There’s a phrase that really applies here. For “time to stand still.” Walking into the Paul Ricard race track in Provence, France, you get the sense that, in this space, it actually is the 1960s. Not like the ‘60s, but really, the ‘60s. That, somehow, nobody has informed the iconic venue (with a font that our creative director would die for) that it’s 50-something years later.
The effect is heightened by the 30 vintage cars lined up in the pit lane, crackling and rumbling in wait for us. This is the greatest number of Shelby cars ever assembled in Europe, to Baume & Mercier CEO Alain Zimmerman’s knowledge, hence the name of the event, ‘Shelby Only’. Not one of them worth less than half a million dollars, and going up to the mulitple millions, should their drivers ever sell them, which, they tell me, they wouldn’t. The effect is all but confirmed by the drivers and owners themselves. Some are ex pros. Most are wearing ‘60s era padded jumpsuits with genuine ‘Le Mans’ and other patches embroidered on them. All love their work. This was no chore at all, to be out in the Provence sun, hammering around the track with watch journalists as passengers.
As for the general ambience, our whole group agreed. When you strip it all back, and you’re standing in the pit lane of a race track, the smell of petrol is, well, delicious. Car guy or not car guy – I’m more the latter – it’s delicious. And when you get a faint spray of that high octane petrol over your shoulder careering at 160mph around a course that once hosted the French Formula One? Well then it gets even more real. But let’s not jump the starter’s gun, we’ll get to that. The point is, do me a favour and get the smell of petrol in your head for the next few minutes, it will add to the experience.
Some context. Why are we on a race track? To celebrate the second release of the unexpectedly popular Capeland Shelby Cobra by Baume & Mercier. Why is it at a race track that is peak 1960s right now? Because this release, with its bumblebee livery of black and yellow, celebrates the golden era of the Shelby Cobra 1963. Why are there 30 iconic sports cars assembled here, ranging from GT40s, Daytona Coupes and original Shelby Cobras? Because Baume & Mercier wanted to basically take us back in time to appreciate why it’s an era worth celebrating.
It’s an exercise the CEO of Baume & Mercier Alain Zimmerman first went through when he approached their Design and Product Director, Alexandre Peraldi with the notion of partnering with a car company. To say that he had an extreme reaction would be an extreme understatement. We weren’t there to witness it, but we can just imagine Alexandre calmly smoothing his skirt (Alexandre wears skirts with the swagger that most men wear jeans) and then, after a brief pause, shouting NO!
“I said, no, no, no, cars and watches, it has been done! It has been done too much.”
Alexandre recalled the meeting in an interview; “I said, no, no, no, cars and watches, it has been done! It has been done too much.” He then simulated throwing papers in the air and walking out of the room. But that was not the end of the story. Because Alain patiently waited for him to return, then went on to explain that the car company was Shelby and that the collaboration would centre on an aesthetic deeply rooted in the sexy ‘60s. An era when men were less manicured, and frankly more macho than they are today. An era of timeless mid-century design, best captured by AMC television series Mad Men. An era Alexandre had to admit, gave him lots of design scope. He discovered a vintage car restoration garage within walking distance of his design studio in Geneva and started dropping in for hits of inspiration.
The classic, vintage aesthetic of the American-based car-maker was, in fact, a perfect match for a watch brand whose 186-year history deems that its designs never stray too far into the future, or even the present. The result has been nothing short of a game changer for Baume & Mercier, with the first collection completely selling out. “It has been a kiss from a cobra that has woken up our sleeping beauty of a brand,” Alain later said in an interview, getting his Shakespeare on. I had asked if it showed that Baume & Mercier had been sleeping until the Cobra arrived, certainly with no models selling out in recent history. “The Clifton was a success, but it was more with connoisseurs, this sporty design has brought us to a new audience.”
Elsewhere, we were treated to a day of immersion into this classic car culture with, what will likely forever be, the most strenuous schedule ever. So many moments, so little day. There were wheel changes in the pit lane to demonstrate the required teamwork for success, strap changes on the actual Cobra model to emphasize precision and a mad Le Mans style dash across the tarmac to the waiting vehicle to show the importance of, well, agility I guess. Our driver was agile, but a little confused, as he ran first to the passenger side, then to another car, before finally getting in, harnessing up and thundering away. It was all good fun and the day was peppered with exhilarating laps of the circuit with drivers who left nothing in the pit lane. This was the best bit. Even when the fuel cap blew open on one lap and gave me a light spray, I didn’t want to stop. The bone-rattling speed, the terrifying controlled slides at 120mph, the way the scenery actually blurred when you looked sideways. Lord, take me back.
The day concluded with generous glasses of Ricard (for Aussies, that’s Pernod) on ice to celebrate the launch of the extremely limited ‘Legendary Drivers’ Collection. Allen Grant, for whom one of the models is dedicated, spoke of how two of the drivers – Dave MacDonald and Ken Miles – came to their untimely ends on the track and fought back tears. He congratulated Baume & Mercier for capturing the “spirit of the cobra” in the watch and proudly sported his own model, on its dashing yellow leather strap.
Baume & Mercier should be congratulated on an event that not only transported me at jaw-clenching speeds around a famous race track, but that also transported all guests back to the ’60s, the golden era of not only the racing car and the racing car driver, but also of the wristwatch. It’s an era perfectly evoked by the new hit on their hands, and increasingly on people’s wrists, the Capeland Shelby Cobra.