Musings, Writing

What it’s like to live in the real Downton Abbey

More than 30,000 tourists walked past my kitchen window in 2019.  Downton Abbey was filmed in Bampton and the library did duty as the Cottage Hospital.  Our cottage – perhaps ten yards over the narrow lane from the library – featured too, although only in passing.

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You never know who’s peering in at you.

If I’d been writing this last year, in 2019, pre-Corona, the first Downton tour bus of the day would be about to pull up outside.  It would be a minibus with somewhere between 15 and 18 people on board, plus a tour guide.  The guide would stand outside the library, the church or on the corner of the green by our cottage to give her tour, all within easy earshot of the houses on the south side of the church – even on a Sunday morning.  Tourism in Bampton is a seven-day-a-week industry, even for those of us who are unwilling participants.

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Watches

Why you need a flieger

Even if you turn right when you climb aboard and aren’t allowed more than 100ml of anything, there’s still a romance to flying.  Originally made for wartime pilots and observers where precise navigation was a very important thing indeed, fliegers are part of watchmaking heritage.

Two aged pilots' watches

Two Laco Wien Venedig Erbstück watches

And plenty of makers want to claim a whiff of aviation fuel lingers about their watches.  But what makes a proper flieger?

Back in the days when all the best pilots flew red triplanes and had ‘von’ in front of their surnames, the pilots shooting at them used pocket watches to navigate.  The Mark IV.A and Mark V British pocket watches were the thing to have in the cockpit of your SE5.  Large enough to hold with gloves on, solid enough to survive and clear enough to read in a shaking aircraft.

Later, with typical precision, in WWII the German Imperial Air Ministry laid down their own very detailed criteria that still form the basis of flieger-spec today.

  • a hacking, chronometer movement with a Breguet balance spring, so an airman could set the time to the second and know it would stay there. Vital for accurate, long-distance navigation and making it back to the mess in time for cocktails
  • a clear, luminous dial with the 12 o’clock position clearly marked – and a big, 55mm case to put it in
  • a large crown, so you could set your watch with gloves on
  • a long, leather strap so you could wear your watch over your flight jacket sleeve.

And each watch had to be engraved on the caseback with “FL 23883”, indicating that it was a watch, airmen for the use of. 

“FL 23883”. This number stood for “navigation devices” and could also be seen on each watch on the opposite side of the winder.

Back then, only a very few makers were good enough to meet the standard.  Laco was one of them, and kept company with Lange & Söhne, Wempe, IWC and Stowa. IWC went on in WWII to make a watch that met the British WWW (Watches Wristlet Waterproof) spec – the MkX.

Things are a little more relaxed nowadays, but there are still really three sorts of flieger: 

– The big pilot, the “B-uhr” style

– The pilot chronograph

– The smaller ‘Fliegeruhr’

“B-uhr” style

Trying to find an original 1940s Laco will put something of a hole in your wallet.  And an original Luftwaffe watch is probably something you don’t want to wear every day.  But Laco are still making and you can pick up everything from a quartz beater flieger for under £200 to a full-on, 55mm-cased Model B replica for £2,200. 

This is serious watchmaking.  The original handwinding ETA 6497.1 is heavily modified and ends up with a centre-mounted second hand (just like the original) and a woodpecker-neck regulator to make sure it hits chronometer standards.  Then all you need is a Hartmann jacket, a Heinkel He 111 and somewhere to park it.

Pilot chronographs

The chronograph could have been invented for pilots (although it wasn’t – Moinet’s chronograph was for timing horse races 89 years before the Wright Brothers).  Using a conventional watch to run time/distance calculations in a cockpit is pretty inexact.  It makes much more sense to have a second hand you can start and stop easily.  So airmen quickly started adopting chronographs.

Hanhart Monocontrol

IWC were one of the first to make dedicated flying chronographs, but it’s cheaper to qualify as a pilot than buy an original 1936 IWC pilot chrono.  Instead, there are modern pilot chronos that you can wear happily even if you’re flying a desk. 

Hanhart also found their way onto the wrists of military pilots.  Again, the chances of tracking down an original from WWII are slimmer than finding a buried Spitfire in Burma, but you can adorn your cockpit with a modern, 44mm Hanhart Monocontrol that is almost identical.  Stop, start and seconds-zero – all on one button.  Cathedral hands.  The only major difference is that the modern version has a stainless steel case over the original’s non-magnetic brass. All you need to do is add your own patina.

Also at 44mm there’s the Laco Kiel – tricompax dials and self-winding.  Smaller at 38.5mm is the classic Sinn 356.  Again, tricompax, self-winding and a dial so clear you could see it even in a vertical spin, although you’ll probably have better things to do.  If 38mm is too small, Sinn helpfully offers the larger, but otherwise identical, 358.    Fortis will sell you an Aviatis Flieger Chronograph – 40mm, day/date and clarity you could read from a neighbouring cockpit.

Fliegeruhrs

If you’ve no need for a chronograph or just want a simpler, cleaner dial there’s plenty of choice.  Damasko have a somewhat more contemporary take on the flieger.  The DA30, 40 and 50 series all run the robust, accurate, 25 jewel ETA 2836-2 movement.  Clear, crisp classic flieger dials.  You could probably land your Lancaster on them too – Damasko don’t mess about when it comes to their cases.  These are ice-hardened to 710 Vickers and the movement is shockproof and antimagnetic to DIN standards.  The twin-chisel profile “12” marker on the dial is a more modern take on the trad flieger triangle.   

The Fortis Flieger Aviatis gives you the same sort of clarity and functionality with the classic “triangle and two dots” at 12 that’s marked out pilots’ watches since the Reichs-Luftfahrtministerium’s 1935 specifications. 

Why wear a Flieger? 

Well, the designed-in features that fit Fliegers for flying also make them perfect everyday watches. 

They often have soft iron inner cases and dials to prevent magnetism (in fact, modern watch metallurgy means you don’t really need this, even if your laptop does have a magnet for turning it on and off).  Mind you, the Sinn 856 will still shrug off 1k Gauss without breaking sweat.

They’ve all got clear, uncluttered faces that you can read without having to squint or look closely. Although you will, often, just for the hell of it.  They’ll have hacking movements, so you can set the exact time to a reference.  And ostentatiously starting a stopwatch is incredibly handy for limiting how long that tedious colleague yaps for in meetings.  And, let’s face it, how many of us haven’t slotted in behind that Nissan Micra stolidly planted in the middle lane and made machine gun noises?  It’s so much more satisfying with a Flieger on your wrist.

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Uncategorized

The Lazarus watch

THE LAZARUS WATCH—RESTORING A “FRANKEN-SEIKO” 6139 CHRONOGRAPH

Some watches lead pampered lives. They are kept carefully in their boxes, worn only for special occasions when there is little threat of alcohol-induced, watch-threatening silliness before being lovingly polished and put away again.

Then there is this Seiko 6139.

If it were a puppy, you’d have called the ASPCA by now. If it were a classic car and you were feeling kind, you’d have described it as a “barn find”—assuming the barn had a nasty rodent problem, exposure to a harsh North Sea salt wind and had burned down a couple of times.

I actually can’t remember how I came by it. It could have come as part of a trade or dropped in from eBay or maybe a forum cheapie. But things started well enough . . .

YEAH, THIS ONE NEEDS QUITE A BIT OF LOVE.

It was the classic “new-to-me” watch story. The initial falling in love via Internet photos, the first date as it arrives in the post, the unboxing and the starting to share life together. Then, the slow but sure fault-finding. The lateness and losing time. Noticing the wear and damage the years—and others—have wreaked. Hands that no longer quite hold properly. Then, the inevitable discarding and moving on to another.

Once the chronograph second hand finally gave up and wouldn’t reset properly, I dumped it in the Watch Graveyard (that’s what I call my office desk drawer). There it sat next to a G-Shock that needs a new battery, a Tissot Seastar that’s in want of a mainspring and a couple of Citizens that have fallen on hard times. I just assumed the movement was suffering the dreaded 6139 clutch problem. Spare parts? You’re having a giraffe, mate. So there it stayed, until just before Christmas.Every time I opened the drawer, the 6139 looked at me beseechingly.  “Just take care of me and I’ll keep faithful time again,” it seemed to say.

I realized it was time to mend the relationship. Along with the dodgy dial, the slippy hands, the minute counter which had now come adrift and the non-functioning chronograph. So I emailed Duncan Hewitt, aka The Watch Bloke, a pal from TZ-UK. As the authority on vintage Seiko and with a pretty impressive collection of them himself, he was clearly the best person to either get things fixed up or gently suggest the last rites.

Duncan replied that he was as busy as usual with a bench full of Seikos, but if I was in no rush he would take a look and let me know what needed doing. No rush? The poor 6139 had been in the corner of a drawer for a couple of years. A couple of months more wasn’t going to make much difference. I carefully shrouded it in bubble-wrap and consigned it to The Royal Mail.

A few days later, Duncan dropped me an email saying, “Just to let you know the 6139 arrived safely today. I’ve wound it fully and given it a quick spin on the Witschi chronoscope, but the beat is so irregular it can’t complete the test so it definitely needs servicing.”  The patient was admitted to the hospital. Sick—clearly so—but no diagnosis as yet. Things didn’t look too promising.

THE INNARDS ARE QUITE A BIT OF A MESS TOO, BUT MORE ON THAT LATER.

A few more weeks went past. I’d cycled through the usual round of watches and pretty much forgotten I’d even sent the little 61 to Duncan. Then, just as I was leaving Oxford for London one morning, my inbox pinged.

News of my watch! In fact, not just news, Duncan had worked a full-blown resurrection job on what was clearly a pretty hopeless case.

Things had started well, as Duncan explained, “Your 6139 has been on the bench at last and is now completed and on test you’ll be pleased to hear! The service went well with the usual dirt and degraded lubrication.”

He then went onto explain about “a few issues” he’d had to contend with. And he wasn’t joking.

DISASSEMBLED AND READY FOR A THOROUGH CLEANING.

Apparently, the hairspring had ended up misshapen. Lord alone knows how that had happened, but it needed very careful manipulation to get it back into shape. That was the only way the watch would have a regular beat.

While he had the bonnet up, Duncan had also noticed my watch wasn’t quite all it should have been. For a start, the train bridge was from a 21-jewel 6139. Odd enough, given my watch was a 17-jewel model. Worse, not only was it the wrong part, the jewel cap and spring above the escape wheel jewel were missing. This is where someone with Duncan’s years of experience is awfully handy. I’d looked at the movement when the watch arrived with me and spotted nothing much wrong. Shows you how dangerous a bit of knowledge can be.

CALENDAR SIDE STRIPPED DOWN.

The other handy thing is a comprehensive spares library. Duncan had looked out the correct part, but then realized my watch also had the 17-jewel escape wheel fitted. These have a longer top pivot so you can’t actually fit a cap. Not a great problem since all it does is stop a bit of dust from getting in—and the 17-jewel 6139s don’t have them fitted anyway!

I was reminded of my old classic ‘66 Volvo Amazon 121 and its disastrous, ever-escalating restoration when Duncan also pointed out that there were two screws missing; one from the date top plate and another from the pallet bridge. And, as well as that, the set lever spring screw was broken and needed replacing.

EVEN THE PUSHERS NEEDED SPECIAL ATTENTION.

Then came the news about the case. I’d wondered why the pushers were temperamental. That would be because they had no return springs fitted. No seals either, so it was fortunate I’d never worn the watch near water as it would have been leakier than a Whitehall think tank. The crown was without seals too, and the movement ring’s spring had long gone. All got replaced with shiny, new parts.

PUTTING THE CALENDAR SIDE BACK TOGETHER.

In once piece of good news, Duncan had discovered that the second hand’s failure to reset had nothing to do with a dodgy clutch. It was simply loose on its pipe, so he managed to restake it so it fit—and reset—smartly again.

Cosmetically, the watch was as dire as it was was mechanically.  The minute register hand had shed flaky paint all over the dial and movement. And it was the wrong hand in any case. So, rather than putting his head in his hands and weeping, he repainted it the correct color. Oh yes, because the color it had been was—you guessed it—wrong.

By now, if this had been a car, anyone in their right mind would have been pouring themselves a large whisky and calling the scrapyard. Not Duncan. He slogged on, only to discover the dial was loose with two broken feet. So he found a way to fix those too.

Finally, the watch was re-cased and—bravely—pressure tested to 5 bar. And, as a testament to Duncan’s workmanship, it passed.

After all the bad news was, finally, some good. Duncan explained, “It’s not the prettiest movement as there are a few bridge scratches, but it’s got a very healthy amplitude and a nice steady trace on the timing machine.” So, despite starting out as a half-dead Franken-Seiko, he’d not just resurrected it, he’d taken the bolts out of its neck and performed major cosmetic surgery.

TICKING ON THE WRIST.

Now, having got the watch back on my wrist, it’s transformed. Not only does it actually tell the time (remarkably accurately, too), but it also no longer looks like the puck in a vultures’ table-hockey league. It’s getting worn—and loved—again.  A decent fate for any previously neglected watch.

I’ll leave the last word to Duncan. “Once I started stripping the watch and finding issue after issue I didn’t hold out too much hope of getting it back to proper running order at a sensible price, but it’s actually turned out very nicely!”

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Watches

The $18m watch they couldn’t give away

Daytona PhilipsGive a watchnerd the keys to Marty McFly’s De Lorean and you’d have a whole different film. Instead of all that faffing about with the Johnny-B-Goode-meets-Eddie-van-Halen thing, they’d set the dials to 1963 and start beating down the door of their nearest Rolex dealer to stock up on Paul Newman Daytonas.

Originally, the ref. 6239 Daytona, the “Paul Newman,” was a the Ford Edsel of watches. A complete sales flop.

Back in 1963 when the Daytona first shipped out of Geneva, Rolex dealers struggled to sell them. In fact, the ref. 6239 was the cheapest Daytona Rolex made at the time, yet they still hung around on the shelves longer than canned cockroach soup.

If you’d put down your Gibson for long enough, Marty, you could have had one for way less than $300; dealers often had to discount them to shift them. People simply preferred the standard-faced watches.

So why the rocketlike ascent from dealer dud to — without exception — the most expensive standard watch ever sold at auction? It’s quite a puzzle, even given Newman’s fame. It certainly isn’t the stuff on the inside that’s worth the staggering figure. And to give credence to the value inherent in such things, the last watch that sold for anywhere near this sort of money was a one-off, extraordinarily complicated solid gold Patek Philippe.

Watch collectors get excited about movements, but there is nothing remarkable or even rare about the movement ticking away inside the Newman’s case. The ref. 6239 was powered by a standard, 17 jewel Valjoux calibre 722, with a balance running at a lowly 18,000 beats per hour. Of course you had to wind it yourself every day, no automatic system here.

If you’d taken the trouble to open the caseback on a lowly Harvard chronograph made by the West End Watch Co., you’d have found the very same movement. Likewise, near as dammit, in the contemporary Heuer Carrera, for under $200. The point is that the Daytona was far from the only watch with the Valjoux under the hood. If you’re a vintage collector, rummage in your watch box and there’s a good chance you’ll find something running a Valjoux 72X series movement.

More basic makers like Eterna, Longines, Wakmann; all produced watches built around the Valjoux 72X series. This isn’t to say it’s anything but a fine, accurate, and robust motor, but to borrow an analogy, it’s far from the exotic heights of Lampredi V12-style rarity.

The case itself was unremarkable too; stainless steel, not gold. Just a tachymetre scale around the bezel and pump pushers for the chronometer. The crystal was cheap, serviceable plexiglass. It wouldn’t shatter like sapphire, and you could even polish out the scratches picked up from tweaking your carbs.

This was a functional tool of a watch, never destined to be a collectible. Back in the 1960s, it was just one of the other watches Rolex were known for making then. Waterproof Submariners for divers; everything-proof Explorers for, well, explorers; antimagnetic Milgausses for engineers; and chronograph Daytonas for racing drivers.

So, had you been standing outside our mythical Rolex dealer in October 1963, you’d be forgiven for passing over the Daytona just like everyone else. And even as late as the 1980s you could have snaffled a ref. 6239 Newman Daytona for under $4,000.

And, it’s probably worth pointing out, to further democratize the watch, that the ref.6239 is far from the only Newman Daytona. That’s because the term refers specifically to the dial rather than the watch as a whole. You can spot a Newman by the art deco numbers on the crosshair sub-dials, the tiny squares on the five-minute marks on the chronograph sub-dials, and the contrast between the sub-dials and the main dial.

Here’s where we start to see some real cases for value besides tacit celebrity endorsement. Made by Rolex’s dial suppliers at Singer, the value of a Newman is all in the dial. You’ll find Newman dials on refs. 6240 (rarer than an honest politician), 6241, 6262, 6264, 6265, and 6263.

Before attempting to explain what happened to first hurl the Daytona into the limelight, you need to understand something about Watchworld. It is, in absolutely no sense of the word, a rational place. It’s the place where a bit of red writing on the dial of a Rolex Submariner lifts the price from $6,000 to around more than five times that. A bit of white writing (specifically the word “Comex”) is even more powerful, and it can turn a $6,000 watch into a $132,000 collectors’ item. A cracked, “tropical” dial caused by a manufacturing fault sees a similarly irrational value hike.

If watch enthusiasts were rational, the place simply wouldn’t exist because we’d all be wearing ultra accurate, pennywise and reliable Casio F-91w’s or using our iPhones.

That’s why nobody really knows why these Daytonas have gone stratospheric, although plenty of people will assure you they do. There are few rational reasons behind its ascent, but it’s hard to pin a rise of this size on one thing. But what we do know is that towards the end of the 1980s, this dog got itself a pedigree, and a new name.

The stack of photographs showing Newman wearing his ref. 6239, particularly that shot by Douglas Kirkland, was the christening. The ref. 6239 quickly became known as The Paul Newman. Collectors love a Rolex with a name, so maybe this was really the whole reason; you’ll find BLNRs, Hulks, Gilts, Rootbeers, and Pepsis amongst other names affectionately given to certain pieces. But the association with racer and film star Newman propelled the ref. 6239 to a different level than any of those.

By the early 2000s, Newmans had leapt from sub $10,000 to $40,000 at auction. As the decade was drawing to a close, they’d risen to nearly $70,000. From there, the line on the graph is like looking up at the side of Mont Blanc. The other early Daytona references have been dragged up the slopes with it, but none has got anywhere near the Newman summit.

Funny enough, despite their common presence on untouched shelf space, now there’s intrinsic rarity in these watches. That’s because the singer-dial watches didn’t sell, and Rolex made relatively few of them to meet the relatively small demand. Collectors believe around only 2,000 were produced. Interestingly enough, whatever the true number may be, there are rather more Newmans on wrists and in watchboxes than ever were brought into existence in Geneva. Because the dial makes the watch, the unscrupulous but skilled among us can take a standard Daytona and graft on a Newman dial. They’re far from being the most-faked Rolex (that dubious prize probably goes to the Datejust or the Sub), but the rewards for successfully counterfeiting one are huge.

And that’s what makes Newman’s very own Newman even more special. Provenance does not come any better than this, but having a few fakes around doesn’t hurt the value of the real thing that’s provably so. The contemporary photographs, the engraving on the back, the family link and that wonderful story about Newman himself simply giving the watch away.

The watch that auctioneer extraordinaire Aurel Bacs declared is “history now” is the very peak of vintage Rolex collecting. Yes, the new owner has a beautiful, historic watch as well as a rather emptier bank account, nut what he or she has really bought with The Newman Newman more than anything is its perfect story.

Image courtesy of: Phillips

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Watches

One of the world’s classic watches. Yours for £8.

Chances are, as you read this, you’re no more than 3 metres away from a Casio F-91. It’s still the first watch for generations of children, the choice of half the British Army’s regiments (and practically standard issue for military training) and you’ll find them abandoned in office drawers, forgotten in bags, Blu-tacked to the dashboards of cars and even on wrists.

Casio wouldn’t tell me how many F91-Ws they’ve precision-glued together since 1991, but it’s got to be a few million. But this ubiquity is far from a bad thing. There’s an argument that the F91 is as much a Watchworld classic as the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Speedmaster or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.

I’ll stick my neck out here. In my view, this £8 watch does the whole ‘form and function’ thing just as well as any other classic watch. But it’s the best kind of classic; a democratic one that pretty much anyone can afford and enjoy. No waiting lists, no buzz-to-enter heavy-carpeted boutiques, no sniffy watch salesmen. Just nip on line and your F will be beeping happily from a box on your doormat the next day.

When you unbox it, you’ll find you even get an instruction leaflet, clearly designed by a particularly devious, wizened and ancient origami master at the very top of his game. Although it’s tiny, it unfolds to the size of an OS map of Europe. Seriously, don’t bother with wallpaper – it’s cheaper to buy a crateful of F-91s and use the instruction leaflets. Two per wall should do you. I swear it’s even got a section in medieval Catalan.

This is a watch for less than the price of two pints of London Pride, a couple of Starbucks coffees (although I’d argue S’bucks has little to do with coffee) or a 3 minute parking ticket in central Oxford. Yet cheap doesn’t mean nasty. Not so much Sub as subfusc, it quietly and efficiently gets on with telling you the time (the date, the day and a few other useful things like when you need to wake up) without fuss. That’s what most people want a watch for.

And these things are practically indestructible. Check the wrist of your garage mechanic. Your builder… And there’s a guy in Spain who has even filled his with olive oil (seriously) and pressure tested it to depths that would have that Submariner weeping.

Talking with ex and serving soldiers, they remember their F-91s from their time in camo (or more likely No5 dress) and they remember them fondly. As one said, “Robust doesn’t do the F-91 justice.” Another one talked of how his F (see, the affection of an abbreviated nickname already) had done everything he’d asked of it through two tours in Afghanistan, all without failing once or even needing a new battery.

Believe me, when someone hits the big red button there’ll be three things left: Nissan Micras, smiling, smug cockroaches and F-91s. And the F-91s will still be going ‘beep’ every hour.

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Driving

The future’s looking bleak for modern classics

There’s an old saying ‘take an interest in politics before it takes an interest in you’.  And, slowly but with the familiar, grinding, dead-handed certainty, politicians are taking an interest in classic cars. If you own a modern classic car built between 1979 and 2005, they’re very interested indeed in you.

That’s £12.50, mate.

In the UK and across the rest of Europe, politicians are falling over themselves to impose low emission zones, urban car bans, permits and access stickers faster than speed bumps. And they see absolutely no difference between a modern classic like a well-maintained Mercedes 500E and a smoke-belching Peugeot 405 diesel estate that saw its last service in 1992. 

More taxes and bans – coming to a town near you

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has led the charge with his new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) covering the same area as the congestion charge.  Drive into it in your modern classic built between 1979 and 2005 and the Mayor will relieve you of £12.50 a day, every day. That’s because there’s a gap of 26 years – a sort of automotive no-man’s land – for modern classics too young to fit the historic tax class but too old to comply with Euro 4 legislation.   Continue reading

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Watches

A late graduation present

I knew I wanted a Submariner and a Lotus Elan by the time I was 10. If you were a kid in the 1970s, you’ll remember the Rothmans ad. You could stand, looking up at the billboard, and see the driver’s Sub just visible under his shirt cuff as he changed gear in his Lotus, presumably on the way to Le Mans with his gorgeous girlfriend in the passenger seat. I couldn’t have cared less about the ciggies, but who wouldn’t be hooked on that watch?

I’d press my nose against Mallory’s window in Bath and gaze longingly at the Subs, Datejusts and Explorers. But slowly, the more I looked the more I came to realise that the watch I really wanted was the GMTII.

The staff at Mallory’s were kind to a brassic, watch-obsessed brat. After being nose-to-glass for half an hour or so I’d eventually pull up enough courage to go in. As the door closed behind me, the noise of the traffic faded to the ticking of clocks and the smell of leather and expensive carpet. With 50p a week pocket money (earned the hard way from cleaning my somewhat OCD father’s car), it was an intimidating silence.

They seemed a little surprised at a 10 year old watch tyro asking if they could spare a Rolex catalogue, but they not only handed one over, they found a smart bag, added a few Omega brochures too and patiently answered my questions. The watches themselves seemed too remote, too special, to even ask to try on, but I was in heaven.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with 'Pepsi' bezel

Once at home, I’d carefully cut out the lifesize picture of the stainless (never the two-tone or 18ct) GMT II and try it on for size. Sitting at my desk in my bedroom I vowed that, one day, I would own the real thing.

It wasn’t a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”.

Sat there at my desk, I promised myself that I’d get my Rolex GMT-Master II when I graduated. But, after the A levels and degree work, that date came and went. With a nasty beer and guitar habit, I’d left college with something of a debt to pay off. I had barely enough to pay the rent, let alone buy expensive watches.

Then it was when I got my first pay cheque. Then my first promotion. Then when I realised I wasn’t cut out for being an employee and started my own business. Then it was when we’d survived a year. Then it was the first ‘real’ client we closed. Then it was the five year anniversary of the firm. Then it was surviving the recession. I kept rushing past the milestones but none seemed big enough for my GMT.

Finally, it was just because the right watch was there and I decided the time was right. I spotted ‘my’ Rolex GMT-Master II on a watch forum and dived in. No, the Oyster bracelet wasn’t original, but I’d have happily put it on a NATO and still grinned. I had the watch I’d dreamed of for 33 years.

In 1954, back when the first GMTs – the 6542s – rolled out of Rolex, they were the preserve of the smart set. Pre-cheap flights and package holidays, there was little point in a watch with a second time zone – the GMT’s reason for being – if you were travelling between Walsall and Eastbourne. Instead, GMTs were snaffled by pilots, aircrew and businessmen, lending them an almost unfeasible air of cool.

The second timezone worked with a typically Rolex simplicity. You set home time using the 24 hour hand and moved the 12 hour hand to local time. Then you simply read home time from the bezel and local time from the dial as usual. If you were terribly important and needed a third timezone, you could just adjust the bezel again to suit.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with black bezel

The original bezel – along with the 24 hour hand, the distinguishing feature of the Rolex GMT-Master II – was not only Bakelite but luminous, because of the radium-filled numerals. But Bakelite bezels didn’t survive the sort of abuse regular travellers can dish out, so in 1956 Rolex switched to aluminium. They only replaced the metal in 2007, giving the 116710 a practically indestructible Cerachrom insert. Not that anyone complained about the perfectly good aluminium bezel.

Over the years, the movements evolved. From the first 1036 that also featured in the Submariner, Air-King, Explorer and Oyster Perpetual through the hacking, quickset 3085 that powered the 16760 and, today, the modern 3186, running a parachrom hairspring with a Breguet overcoil.

Like every other sports Rolex, the GMT was designed to survive pretty much what any owner would throw at it. After all, 1954 aircraft cockpits weren’t exactly friendly places. So the oyster case is properly waterproof and cut from a block of 904L stainless. Unless you fancy a bit of bling, in which case you can have stainless and yellow gold, If sir or madam desires the full-on wrist-monument experience there are 18ct gold versions and even the Patriot; the equivalent of wearing a small Swiss bank account on your wrist. There have only ever been 20 Patriots; solid gold cases with pavé diamond-set dials, baguette diamond, sapphire and ruby bezels and gold President bracelets also diamond-set. Subtle they are not. But they are rather wonderful in a completely OTT “I’m so loaded I don’t care” way.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with 'Pepsi' bezel

Mine is altogether more subtle, although, to be fair, it would be hard to out-state a Patriot. It’s a 16710 with a cal.3185 movement, tritium dial and a rather beaten-up old Oyster bracelet. It arrived in a Rolex service box with a service certificate and that was it. And I was smitten as soon as I lifted the lid.

After a little research and checking serial numbers with reference tables I realised my GMT dated from 1989, the first year Rolex made the 16710. That explained the tritium dial, one of the last. But it was a date that had a rather more personal resonance for me. I’d graduated in 1989. So it seemed I finally – and quite unintentionally – had my graduation present GMT. It was just 20 years late.

I thought the Mallory’s story and this unintended coincidence might raise a chuckle or two even in such a serious place as Geneva’s Rue François-Dussaud, so I wrote a letter to Rolex’s chief exec at the time, Bruno Meier. I explained that I’d recently realised a dream, that I’d wanted a GMT since I was kid and that I was absolutely delighted with my watch.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with black bezel

And, in the meantime, I carried on enjoying my Rolex GMT-Master II; buying a black bezel to replace the Pepsi. It looked simple enough, but it’s pretty intimidating to be faced with a sharp, flat-bladed knife, a newly-beloved and rather valuable GMT and a replacement bezel. Then, once I’d realised that popping off the bezel to change it didn’t mean trashing my watch, it was fine. And I kept looking at my wrist even when I didn’t need to know the time.

When the phone rang at the office early one Tuesday morning, a couple of weeks later, I assumed a client needed something on a short deadline. Instead, a voice introduced himself as Rolex’s Marketing Director, explained that Mr Meier had passed my letter on and it had reached his desk. He said he was delighted to hear the story and suggested I hang onto my watch as, in his opinion, values were only heading one way. We chatted for a few minutes, then he wished me well and rang off.

I stood looking at my phone and wondering how many other marketing directors from the watch business would take the trouble to call a customer who’d bought a second-hand product and wish them well.

Since then other watches have come and gone but the Rolex GMT-Master II has always been somewhere in the watchbox. The second timezone has been very useful indeed and it’s done plenty of travelling. Watches are for wearing, so it’s done thousands of motorcycle miles, been on my wrist as I’ve rebuilt engines and never been babied or treated specially. But it looks no different today from the day I took it out of the box. It’s not the most exciting or valuable of Rolex’s offerings but it has a value to me well beyond its collectability.

Most mornings, the 10 year old and the present day me put on our watch and smile. Watches often tell a great deal more than the time.

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Driving

“Simple, neat and wrong.”

After years of falls, road deaths have stopped falling.  In fact, in previous years they’ve rising fast enough for the Department for Transport to pre-releasing figures and ministers to start getting their defence in early.

UK transport minister Robert Goodwill warned a parliamentary road safety conference last week to prepare for “bad news” ahead of Thursday’s announcement, telling attendees to expect a “rise” in road fatalities.

Now, in 2019, the Transport Select Committee is…

…concerned that progress increasing levels of road safety has levelled off and is launching an inquiry to scrutinise the Government’s approach to road safety, last set out in its 2015 road safety statement. The inquiry will investigate which changes would be most effective at reducing the number and severity of road traffic accidents.

And the EU are talking about the compulsory fitting of satellite-controlled speed limiters (Intelligent Speed Adaptation – ISA – even though it’s anything but intelligent) to cars from 2020.  The UK says it will comply and do likewise.

H.L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”  He could have been describing the UK’s road safety policy.  This isn’t about Continue reading

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Musings, Writing

Let the passengers take the strain.

I should have realised that attempting to use a train to travel anywhere more complicated than London was a mistake.

Oh yes, it’s an adventure alright.

We booked tickets to go to Cornwall this weekend. All peachy – only a small second mortgage required. Now we discover (because we checked – not because anyone thought to tell us) that the train times have changed.

Even better – there aren’t any trains for much of the journey. Instead, there are buses. And there are few things that strike more fear into the heart than the words ‘rail replacement bus’.

Not only that, but there are actually no trains at all at the station we need to get back to on Sunday. Continue reading

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Driving

Is this the best banger barge you can buy?

If you’re a tightwad where cars are concerned, want something a cut above your average Forxhall and want to spend less than £4,000, what do you open your wallet for?

How about something that’ll carry five people (and their luggage) in comfort at motorway speeds all day, will do 30mpg (if you’re as light-footed as a cat) and will rinse a Porsche 928 (if you’re not)?

The clear choice? A W211 Mercedes E500.

A front 3/4 shot of a 2003 Mercedes E500 W211

Taxi!

The scare stories about early noughties flushable Mercedes’ build quality has meant these cars are now daftly Continue reading

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