I have a sort of thesis about Bell & Ross, which is that the company has gone through three distinct incarnations. In the first, it made a fairly wide range of straightforward, technically appealing tool watches, including aviation watches, diver’s watches, and so on (no doubt owing partly to the fact that Sinn was an early manufacturing partner). The most representative watch of this era was probably the Hydromax, which was a relatively slim diver’s watch with an almost brutally straightforward design, which also had an 11,000 meter depth rating (incredible but true) thanks to its silicone oil-filled case. In its second incarnation, Bell & Ross was a design house – specifically, a design house building on the indisputable commercial success of its BR series of cockpit-instrument inspired watches, which were not so much pilot’s watches, as illustrations of pilot’s watches (which is not a knock against them at all; the best of them are excellent examples of design clarity in combination with an unusual design language, which is nothing to sneeze at).
Now, the company (which was founded in 1992) is going through a third incarnation. In this one, the company seems to be partly looking back to its own roots from 25 years ago in the making of affordable and attractive tool watches, and also to an era of which it was not directly a part: that of true vintage watches. While vintage inspired designs are hardly a novelty these days, I do think Bell & Ross has done better than usual, in creating vintage-themed watches that don’t look like anyone else’s designs but their own.
As is so often the case with Bell & Ross, there’s a tie-in to aviation and automotive. The name “bellytanker” refers to a type of hot rod that became popular for salt-flats racing and speed record attempts in the years after World War II. These cars were built around the belly tanks, or drop tanks, that were attached to the underside of fighter aircraft in order to provide additional fuel and increase range (a critical part of a fighter aircraft’s mission was often to escort bombers, which often had a much longer range than the fighters that were meant to protect them). Bell & Ross has created its own custom motorcycle and concept car in recent years, as a way of emphasizing the seriousness of its involvement in high performance motorsports and in conjunction with the development of the Bellytanker watches, the company designed and built its own bellytanker hot rod.
The first bellytanker car was built by a man named Bill Burke, who’d been very active in the Southern California hot rodding scene prior to the war, and who served in the South Pacific, where he saw these drop tanks in use. Before the war, a fellow hot rodder named Bob Rufi had built a famous car with a teardrop shape that first ran in 1939, and which inspired the advent of the postwar bellytanker hot rods. Bill Burke’s pioneering bellytanker was built into the 168 gallon drop tank of a P-51 Mustang, and was small, fast, and dangerous – there wasn’t enough room for him to sit inside the car, so he cut a hole in the top of the tank, welded a bicycle seat to the drive shaft housing, and called it a day. His next bellytanker was much larger – built inside a drop tank used on the P-38 Lightning – and the genre became immensely popular as other builders followed suit. Today, bellytanker hot rods are still being built and run at speeds in excess of 300 mph.
Now, the only problem with connections between cars and watches, is that it can and does happen that you end up with a car that is a lot more interesting as a car, than the watch is as a watch. Fortunately that didn’t happen here, and the Bell & Ross Bellytanker watches are quite good looking, with none of the unnecessary details you often find cluttering up motorsports-themed watches. A bellytanker hot rod is about as brutally simplified and stripped of non-essentials as a car can get, and maybe that’s the idea behind the watches as well.
There are two versions of the Bellytanker; the first is a time-and-date model designated BR V1-92. The movement is the BR-CAL.302, which is based on the Sellita SW300-1. The 100 meter water resistant case is 38.5mm in diameter and about 11mm thick overall, however it wears (and looks) much thinner as a lot of the height is the deeply domed sapphire crystal. It’s a very vintage-feeling watch, without being heavy-handed about it; the size will be right in the Goldilocks zone for many vintage watch enthusiasts. Despite its relative simplicity, it’s quite a satisfying watch to wear, with the polished numerals and indices catching the light in a most attractive way. The date’s been nicely integrated as well; the use of black letters and a circular window, in addition to being a welcome break from the usual perfunctory rectangle-at-3:00, echoes the ampersand-and-circle of the Bell & Ross logo.
The case is 100m water resistant, and on a brown calfskin strap, with a steel pin buckle, it’s $2,300, limited to 500 pieces worldwide.
The chronograph version is just as appealing, and not a whole lot larger. The design is basically the same, but with a two register, 30 minute chronograph, with screw-down pushers and an engraved metal tachymeter bezel. The case is 41mm x 14mm, but as with the BR V1-92, a fair amount of that is the domed sapphire crystal. Water resistance again is 100 meters, and all the things that make the BR V1-92 an unobtrusive, but characterful and pleasant design, are present here as well, including the applied indexes and numerals, and the well thought out design and placement of the date window.
The movement is caliber BR-CAL.301, which is an ETA 2824 base with a chronograph module (Bell & Ross uses this movement in quite a few of its chronographs, by the way, across several different collections). Often with modular chronographs, the construction is given away by the displacement of the crown and pushers towards the caseback, creating an unbalanced appearance from the side. Bell & Ross has gotten around this by using a fairly thick bezel, which allows the crown and pushers to be placed dead center on the case flank; it’s a more complex construction than you generally see in modular chronographs, but it makes for a much more balanced-looking design.
The caseback is sapphire as well and while the ETA 2824 doesn’t offer the most compelling view in watch-dom, I do think in a chronograph, which by its nature is a bit more of a technical animal than a time-and-date watch, it’s a nice thing to have, if just for the atmosphere. BR V2-94 is $4,400 on a strap, or $4,700 on a steel bracelet, and is also limited to 500 pieces. Both the BR V2-94 and the BR V1-92, incidentally, have a tail on the seconds hand that’s a bit of a signature for Bell & Ross: it’s a stylized overhead view of the delta-shaped wing of the widely deployed, highly successful Dassault Mirage fighter.
Both watches are – unsurprisingly, given their dimensions and overall design – very easy to wear, and enjoyable to look at on the wrist. They’re a very pleasant addition to the Vintage series from Bell & Ross: affordable, thoughtful in design, not trying to be anything they’re not and very happy to be exactly what they are.
This third incarnation of Bell & Ross has an air of maturity about it, or maybe self-confidence. The Vintage collections feel much more secure as designs than they did even a few years ago, when they had an air of being a bit nervous in the shadow of their selling-like-hotcakes, square-shaped BR 01-derived predecessors, and unlike some of the earlier Vintage models, they don’t feel as if they are perhaps too excessively quoting actual vintage watch design elements. This gives them, I think, a rather wider appeal and if this is a sign of what we can expect as Bell & Ross continues to evolve, we should have even more interesting and self-confident designs to look forward to in the Vintage collection in 2018.
For more on the Vintage collections, check them out at BellRoss.com.