Leather, Curves and Fine Machines – Zenith and Classic Cars

It’s 1955 and Maurice Trintignant is heading around the Tabac for the final lap. His leather racing gloves grip the steering wheel of his Type 251 Bugatti – but now, finally, that grip can relax – and he casually lifts one hand to wave at the crowd. He has just won the Monaco grand prix, and he can already hear the wildly cheering French crowd over the purr of his powerful eight-cylinder motor.  


This is the spirit captured by the Zenith El Primero 36,000 VPH Classic Cars which debuted at Baselworld this year. The new El Primero honors that bygone auto racing era with its vintage looks. 

The watch is the perfect fit for Zenith’s association with racing in general, but more specifically the brand’s recent involvement with events themed around classic cars.

“How to buy a classic car” is the title of their sponsored conference event in London next month, and the Tour Auto Optic 2000 is an event that Zenith has supported for some time now. Starting from the Grand Palais in Paris, hundreds of classic cars line up. Among them are Bugatti, Jaguar and Porsche, but this year there are many vintage BMW and Minis. Soon after departure around 200 of these curvaceous old beauties can be seen rumbling through the French countryside. Some make a dash, but most just take their time.

Zenith’s CEO Aldo Magada explains why his company took this design direction:

“There’s this emotional link because you can think of race cars as a piece of machinery but there is history. Vintage is important for us, and vintage is not about nostalgia, vintage is about being authentic. I think feeling good is important and we want to be a part of that because our watches are not meant to show off.”

I think he’s right. Perhaps the Zenith range isn’t “showy” and it might lack the brand appeal of Rolex, but it certainly doesn’t lack for good looks. It has some curves and leather of its own – it just feels like it belongs near the steering wheel of a vintage classic.

What I’ve always enjoyed about the El Primero is the noticibly smooth motion of the seconds hand around the dial. This is because of the watch’s “engine under the hood.”


The El Primero 400B automatic caliber movement runs at 36,000 vibrations per hour, and the balance wheel ticks 10 times per second – where other watches tick 8, or perhaps only 6 or 5 times. Hence the graceful motion. Technically, it also makes the watch more robust and accurate.

Most watches run at 28,800 VPH – and with the El Primero’s quicker rate comes more wear and tear, so Zenith developed special lubricants that would keep the El Primero purring sweetly all the way to the finish line.

While the movement isn’t new, the dial is completely unique. Brushed steel with anthracite Geneva stripes lay behind three overlapping sub dials, calling to mind a vintage engine and instrumentation panel. Skirting the dial is the tachymeter bezel, and it’s finished off with a brown calfskin strap.

It features a Central chronograph hand, 326 individual parts in the movement and a 50 hour power reserve, and retails for around $6,900.

Well I must agree – it does come across as authentic, and somehow it makes me dream of cruising through the French countryside in an old Bugatti.

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