Game Changers: Range Rover And Zenith

Attempting to legitimately link a landmark wristwatch with a landmark car can often result in a tenuous connection at best – but it is difficult to think of two that go together quite so naturally as the Zenith El Primero and the original Range Rover. Their most obvious commonality lies in the year in which the now-celebrated El Primero movement was first launched: 1969.

It was in that year on 3 March that the combined forces of Hamilton Buren, Dubois-Depraz, Breitling and Heuer-Leonidas unveiled the fruits of their “Project 99”, otherwise known as the Calibre 11, the world’s first self-winding chronograph movement.

In reality, however, Zenith had already got there first, as remembered by none other than Jack Heuer. In his autobiography, The Times of My Life, he wrote: “On 10 January 1969, I opened my local newspaper and nearly choked on my coffee. There was a small news item reporting an announcement by the Swiss watch making company Zenith to the effect that they had developed the world’s first self-winding chronograph called El Primero. And, furthermore, that they had a working prototype.”

A Meeting Of Minds

Whether or not you prefer to credit Hamilton-Buren, Dubois-Depraz, Breitling and Heuer-Leonidas with being first (because, by March, it had production versions of its movement ready) or Zenith (because its prototype was revealed earlier), there’s no denying that the El Primero was in existence in 1969 – as was the prototype Range Rover, which was so secret at the time that it was codenamed the Velar.

Only around 40 Velars were built and are among the most sought after of all versions of the original Range Rover, with those that very occasionally appear for sale changing hands for six-figure sums. One, chassis number 100/6, was used extensively for development and publicity purposes and underwent arduous testing in the deserts of Algeria and Morocco before being moved on to France and Switzerland for further shake-down work.

Until relatively recently, that particular Velar belonged to the London-based classic car dealer Graeme Hunt, who has something of a reputation in the world of old motors for being able to track down valuable early Range Rovers – which is why he was the first person we turned to when looking for a suitable example with which to photograph the latest version of the El Primero chronograph seen here.

Like the El Primero, the original Range Rover remains a timeless classic that, in recent years, has enjoyed a remarkable revival. As recently as 2010, drivable cars could be picked up for less than £1,000 – pretty much what early versions of the Zenith chronograph could be had for.

But now the market for both is on the rise, especially in relation to what has come to be known as the Range Rover “Classic”. It was designed by the late Charles Spencer King who brilliantly combined the off-road capabilities of a Land Rover with the comfort of a luxury saloon in a car that was produced in its original two-door format from its official unveiling in June 1970 until 1994.

In one form or another, the El Primero remained available throughout the same years, too, and both designs have since gone on to become cornerstones of their respective worlds in updated guises, both known for the ingenuity of their original concept, their classic looks, their all-round ruggedness and, perhaps most interestingly of all, the fact that both an old Range Rover and an old El Primero mark out the driver/wearer as being “in the know”.

As Hunt so eloquently observes of the cars: “They somehow whisper ‘old money’ instead of screaming ‘nouveau riche’.” A sentiment that could fairly be applied to a modern or vintage El Primero.

Bridging The Gap

And then, of course, there is the now inextricable link between the two in the form of the great British explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell, who wore an El Primero chronograph to lead a team of two Range Rovers on the first successful crossing of the Darien Gap in 1971/72. The narrow stretch of land linking North and South America might only have been 250 miles long and 30 miles wide, but it took the team of “ragged, filthy men and women, mules and vehicles” a full four months to conquer it.

Zenith supplied several members of the team with the watches, and Col. Blashford-Snell hung on to his – adapted with a more comfortable, nylon strap – for more than 30 years until Zenith remembered about it and offered him a new one in exchange for being able to display the original in its museum.

Fittingly, the Range Rover you see here dates from the very same era as the Darien Gap crossing. It is a rare “A” chassis version originally registered in 1972 and fitted with the then-unusual extra of air conditioning, on account of it being sold to a customer in Italy.

Although it would have been considered absolutely cutting edge at the time – remember, this was the forerunner of the many different makes and models of “luxury SUV” on the market today – it now seems remarkably simple with its basic, plastic seats, minimal instrumentation, boxy lines and utilitarian character.

Yet there is still something about an old Range Rover that has the ability to bring out the explorer in anyone. It’s probably a combination of the lazy V8 engine, the tall ride, the pliant, coil-spring suspension and, quite simply, the fact that being behind the wheel of one really does give the impression that you could go just about anywhere in one of these still remarkably capable vehicles. Provided, that is, you remember to strap on an El Primero before you set off…

*** The 1972 A chassis, Tuscan Blue Range Rover pictured here was a loan from Graeme Hunt

*** The Zenith El Primero Stratos chronograph pictured was supplied by Watches of Switzerland.

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