Last week, I had the opportunity to join Zenith in Paris for the launch of the 2015 Tour Auto Optic 2000 classic car rally, which marked both the Swiss brand’s inaugural year as the Tour’s official timekeeper and the debut of the El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition timepiece. Scroll down for more on the event and the limited-edition watch.
Zenith, founded in Le Locle, Switzerland in 1865 by George Favre-Jacot, commemorates its 150th anniversary this year, and the sponsorship of the Tour Auto, one of the most important events on the international classic-car-racing calendar, is but one of a number of initiatives the brand has taken to increase awareness of its many milestones and accomplishments. Watch aficionados and watch historians are undoubtedly familiar with some of these. Its founder Favre-Jacot, at the tender age of 22, was the first watch entrepreneur to bring all the stages of watch production under one roof, a revolutionary concept in an era when these artisans were customarily scattered across a large area. The watch company he founded, which he named Zenith in 1911, holds the record for chronometer prizes awarded in the Swiss observatory competitions. And of course, there is the fascinating story of the El Primero — the legendary chronograph movement that rocked the watch world in the seminal year of 1969 — and that movement’s subsequent rescue from quartz-crisis-mandated oblivion in the 1970s by an insubordinate employee (who in modern times has been honored with his own limited-edition Zenith watch; more on the story and the watch here.)
Zenith’s connection to the world of auto racing — and France — began in 1955, when Maurice Trintignant became the first French Formula One driver to win the prestigious Grand Prix de Monaco. The company also cites the undeniable parallels between the world of classic cars and high-end mechanical timekeepers, both of which are “often produced individually and by hand, while their maintenance also requires extreme attention and meticulous care.” To kick off the first year of Zenith’s partnership with Tour Auto (a role in which it had been preceded by several other luxury watch brands, including its sister company in the the LVMH luxury group, Hublot), two gentlemen associated with Zenith got suited up to take part in this year’s rally, which launched on May 21 from Paris’s architecturally breathtaking Grand Palais and included 223 vintage sports cars dating from 1951 to 1979. Zenith ambassador and extreme skydiver Felix Baumgartner, who famously jumped from a space capsule from the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere for a historic sound-barrier-breaking freefall — while wearing a Zenith Stratos Flyback watch — got behind the wheel of a 1955 Mercedes 300 SL with gullwing doors, the new limited-edition watch strapped to his wrist; while Aldo Magada, Zenith’s recently appointed CEO, co-piloted a 1964 Jaguar type E 3.8L (with Zenith team driver Daniel Spadini) after hosting a Zenith “Pop-Up” presentation and cocktail party at the Grand Palais on the eve of the rally’s launch.
The Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition, which guests saw for the first time displayed at Zenith’s “Pop-Up” event space, is limited to 500 pieces and joins the brand’s “Open” collection, in which the dial features a distinctly-shaped window in the upper left quadrant, around 11 o’clock, to show off the beating heart of the El Primero, the groundbreaking chronograph movement that roared onto the horological scene in 1969. Among its notable features are its ultra-fast frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour (which, in layman’s terms, means its integrated stopwatch can record times with 1/10-second precision, certainly an asset in timing an auto race); its column-wheel design, with a ratcheted wheel machined from a block of solid steel whose hardness enables it to better hold up to the wear-and-tear of repeated handling; and its “dry” lubrication system, which prevents oils released by the movement’s escapement from gumming up the smooth running of the mechanisms. The movement, officially named El Primero 4061, boasts a lever and an escape wheel made of friction-resistant, antimagnetic silicon, which is harder and yet lighter than steel. In addition, as a nod to its 150 years of precision timekeeping awards, Zenith has engineered the movement (as it has all movements in the Open series as well as its tourbillon models) to meet the stringent chronometer certification standards of the Swiss testing agency, COSC.
The watch’s rhodium-plated dial features the red-white-and-blue stripes representing the French flag, a visually arresting shout-out to the history of the Tour Auto rally, which was first held in 1899. The tricoulor also makes its presence felt in the blue calfskin strap, with a protective black rubber lining and perforated in the style of historical leather racing gloves. The tachymeter scale around the dial — a must-have in any chronograph watch that claims auto racing DNA — is silver toned and contrasts with an inner blue ring with white gradations. Within that ring is a chronograph scale subdivided into 300 units, enabling the wearer to record times down to the 1/5 second. The subdial at 3 o’clock tallies 30 chronograph minutes while the one at 6 o’clock counts up to 12 hours. The red central seconds hand is tipped with Zenith’s iconic “star” emblem. The running seconds are visible in the Open window, indicated by a propeller-like wheel with red, white, and blue spokes. The side of the brushed stainless steel case, measuring 42 mm in diameter, is equipped with two mushroom-type push-pieces with colored grooves: red for the start-stop pusher, blue for the reset. The caseback features a sapphire window adorned with the Tour Auto logo and the watch’s series number.
The Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition is priced at $11,900 and comes in a striking presentation box with a Tour Auto logo and a blue interior matching the watch’s predominant colors. The box — and the watch — were assuredly a most welcome sight for Philippe Vandromme and Frédéric Vivier, winners of Tour Auto Group G in their Ford GT40, who were each presented with one at the rally’s conclusion on April 25th in Biarritz.