You have not witnessed engineering hubris until you have wandered through the Geneva International Motor Show. Spread across neon-lit podia of increasing lavishness, there are sharkskin wagons and iridescent racing cars with a floor clearance of millimeters and bronzed metal constructions apparently on the verge of transforming into Optimus Prime. There are luxury electric buses. There are specialist marques that a newbie like me has never heard of. A good 40 per cent of the exhibitors are striving to create a viable working Batmobile; 20 per cent have yet to get the memo about the presentation of women on exhibition stands (hello, Italy!). One tempts us with the words “PAL-V: Your Flying Car” because yeah, why not? It is magnificent madness.
Sitting in the midst of all this sleek modernity is a priceless block of raw engineering from another time; 1929, to be precise. It’s the original “Blower” Bentley racing car, registration UU 5872, the actual 4.5-litre supercharged, pre-war, suicide machine driven by founding Twenties “Bentley Boy” Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin in the death-defying Le Mans 24 Hours of 1930. The competitions that this car entered are engraved on a battered panel on the bonnet: the Irish Grand Prix; the BRDC 500 Miles Brooklands; the Antwerp Flying Mile. The Blower reeks of oil and power; it is the brutal antithesis of everything around it.
The most valuable Bentley in the world is here to mark another moment in the story and in that of Breitling, the brand that has collaborated with Bentley since 2003. In a glass case nearby sits the Breitling Premier BO1 Chronograph 42 Bentley Centenary Limited Edition, an update of Breitling’s reborn watch from the Forties, with a wooden face in brown burl elm, the same as Bentley uses for its dashboards, and a subtle Bentley nameplate resembling the panels on the Blower itself.
From £8,150 in stainless steel to £22,500 for the red gold edition, the Bentley Centenary certainly fits into Breitling’s pre-existing price structure, but it represents a step-change for the watch company and especially for Georges Kern, the chief executive who took over in 2017 after a transformative decade at rival IWC with a promise to revolutionise Breitling’s fortunes. De-emphasising the company’s very masculine associations with aviation in order to connect with younger customers of a less technical bent, Kern brought in the “Squad on a mission” branding (you’ve seen the ads featuring Brad Pitt, Adam Driver and Charlize Theron; other “squads” in different sports and pursuits are quickly followed).
People used to buy Breitling watches because they were renowned scientific instruments; they wanted to imagine themselves as pilots. But that doesn’t play for everyone. Kern wants them to buy Breitling for other reasons. In short, he wants to make Breitling cool.
“We buy products because we identify with brands, because they spark emotion,” he explains over a coffee inside Bentley’s stand at the motor show. “The way to build a brand is to talk about your history. You need storytelling. There’s nothing rational about buying a watch, or a car for that matter. You make that choice because it’s emotional, and in the digital world you need stories more than ever.
“The huge power that Bentley has as a repository for those emotions means we can create different watch iterations that connect to different aspects of Bentley,” he continues. The Centenary Edition is about Bentley’s racing heritage; next year there will be a more contemporary execution. “There is so much to work with,” says Kern. “Willy Breitling of our founding family was a huge Bentley fan, so there’s a long emotional relationship there. There’s a new CEO at Bentley and a new CEO at Breitling. We’re doing new stuff together.”
Kern certainly is doing new stuff, with a series of moves that stretch the boundaries of this once most technical brand. At the end of 2018, he surprised the industry by resurrecting the Premier, the Forties line of chronographs once described as the “most un-Breitling” Breitling watch ever, from the company archives. Introduced by Willy Breitling in 1943, the original Premier translated the cachet and technical prowess of its military and aviation watches to a non-professional clientele. The Premier was a hit but as the decades wore on, Breitling’s precision instruments began to crowd it out. “In the last decades of its history, Breitling was positioned as a pilots’ watch brand,” Kern explained when relaunching the Premier, “so a large part of its rich history has been overlooked.” Not any more.
In contrast to Breitling’s multifunctional, oversized pilots’ watches, the reborn Premier was rather more minimal and undemonstrative, somewhat more suited to a senior business meeting than to manoeuvring an F-15E Strike Eagle over a war zone. Central to the relaunched line was a special Bentley British Racing Green edition of the Premier B01 Chronograph 42, with the signature colour of British pre-war racing eminence lighting up the face and leather strap. Symbolically closing the former “Breitling for Bentley” strategy — which began in 2003 with Breitling supplying Bentley’s dashboard clocks, expanded into a full watch range and eventually led to Breitling putting a tourbillon movement into a Bentley dashboard — this latest collaboration would mark a new approach wherein Breitling would release special partner editions of its core range.
“The two brands fit together perfectly,” says Kern. “We can both do vintage and modern design. Our values are technical values as well as those of luxury. A Breitling owner and a Bentley owner are likely to be a similar person. There’s a brand fit and a business fit.”
Which brings us back to the Bentley Centenary Limited Edition, with its wooden dial and quilted stitching on the leather strap echoing the luxurious upholstery of a Bentley town car. The red gold or steel case, the swirling, walnut-like grain of the wood — unique to each watch — and the dark brown strap all summon up high-end motoring; the matt black sub-dials and the tachymeter inside the bezel are pure Breitling technology.
Yet unlike certain horological brand extensions you see, it emphatically does not feel as though a designer has just slapped a random logo onto a watch. “In a very small space, we have the opportunity to express what the Bentley brand is,” Kern says. There will be other Bentley products in the months to come, he adds, but in this case the plan was simple: a chic synthesis of everything Bentley and Breitling stand for. Basically, if you were to use Ant-Man’s Pym particles to shrink the interior of a Bentley Continental GT down to the size of a wristwatch, this Centenary Limited Edition is what it would look like.
Georges Kern is a modern CEO. He Instagrams. When he posted an image of the Bentley Centenary the morning we meet, one reply said it was “luxurious without being loud”. He liked that. Previous Breitling watches for Bentley were… how should he put it? A little exuberant. These Premier editions, less so.
“It’s a very cool watch,” he says simply, and he would, wouldn’t he? But he’d also be right.
It can be hard to be proud of being British these days. When our leaders aren’t trying their best to humiliate us on the international stage, many of our people seem determined to turn their backs on the outside world, retreating into surly nativist isolationism. It’s a relief, then, to encounter major business figures from elsewhere in Europe who still love Britishness, the timeless and confident thing that we once were and want to be again.
Georges Kern is a big fan of Britishness and intends to weave it into the rebirth of Breitling. Alongside the Bentley collaboration is another partnership with a great British mechanical brand, Norton. The Donington-based company’s handmade motorcycles are redolent of the glory days of British biking. A Norton edition of the Premier B01 Chronograph 42 incorporates elements of the biking favourite’s own iconography — black and gold colours, a Norton engraved logo on the case reverse, brown raw leather strap or steel bracelet — into a watch that’s as rock ’n’ roll as the Bentley is classic. Complementing the watch is a limited edition Norton Breitling Sport motorcycle, a Commando 961 Cafe Racer MkII with Breitling speedometer, trim and colourways, in a limited edition of 77.
“The café racer associations are perfect because it’s not about aggression or hard technology, it’s about enjoyment and character,” says Kern. “It’s emotional and that’s what we want for Breitling.” Kern is moving the company away from those heavily featured dials, those scientific instruments, to a new connection with more nebulous but no less powerful motivators. The new Breitlings are more distillations of a pure idea. One of his first moves at the company was to simplify a crowded product line, turn down the barrage of information, and reduce what he called “visual pollution”.
“We’ve come back to what we were in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties,” he says, “which is air, water and land. In the recent past, Breitling has been all about air, but that’s not the truth of the brand. Our DNA is to do tough watches and elegant pieces, and not just for pilots. We’ve kept the technical purpose but we’ve brought in style, too.”
By breaking Breitling out of its data straitjacket, Kern has liberated the company to make connections it previously couldn’t. It has just released an Aviator 8 collection based on the famous US Curtiss P-40 Warhawk aircraft that first flew in 1938, gaining notoriety as the renowned Allied WWII fighter painted with the shark’s teeth and eyes on its nose. (In RAF and Commonwealth service, it flew as the Tomahawk and Kittyhawk, depending on advancing year of production.) And this year, Breitling’s first capsule collection of Navitimers celebrated the “golden age of aviation” with Fifties, Sixties and Seventies colours and design inspirations from Mad Men-era airlines TWA, Pan Am and Swissair. “This is Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo Di Caprio!” Kern enthuses as he scrolls through pictures on his iPhone for me. “When airlines were quality, when flying was romantic…” They’ve still got a rotating slide rule bezel if you want to perform those tricky navigation calculations but the appeal is purely nostalgic. You can’t imagine the old Breitling doing anything this playful.
“This is aviation in an emotional context,” says Kern. “It’s modern retro.”
All around the Bentley stand are the automotive giants’ sci-fi creations in orange, gunmetal and bright purple. Will they ever possess the British legend’s same emotional appeal? Somehow it seems unlikely. They are part of a faster world, a world that forgets.
“I’m not a nostalgic guy,” says Kern. “I like living in the present and I’m optimistic about the future. But there is a vibe out there, maybe because of the political crises and economic uncertainty in the world, that when you buy something, you want something real.”
Later, after we part company, I try on the steel Bentley Centenary watch — perhaps the only time I’ll feel £8,150 worth of horological/automotive luxury on my wrist. Neon and fluorescent light from a dozen nearby car stands falls into that deep brown watch face and simply disappears. It’s truly something from another time. Something real.
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