle’s, and establish the record over the night of 28 – 29 June. He would start at 6 o’clock in the evening, so he’d still be alert when darkness fell.

The feat meant hustling a car that only its good friends would have described as ‘overpowered’ and ‘skittish’ around a banked concrete oval of 2.75 miles for 24 hours. With acetylene headlights needing – shall we say – a little help, it meant lighting the edge of the nighttime track with lanterns and flares. And it meant sitting on a seat that was really a green buttoned-leather club chair. With brakes that looked better than they stopped – and they weren’t pretty. Oh, and it rained all night. One leading doctor told Edge he’d either die of exhaustion or be driven mad through boredom.

To give a little context, just thirteen years earlier the first motor race had been run from Paris to Rouen. The winner’s average speed? 10.7mph. Although that would now get you a speeding ticket in parts of Islington, back in 1894 it was hailed as a huge achievement.

Mr Edge’s record?

Edge smashed the Paris-Rouen speed and covered 1,581 miles and 1,310 yards of Brooklands track at an average speed of 66mph, near as dammit. That’s an average 66mph. If you think that doesn’t sound very fast, check the average speed display on your modern car – bet it doesn’t say much more than 48mph.

To get a sense of what it must have been like, try steering a wheelchair down the Stelvio pass – blindfolded – while people drench you with fire hoses.

That’s the sort of place Brooklands is. It reeks of history. Still. They made Wellington bombers here (2,500 of them), Sopwiths and Hurricanes too. The Royal Flying Corps’ 1, 8, 9 and 10 Squadrons had their homes on the in-field. Hugh Dowding (he of “Dowding Spread” machine gun harmonisation fame) learned to fly at Brooklands. You can still smell the 100 octane and cordite.

Historics’ Auction

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

I’d gone to see some of the cars in Historics’ June auction. There were some real beauties. And a couple I rather fancied. An Amazon 121 combi (that’s the shooting brake version of mine), a little Alfa 1300 Junior, a proper Rover P4 and a T1 Bentley (really a Shadow that reeks just a little less of cheap cigars and sheepskin). Also, to demonstrate what a taste-setter I am, a Rolls Carmargue – they’re soon going to be seriously hot property, mark my words. And a couple of BMW 635CSis.

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No, that’s fine. Rest your catalogue on this E Type’s roof.

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They wouldn’t have let the likes of me in back then.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others. Here’s a 600 on the finishing straight

The auction was fascinating. There were serious dealers with every other catalogue page clogged with Post-Its.  There were dilettantes like me, with more hope than expectation. And there were chaps in scruffy jeans with 18ct gold Submariners who, I suspect, owned some of the more exotic kit on offer.

The auctioneers had a perfect line in cynical, slightly combative patter. To a buyer offering a £100 increase “Ah, a squeak. I see we now have a mouse-bidder” and, to another reluctantly plodding bidder, “I asked you for £50,000 twenty minutes ago and now you’ve just bid £50,000. You could have saved me the time, couldn’t you?”  All splendidly good natured.

Auction prices.

The first lot of the day – bits of a Bentley 3 1/2 that the uninitiated would use to make a garden shed – was expertly auctioneered up to just over £1,100. A white Bentley Continental R with under 50k on the clock sold for under £25k. Even if it was lard-white, that’s still insanely cheap for a soft top Bentley. A Noble Ferrari 330 P4 replica with a £30k reserve hit just over the target – which may have been bargain of the day. And a Delorean DMC-12 with barely delivery mileage and the factory papers still in the window clocked up a busting £57,120.

As a Z3M headed north of £17,000 I decided I’d stick with the Amazon.  But my Carmargue didn’t sell, so there’s always August’s sale…

The Brooklands the council wanted rid of.

So I left the chaps with wads of fifties that could choke a racehorse and went to look at the other Brooklands – the banking and the airfield.  There’s not much of it left now after decades of development and incursion from the surrounding area. But the finishing straight is still there, with the WWII air-raid shelter off to the right.  And the Members’ Bridge and banking.  A very special place.

On a summer Saturday I was expecting it to be packed. Instead, I had it to myself.

I walked in the sun up past the old Bofors gun towers and a soon-to-be restored AC Aceca and, simply by strolling through a gap between a couple of barriers, I was there on the pitted, concrete track.  I soaked up more sunshine as I walked what’s left of its length. Without doubt, this is the most important and significant piece of motor racing heritage in the world.

This was where motorsport records started.

Men and women with more ability than sense hurled unstable, overpowered and underbraked machinery round with little regard to their own mortality. Courage like that seeps into the stone.

An AC waiting to be restored.

An AC waiting to be restored.

A couple of other solitary pilgrims were walking by now. One father was telling his increasingly wide-eyed son about Birkin and Barnato’s Bentley Blower No1. I walked on, thinking that it must have been a wonderful, if closed, world for those fortunate enough to be part of it.

What would they have thought?

I sat down on what would have passed for a crash barrier and thought about how important this few square metres of racetrack are to British motorsport and aviation. And then about the chain-shop retail park that now sits at its south western corner, thanks to the local council’s decision to trade motor racing history for cash in the 1980s. And the risk-assessed, compliance and procurement-controlled corporate offices within its ambit.

And I wondered what Edge, Barnato, Dame Ethel Locke King, 84mph Joan Richmond and 143.44mph John Cobb in his 24 Litre Napier-Railton would make of it.

Not very much, I suspect.  But then they’d probably have taken the same view of an ex-comprehensive school lad from a rather different sort of estate hanging around their track.

Progress ain’t always a bad thing.

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Watches

Seiko 7a28 – watchmaking history at pocket money prices

Fancy owning a little piece of horological history? Well, you could head over to Geneva’s Patek Philippe Museum museum with your jemmy, a striped shirt and a ‘swag’ bag and quietly remove their Rieussec Seconds Chronograph.  Feeling even braver?  How about the earliest chronograph yet discovered? The Louis Moinet, in St. Blaise in Switzerland?  Sadly, there are only two ways to get hold of watches like these – theft, – or complex midnight negotiations with a bloke with horns and a pitchfork at a remote rural crossroads.  Like nearly every other mile marker along the road of horological progress, neither the Rieussec nor the Moinet are for sale.

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There is, however, an easier way if you’re prepared to be a little less choosy.  You still get a timekeeping milestone, but not at the cost of time behind bars or eternity somewhere warm.

How about the very first analogue quartz chronograph?  You’d better get a move on though; prices are rising faster than a traffic-jammed Morris Marina’s temperature gauge.

Just think of the history…

It’s 1982.  The Commodore 64 8-bit home computer is launched in the USA.  Heuer are still making watches like the digital Chronosplit and the Swiss watch industry is being stabbed to death with pointy quartz crystals.  But, even though some people think it is acceptable to wear a watch that is also a calculator, a compass, a barometer and a TV combined, there is a sense that digital watches aren’t quite where it’s at anymore. And that’s where Seiko – as they so often do – come in.

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Now, I know some watchie people are sniffy about Seiko.  But it’s hard to be convincingly rude about a brand that makes one of the most accurate movements in the world (the 9F series – that’s +/- 10 sec pa) and that not only grows its own quartz crystals, but ages them for three months to maximise stability.  If that ain’t a manufacture movement, I don’t know what is.

Back in the early ‘80s, Seiko decided that all this LCD technology was splendid, but how about building an analogue quartz chronograph?  One that didn’t go ‘beep’ and flash a lot of scrolling numbers at you.  So, being Seiko, that’s what they did.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the very first analogue quartz chronograph.

They weren’t shy either.  Contemporary ads proclaimed “Watch history being made” and with the watch photographed against the dashboards of Porsche 911s and Ur Quattros, it was clear Seiko were pitching it high.  And they didn’t mess about.  The 7a series does that wonderful Seiko thing of seeming simple but actually being eye-wateringly impressive.

Let’s start with the movement…

7a28 movement 2

Seiko planned to take on the Swiss at their own game.  So rather than a modular, disposable plastic movement, the 7a series had a proper, quasi-decorated 15 jewel metal movement that could be regulated, disassembled and repaired.  It even has a very traditional finger damper spring on the centre seconds pinion.  Seiko really threw investment, thinking and effort into this one.  This explains why, despite often impressive abuse, so many survive.

Notice those little rectangular plates over parts of the movement?  Each of those protects a tiny stepper motor – one for each of the chronograph functions. And that’s what this watch is all about.  Press the button at 2 o’clock and the chrono starts.  Instead of a blizzard of flickering digits, the centre seconds ticks off the seconds one at a time while the 1/10ths dial zips round. In fact, it’s moving at 1/20th second intervals.  The minutes total up over at the 9 o’clock subdial and there’s a running seconds at 6 o’clock.

7a28-1

Today, that’s all pretty unremarkable.  But back in the early 1980s, when most watches had little grey, digital screens, this was serious stuff.  And it got better.  Hit the button at 10 o’clock and the chrono keeps running, but the hands stop.  So not only do you have a chrono, you have a split timer.

If you enjoy fiddling, you’ll discover something else about the 7a series… if you push and hold the 4 o’clock pusher, the two chrono subdials and centre seconds whizz round and reset themselves. And all this for around $250 back in the early ‘80s – that’s a blinding amount of watch technology for a mere $650 in today’s money.

The movement even found its way into watches carrying rather more upmarket logos, including the Ferrari ‘Cal. 531’.

But the lovely thing with the 7a series watches is that they have something for everyone…

If you like your complications, you’ll find something in the 7a series that suits you.  There are tide timers, moon-phases, Sports Quartz, fishing models (the 7A48-7050 Fishing Master with a moon phase and tide indicator), military versions (as supplied to the RAF and the South African Airforce).  If you fancy a military 7a though, you’ll need deep pockets.  Even a couple of years ago, you’d see these for around £300.  Now, they’re being posted on auction sites at up to £995 (although this one from’83 cost rather less).

Seiko 7a28 RAF

Movie fan? You can go after the 7A28-7001 Giugiaro-designed chrono that pops up (along with a few nasty critters) in Alien. Even Bond got in on the action and wore a 7A28-7020 in View to a Kill.

Like horological mythology?  You can happily spend time chasing the ‘Vulcan Flightcrew’, yellow-faced variant, the 7A38-701B.  The story goes that RAF aircrews on the Vulcan long-range nuclear bomber were issued these.  The yellow dial apparently made them easier to read in the Vulcan’s darkened cockpit. One of these went for nearly £600 back in 2011 despite there being no good evidence for the whole Vulcan thing actually being, you know, true.  They may never have been issued watches (the casebacks certainly don’t carry military markings), but they’re still indisputably handsome.

RAF Seiko 7a28 (2)

And because there were so many made – and made well – there is still the chance of turning one up at a boot sale, in a junk shop or on an auction site for pocket money.  Even if it’s not running too well, the proper, metal movement is perfectly serviceable and you can still get parts.  There’s a dedicated (and excellent) forum for the 7a series over at http://www.seiko7a38.com with plenty of help and information.

So, a piece of real horological history, plenty of variation, movie and military cred and robust enough for a (thoroughly repairable) daily wearer.  And change – if you buy well – from £100.  That’s got to be a serious bargain.  And a whole lot cheaper than spending the next twenty years in a Swiss jail.

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In my view, the prices on these are headed just one way.  Get one while you still can.

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Musings

Being Santa.

December 18th. Nick Whitelock sat at his desk by the window and looked out as the cold, winter rain tracked its way down the pane. “Sleet, more like.” he thought to himself. He was, as usual, the last one in the office. The rest of them would be in the Arms by now, backs to the log fire and pints in hand, an anticipatory celebration of the Christmas holidays.

He looked down as his phone buzzed.

“Nick Whitelock.” That was it. No greeting, no fuss. That was Nick.

“Nick – it’s Sarah from Field Cottage. Can’t talk long – but I’ve been let down and I’ve tried everyone else. Can you be village Santa for the switch-on tonight?”

Ashleigh was only a small village, two-and-a-half-thousand souls, but it had it’s own little supermarket, a proper butcher, a post office and, Continue reading

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Musings

Village Remembrance in Bampton

In need of bacon, as one often is on a Sunday morning, I nipped into the Bampton shop just before the village remembrance parade. A young lad, about thirteen I’d guess, walked in and moved, a little hesitantly, towards a spot just in front of me in the queue. The usual uniform. Trainers. Trackie bottoms. Hoodie.

I noticed he had a handful of change. A couple of pound coins, some silver. As though he’d raided his moneybox.

Royal British Legion poppy

He gave me a nervous smile and said “‘Scuse me…”

He reached past me to the box of poppies and the collecting tin by the till. He carefully dropped his coins into the box, took a poppy and a pin. My turn to smile.

The youth of today, huh?

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