Historic racing car timepieces
Gisbert L. Brunner has been collecting wristwatches since 1964 and writing about them for 35 years.
I already reported that Baume & Mercier and Shelby American had been working together to produce limited-edition Capeland Shelby Cobra chronographs during the SIHH in Geneva.
On April 26 2015, the Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet near Marseille played host to no fewer than 30 sports cars which all bore the thumbprint of the ingenious racing driver, constructor and tuner Carroll Shelby. The occasion arose thanks to Baume & Mercier and their enterprising CEO Alain Zimmermann.
I had the good fortune to speak to Alain Zimmermann in Marseille about the work Baume & Mercier and Shelby American have been doing together.
Baume & Mercier have had a real hit with the limited-edition Capeland Shelby Cobra line. The watches are as good as sold out. Please tell us how this unusual partnership came about.
ALAIN ZIMMERMANN: It all started about two years ago. We settled on the subject of celebrations in answer to the question of when one buys oneself a new watch.
Weddings, round birthdays, the birth of a child or just a successful deal at work. We worked with Peter Lindbergh on one advertising campaign. And we were fascinated by one photograph in particular. There’s a man sitting in a car and you can tell from his facial expression that he’s really, really happy. So we had the idea of working specifically on that subject matter with a partner.
Partnerships between carmakers and watchmakers aren’t all that unusual…
Indeed. It’s been happening for 15 years or more. We said to ourselves that if we were going to do it, then we’d have to do it differently. And that’s what we did.
Did you approach Shelby?
The trigger was the Cobra, a truly fascinating car. Everyone is fascinated when a Cobra goes past whether they’re a car-lover or not. People are drawn in by them. It’s an icon, and it could be an icon for us too.
Are you passionate about that type of car?
I’m not unlike many other men in that regard. I think the Porsche 356 is magical. My heart still skips a beat when I see one of those. And the same thing happens when I see a Cobra. Luckily Shelby weren’t already in partnership with any other brand.
How did you make contact?
We went and said that we at Baume & Mercier were a long-standing Swiss brand of watches and that we could envisage a partnership working well as we had a lot in common. Allow me to present my vision.
Which you then did.
Indeed. The first time we spoke gave rise to curiosity. That curiosity became interest and finally interest turned into passion. But it actually all went pretty quickly. These sorts of negotiations can sometimes take years. The Americans realised straight away that we had a win-win situation. Just getting use of the logo wouldn’t have been enough though. It was about working on and producing something together that hadn’t been done before. And that’s what happened here in Le Castellet.
What does Shelby get out of this partnership?
Opening itself up to the European market, for example, where we’re known to be strong, or to Asia. Shelby is strong in America. Our intent to do some together as equals is what makes this partnership successful.
So why did you choose the Capeland out of all your watches? Couldn’t you have gone for the Clifton?
Capeland makes sense because it’s our elegant, sporty range. Clifton is classic and elegant, by contrast. So the decision was obvious. With the Cobra, the sporting element is very clear.
You’ve incorporated many of the Cobra’s design features into your chronographs. Who made the decisions ultimately?
In principle, we always negotiate as a team. But when our Design Product Director Alexandre Peraldi offers multiple options, one person has to say what’s what. As the CEO, that duty falls to me. That also means I have to accept the responsibility.
Were there sticking points?
There were. It wasn’t always easy for us to find out how much of themselves Cobra and Baume & Mercier wanted in the wristwatch. We worked with the full gamut of options to be on the safe side.
Can you give us an example?
When you see a Cobra, you’re struck by the white stripe. So we could have immortalised that by putting one top to bottom on the dial. But we decided that would have been pretty brash, not elegant. So we dispensed with the stripe. We went through every design feature on a step-by-step basis. Systematically, thoughtfully. The chronograph counters and hands, for example. Until we could finally say that the snake’s bite was there but it was still a Baume & Mercier. You only really notice the Cobra, and there’s plenty of it in the watch, when you take a closer look.
You’ve come up with two watches: one in pure steel and the other with a black ADLC coating. You’re pretty classical typically. Will your customers accept a black version?
That was very exciting for us. When we launched it at the SIHH in Geneva, we noticed very quickly that it really was a fifty-fifty thing. We also realised that markets have very different notions. In South America, Spain and Australia, the black case with the rubber strap went down extremely well due to its overtly sporty character. The purist steel version with a leather strap is also sporty and chic, of course, with its yellow tinge. It’s like the Cobra that way. The 289 is different from the 427; one looks sportier than the other, but both are real Cobras. We wanted to differentiate.
How much involvement has the Shelby family actually had? Carroll died back in 2012, after all.
Carroll Shelby only had children from his first marriage. One of the sons, Aaron, is interested in the sport and wanted to get more closely involved.
You issued a limited range to mark the re-launch of the Cobra. Four watches with the numbers of the cars driven by legendary Cobra drivers in 1963. There will only be 15 of them sold in reference to the car. You could have easily sold 150 of each though.
Yes, easily, I have to admit. We produced a reasonable number of the first series and whatever goes for retail doesn’t stay there very long. It was a different matter with these 4 watches. We’re talking about four incredible drivers. Not 400 or 4000. Four. And I wanted to maintain that exclusivity when it came to the wristwatch. It’s a positive as far as we’re concerned that people will react. It gives people something to talk about. Of course we could have made more. But my idea was to pay homage to the drivers. As the drivers or their families get number one, that only leaves 14 for sale.
And that creates frustrated customers.
I understand that but in my opinion it’s worth it to make the brand desirable. And we are making watches from the 1963 range of cars. And they do all look very much alike.
Will there be anything else new to do with the Shelby Cobra?
We don’t want to overdo things. These items should and will be exclusive and as such will remain limited editions for ever.
But when the 1963 range is sold out…
…then that will be that. It will be great for those customers who do own one. It will be something they can be proud of. And I don’t want to jeopardise that by constantly coming up with something new.
But will the project continue, or does it end with 4 X 15?
We’re talking about the future now. But I will say that it was only when we at around a table with the Shelby team that wetruly become aware of the huge potential this project has. Carroll Shelby, 427, 289, Sebring, the drivers. And I can tell you there’s a whole lot more where that came from. But I don’t want to rush things and I certainly don’t want to push it because of the success we’re having now. If we lose our balance, that would be counterproductive and harm us. The time to stop definitely hasn’t come. But limited editions will remain the golden rule when it comes to Shelby and Cobra in the future too.
Four very limited edition wristwatches honour the four legendary Shelby Cobra drivers - Dan Gurney (Shelby Cobra no. 15), Ken Miles (no. 50), Allen Grant (no. 96) and Dave MacDonald (no. 97) - who took their cars to truly spectacular new heights at the Sebring in 1963. There are only 15 of each of these racing car timepieces, with a car number on the dial and an Eta 7753 automatic calibre. The names of the much-heralded drivers are engraved on the back. Each 44-mm steel edition will cost €4,800. And we can reveal here that the quartet of watches will be available as of October 2016 at Wempe the jewellers.