I could hear them long before I could see them, and then long after they’d pass, disappearing around turn one – the jackhammer of the GT350, the basso profundo of the 289 Cobra and banshee wail of the GT40. By midday, I was able to distinguish one car from the other by sound alone. And though I’m convinced that by day’s end, I’d probably doomed myself to early hearing loss, I couldn’t get myself to use the provided earplugs. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – the largest gathering of Shelby Cobra racing cars ever seen in Europe – and I wanted to take it all in, sights, sounds, and smells.
The event was called “Shelby Only,” organized by Baume & Mercier to celebrate its partnership with Carroll Shelby International and introduce a group of four special limited edition watches. The meeting place was the Circuit Paul Ricard, a twisty 5.8 kilometer race track on a mountain plateau an hour from Marseille in the south of France. Baume & Mercier had reserved this legendary circuit – for many years, the home of the French Grand Prix – for a private day of speed, and invited members of the European Shelby Cobra owners group to bring their priceless original cars. The only catch was, they had to allow 60 watch journalists and retailers to ride shotgun for hot laps around the track.
I’ve been upside down in a fighter jet over the Alps and dived with tiger sharks, but neither compared to the exhilarating terror of doing a controlled slide through a corner at triple-digit speed in a car that was built while Lyndon Johnson was president. My ride was in a black open top Shelby Cobra with the 289 cubic inch Ford V8 under the hood. This was the first of the legendary cars Carroll Shelby built to challenge Ferrari, taking a small British roadster and stuffing a massive American engine inside.
It was disconcerting to look over at the checkerboard track curbing mere inches below the car’s door and smell the burning rubber from the tires and then glance down at a dashboard full of quaint Smiths gauges and a massive wooden steering wheel. Equally disconcerting was the sight of my driver, a quiet Frenchman, wearing a full fireproof Nomex suit and neck protection, while I sat starboard in my windbreaker and ill-fitting helmet; only the driver’s side had a steel roll hoop while my head jutted inches above the top of the windscreen. But by lap two, I set my fears aside and put my trust in the driver as he stood on the gas on the 1.8 kilometer Mistral Straight, where the V8 howled and the speedometer bounced in the neighborhood of 190 kph. After we pulled back into the pit lane, I had sore abdominals and a smile pasted to my face for the rest of the day.
While the stars of the day were the cars, we were also in France to see some watches. Since the beginning of 2015, Baume & Mercier has had a partnership with Carroll Shelby, and they’ve released a special edition watch at each of the past two Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH). Both have been chronographs from their Capeland collection. The first commemorated 1965, the first year Carroll Shelby won the FIA world championship as a manufacturer. The watch had the Capeland’s vintage looks with some subtle cues that tied it to Shelby – a blue dial with red accents, a stylized Cobra logo for the sweep seconds counterweight, and Carroll Shelby’s signature etched into the sapphire case back. The watch was limited to 1,965 pieces.
This past January, Baume showed off the second piece, which celebrates a particular car, the chassis number CSX2128, which won nine races between 1963 and ’65, starting with the 12 Hours of Sebring. Similar to the previous edition in most respects, this watch opts for a black and yellow color scheme reminiscent of the car to which it pays tribute, and has a number 15 etched on the case back, a reference to the car’s racing number. A “Competition” version is available with an ADLC black case band and rubber strap. It is limited to 1,963 pieces.
“I got to spend time with the cars and the engines,” explained Alexandre Peraldi, Baume’s longtime chief of design, about his creative process when conceiving these watches. “I was inspired by the feel of the parts, the smell of the oil, and the little accents that are translated to the watch.”
Peraldi is an old school designer who employs some new school technology. While he prefers hand sketching initial designs, prototypes are 3D-printed in plastic to get proportions and “wrist feel” right. He didn’t come from a watchmaking background, but rather studied product and furniture design in Paris before going to work for Cartier. Since moving to Baume & Mercier in the early 2000s, he has had a winning track record, being responsible for most of the brand’s current lineup, particularly the Capeland and Clifton, watch families that riff heavily on Baume’s ample archive of historic watches for inspiration. “Before you can play jazz, you have to learn to play classical,” Peraldi says. “At Cartier, I learned classical, and now I’m playing jazz.”
Getting car-inspired watches right is a tricky proposition and history is littered with near misses and outright tasteless examples. But to Peraldi’s credit, the Cobra Capelands are downright subtle in my opinion. Baume leans on nostalgia in many of its watches and the Capeland is no exception, with its pump pushers, stylized Arabic numerals and domed crystal. The Cobra editions don’t have glaring logos on the dial or tire tread straps; rather, the subtle matte racing stripes on the dial are hardly noticeable and the use of color – black, yellow, and a thin arc of green, separate the latest Cobra edition from the standard Capelands.
Baume & Mercier is a proud practitioner of the traditional etablissage method of watchmaking, whereby it handles all design, assembly, and quality control but sources all components from companies that specialize. While many brands are coy about the origins of their cases, dials and movements, Baume is upfront about it and proud to say all its watches are 100% Swiss made, inside and out. For example, the Cobra Capeland’s case comes from Louis Lang SA in Porrentruy, dials are from Le Locle-based Montremo, hands are from Fiedler in Carouge, and the Valjoux movements are from ETA.
In a way, Carroll Shelby was an automotive proponent of etablissage. His earliest cars were a mashup of British bodies from UK-based AC and engines from Ford in Detroit. Shelby then built and tested the final product, with devastating effect, especially for Ferrari, the Italian racing juggernaut that was Shelby’s, and Ford’s, nemesis for the better part of the 1960s. I asked Baume’s CEO, Alain Zimmermann, if this philosophical similarity was what inspired the partnership. He admits that, like many Europeans, he didn’t know the story of Carroll Shelby.
“The more I learned, I realized that it was a good fit for Baume & Mercier because we share the same values,” he says, “and I wanted to tell their story.” A Baume ad campaign shot by photographer Peter Lindbergh a few years ago depicted a man driving a vintage roadster and it evoked an emotional response that made Zimmermann want to pursue that feeling further, which ultimately led to Shelby.
“To be honest, with so many brands having collaborations with cars, we asked ourselves, ‘Is it worth it?’” Zimmermann says. “If we do it, it has to be different and surprising, and more than just a licensing agreement.”
There’s no limitation to the partnership and Zimmermann gave no clues as to the future of the collaboration. I asked whether there were plans to build watches that line up with Carroll Shelby’s more modern vehicles, like the modified Mustangs and Ford pickup trucks that come out of its Las Vegas factory, perhaps one that highlights the innovations of modern car-making, such as a carbon fiber case?
“If we do this, it would be more of a talking piece, but Baume & Mercier is more about making affordable watches,” he replied. “I believe that it’s not necessarily high performance to make a watch with carbon fiber just to prove you can do it, because we can, but to make a good quality watch with an emotional connection, that is affordable.”
Our interview over, I wandered back down to the pit lane. Any thoughts of affordability were immediately vaporized by the sight of three Ford GT40 race cars sitting next to each other in the sun, and one of only six Shelby Daytona coupes ever built crouching in the corner of a garage. By even a conservative estimate, there were upwards of $30 million in automobiles on Circuit Paul Ricard that day. The car owners included many of Europe’s wealthy elite, some of whom flew in for the day, landing at the small airstrip that runs right down the infield of the race track. The people watching was nearly as good as the car watching – graying aristocrats in racing jumpsuits rubbing shoulders with journalists and retailers from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas – all brought together by a love for the smell of gasoline and burning rubber.
Near the end of the day, Alain Zimmermann gathered this diverse group on the terrace above the track and announced the release of four extremely limited edition watches. The Capeland Cobra “Legendary Drivers” chronographs are each dedicated to a famous Shelby race team driver from the 1960s – Ken Miles, David MacDonald, Dan Gurney, and Allen Grant, the latter of whom was present at the track. Each of the four watches is different, taking cues from the driver to whom it is dedicated, with his race number on the dial, different color schemes and straps. Only 15 of each will be made, to be released in October, and priced at $4,850.
As the day drew to a close and an evening chill settled on the track, cars were pushed into waiting trailers at the paddock, journalists packed up cameras, and owners’ private jets idled on the runway. As I turned to walk to our waiting bus for the ride back to Marseille, I heard a rising scream from out on the track. A lone driver clearly wanted one more lap before packing it in. It got louder and even without looking, my practiced, if partially deaf, ear told me it was a Ford GT40 winding it out as it entered the home straight. Sure enough, the sleek monster that Carroll Shelby made into a Ferrari killer, came into view and flashed past. I craned my neck over the rail to watch it as it disappeared into the setting sun.
Find out all about the world of Capeland Shelby Cobra Chronographs at Baume & Mercier.