The Heritage Pilot Café Racer is the latest entry in Zenith’s famed collection of pilot watches, and on paper it’s a great addition with its own spin on the genre. But is the connection between 1960s café racing culture and high-flying timekeeping instruments a little too far fetched? And does it matter if it is?
The new Café Racer has all the redeeming qualities of a classic pilot’s watch, i.e. a lot of oversized features, from its case and Arabic numerals to its onion crown and faceted hands. But this particular pilot’s watch is inspired by a wingless machine, ridden not flown, on long ribbons of concrete.
The Café Racer was a hybrid motorcycle, and the symbol of a timid movement led by Britain’s thrill-seeking, blue-jean-wearing youth in the ’60s. Gathering at cafés – the kind with a liquor license and a jukebox filled with good tunes – they’d race lightweight bikes such as the Triton (Triumph engine + Norton frame). They were uncomfortable but fast, and they looked good in between races.
The Heritage Pilot Café Racer follows the same logic. It’s built around the El Primero 4069, an impressive high-frequency movement beating at 36,000 vph and one capable of delivering a solid 50 hours of power reserve. But Zenith have not gone the lightweight route with the case.
At 45 mm, it’s the same size as last year’s Type 20 Extra Special Bronze, but then there’s the addition of two chronograph push-pieces on either side of its crown. And it sits very high above the cuff (14.25 mm), meaning it doesn’t go unnoticed. Like the Bronze, it isn’t afraid of showing signs of synthetic aging. However, Zenith has reverted to stainless steel, using a chrome treatment and hand-finishing to achieve a rugged look.
The color scheme that runs through the dial is really intriguing. But again, there are no obvious connections to the Café Racer subculture. Not that we’re complaining. The black and white speedometer of the Norton doesn’t offer much in terms of design inspiration. Instead, Zenith has chosen to go with a slate-grey dial, lightly grained for added texture, and punctuated by beige hour markers with SuperLuminova and orange accents on the outer chapter ring.
The dial has a lot of character, but the balance of it is slightly thrown off by the positioning of the counters. They sit opposite each other, and are given enough space to remain legible, but you may notice that the small seconds at 9 o’clock touches the hour marker at 10. This isn’t the case with the 30-minute chronograph at 3 o’clock, which stays clear of the hour marks on the right hand side of the dial.
Beneath them, the word “Pilot” clings on to the idea that watches belong to specific categories – that pilot watches are meant to be worn inside the cockpit. Those days are long gone. But are we ready for pilot watches with no apparent connection to the world of aviation? The Café Racer is a strong proposition, with a recognized in-house movement, and a good-looking dial. Erase those five letters, and it shouldn’t suffer.
The Heritage Pilot Café Racer comes on a distressed olive green nubuck strap with a titanium pin buckle. The watch will retail at $7,100, which is $500 less than last year’s Pilot Type 20 Extra Special Bronze.
The Zenith Heritage Pilot Café Racer; 45 mm, aged stainless steel; Hours, minutes, small seconds, 30-minute chrono counter; Movement, El Primero 4069, automatic chronograph movement, 36,000 VpH, 50-hour power reserve, nubuck strap with a titanium pin buckle.
More from Zenith here.
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