Not everyone knows their particular history. Still, racing watches are closely connected with the development of chronometry since the first actual chronograph, measuring time through the use of an inked stylus over a paper disc, was invented to measure the times achieved by different horses during a race.
From horse to horsepower, the step, even if it took a hundred years, was short. So, modern racing watches measure the performance of the heirs of horses, that is, cars. Complex inventions and developments, in fact, made these types of watches one of the favorite categories among enthusiasts. So let’s examine them together!
What is a racing watch?
A racing watch is a type of chronograph dedicated to automobile racing, and its principal characteristic is precision. Since the first car race in history, which took place in 1894, watches have made great strides; mainly because of their robustness and practicality, and thanks to chronograph mechanisms, they found a specific use to track fast-moving objects such as cars.
Indeed, many such watch names derive from the world of racing and motorsports. The Rolex Daytona is one example, since it was at Daytona that Sir Malcolm Campbell set the land speed record four times while wearing a Rolex Oyster on his wrist. Similarly, a Maison such as TAG Heuer has built its image on sports chronographs; in fact, most of its models are named after famous racing circuits.
Racing watches features
Some features make racing watches easily distinguishable, and they are related to the necessities of their use. However, even racing watches, like diver watches, are nowadays worn by watch enthusiasts for their style rather than their functionality. This said, let’s outline the standard features that distinguish racing watches from other watches, for example automatic watches and chronograph watches.
1 – Very readable dial
Racing watches must be consulted quickly, so the information on the dial should be simple and easily readable, with contrasting colors for dials, sub-dials, and hands, especially that of the chrono second hand.
2 – Chronograph function
A racing watch has a stopwatch function that serves to measure time intervals. In addition, several subdials (usually one or two) help display times longer than the traditional minute indicated by the central second hand.
3 – Tachymeter bezel
Racing watches traditionally mount a tachymeter bezel, which can be used to calculate the speed of a car based on the time measured. No-one uses it currently, but it’s part of the charm of these timepieces.
4 – Rallye straps
Although the evolution of materials no longer requires similar solutions, many racing watches mount straps made of leather with a pattern of holes distributed over the entire surface, to let the wrist breathe during the race. This design gives these watches a distinctly sporty look.
5 – High beat rate
Many racing watches mount high-beat frequency balance movements to measure time intervals. For example, the famous Zenith El Primero has a bph of 36,000; this way, it can accurately show the tenth of a second.
Top 10 racing watches
Many of these watches date back to the 1950s, when racing watches were trendy; in that period, many Maisons competed in this particular market niche. The design taste of these timepieces still favors those pure and iconic lines, spanning three decades to the futuristic experiments of the 1970s.
Best affordable racing watches
If you are wondering if there are affordable racing watches, the answer is yes. And not only that: some are really beautiful and well made. The evolution of movements and technologies made it possible today to obtain affordable watches, of excellent quality but at a competitive price. These watches have nothing to envy to the most famous timepieces that made the history of contemporary chronography.
1 – Swatch – MoonSwatch Mission to Pluto
This cute watch has been a viral success in 2022 and revived Swatch’s glories with this unprecedented collaboration with Omega. The MoonSwatch aesthetically echoes the theme of the classic Speedmaster; it reprises it with a case made of bioceramic material and a robust and precise quartz movement. The Maison has created several quartz watches for different missions, to the solar system’s celestial bodies. Still, one of the closest to the racing watch concept is the Mission to Pluto. Its cream and burgundy livery on the light gray case, allows for excellent legibility and contrast between the elements. The list price at $290, but specific models (such as the elusive Mission to Neptune) have reached hyperbolic figures.
2 – Davosa Speedline TX 42 mm
A timepiece that takes the style of more traditional racing watches in full stride but inserts a robust and accurate (as well as affordable) quartz caliber to create a racing watch you can’t help but like. What stands out about this timepiece is the Panda dial, with a tone-on-tone vertical band that goes perfectly with the black coloring of the subdials and the chronograph hand in bright red, the only note of color on the watch. You’ll pay $369 for a beautiful and well-made chronograph.
3 – Junghans 1972 Chronoscope Solar
This is a heritage model that repurposes a classic from the German company’s catalog, but equips it with a technological heart that runs on solar power. This Chronoscope reprises in its reverse Panda livery with bright orange accents, all the mood of the 1970s sports chronographs. The watch’s features come with a practical alarm. Comfortable, functional, and sturdy, thanks to its integrated bracelet, this chronograph is a perfect accessory for everyday wear. $990 list price.
4 – Maurice Lacroix Pontos Chrono
The Swiss house has offered a refined chronograph, housing a quality automatic movement at a list price just below the fateful threshold of four digits. The watch features a Reverse Panda dial. Admittedly, it is not an authentic racing watch. In fact, it lacks the tachymeter scale, and the hands, made of silver-colored metal, are not so easily visible. However, this Pontos does represent an excellent timepiece for all occasions. Moreover, it can be made sportier with a strap, livelier than the dressy dark brown leather one supplied in stock.
5 – Tissot PRX Chrono
This timepiece was one of the beautiful novelties of 2022 and won the hearts of enthusiasts in its time-only and chrono versions. With its solid, angular look and integrated bracelet, a design hailing the codes between the 1960s and 1970s, the PRX chronograph is a beautiful timepiece that appeals to everyone. The Panda version, with gold accents on the hands and hour markers, does not feature a tachymeter scale, but we’re sure you’ll forgive this little miss. The list price is about $1,500.
6 – Baume & Mercier Clifton Club Chrono
Just under the $2,000 mark, we find this timepiece that represents a modern re-edition of the more classic racing watches. Its cream and black Reverse Panda livery with a black bezel is animated by its orange chronograph hands. It mounts a sturdy Valjoux 7750 automatic movement, and at 44 mm in diameter, it is an excellent solution for larger wrists.
Best Luxury racing watches
Those who know a little about watchmaking history understand that the chronograph movement has always been one of the most sought-after and appreciated complications for the watch-loving public. And when it comes to luxury chronographs, we are spoiled for choice: so, unfortunately, at the risk of displeasing someone, we will have to limit ourselves.
7 – Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
A watch with such an iconic name and design is not born every day, but the Daytona has managed over the years to make it to this milestone. So coveted by every horology fan out there, it is available in numerous versions that decline it from practical steel to platinum. Of all the models, one of the most classic is the 116509 in white gold, with a white dial with alternating black/white concentric subdials on which contrasting red hands stand out. Beautiful and impossible to find for less than $40,000.
8 – TAG Heuer Monaco
A watch we have come to love thanks to an actor, Steve McQueen, who wore it in a film that established its success. The Monaco, which was initially launched in 1969, mounted one of the world’s first automatic chronograph movements, and its square shape, as well as its distinctive livery, continue to make watch enthusiasts’ hearts flutter even after more than 50 years.
Best vintage racing watches
That modern racing watches echo the style of models from the 1950s and 1960s is no mystery, and some even today reproduce them faithfully. So if you are a fan of historic cars, these watches are definitely for you.
9 – Breitling Top Time Racing
Breitling is well known for its pilot chronographs, but this model is a little masterpiece that embodies the desire for speed and he need to measure it! The Top Time Racing, launched in 1964, offers a bicompax dial in an unusual cushion case. So cool that even Sean Connery wore one in the movie “Thunderball,” as did two-time world motor racing champion Jim Clark.
10 – Chopard Mille Miglia 2019 Race Edition
Another Maison that has always dedicated a product line to racing watches is Chopard. The Scheufele family, owner of the Maison, has always been passionate about vintage cars. Since 1988 the company has been releasing new limited-edition versions of this classic timepiece with each edition of the famous motor race. The style is undeniably retro, with the rally strap, pump buttons, and black bezel resting on the steel case. A timeless classic with great charm and personality, which appeals mightily to gentlemen drivers.
The allure of vintage never goes away, but with these racing watches, you can experience it without sacrificing modern, precise movements and impeccable construction for overall reliability even in the most demanding challenges – like checking the cooking of a roast, for example!
But whatever your use, from the simplest to the most professional, these racing watches will know how to accompany you with style and character, evoking the heroic years of motor racing and the drivers whose names made the history of motorsports.