The collective noun for a group of cobras is a ‘quiver’. And it’s particularly apt when applied to a fleet of vintage sports cars shaking like throaty rattlesnakes on the start line of the retro-chic Paul Ricard circuit in Marseille.
To celebrate Swiss watchmaker Baume & Mercier’s latest releases in their Shelby-inspired collection, FashionBeans is riding shotgun for a couple of laps in a Shelby Cobra GT350 that belongs to a 64-year-old dentist from Nice kitted out in a full race suit, helmet and thick glasses. As our car trembles like it’s about to go back to the future, revving deafeningly, root canal seems a less terrifying prospect. Our dentist chauffeur is one of several Cobra owners flexing their American muscle cars for an unprecedented – in Europe at any rate – ‘Shelby Only’ event hosted by Swiss watch brand Baume & Mercier to mark the ongoing special relationship between the two marques.
Makers of loud, brash automobiles and elegant, understated timepieces might seem like unlikely teammates. Especially a watchmaker such as Baume & Mercier, which is known for its classic designs. ‘Affordable’ is a relative term that gets bandied about way too liberally, but it’s fair to say that Baume & Mercier is at the accessible (another relative term) end of the of mechanical spectrum, with prices starting at just under £2,000. It’s the kind of brand that even non-dentists can conceivably spring for when they turn 18, graduate or get their first job, without worrying overly about mortgaging themselves to the hilt, changing trends or disparaging looks from watch snobs. That’s why Baume & Mercier’s first Capeland Shelby Cobra, unveiled last year, was not so much a swerve as a hairpin. With its racy blue and red paint job, iconic Shelby go-faster stripes (albeit mattified to dial them down slightly) and cut-out cobra second hand, it represented a significant gear-shift up from Baume’s more sedate models. And a welcome one, too: the limited-edition flew out of shops faster than its namesake cars – to the surprise and delight of CEO Alain Zimmermann. “I never expected this when we unveiled the first Shelby Cobra model,” he confessed at a drinks reception the night before the track day. “Never!” For non-petrolhead readers, the Cobra was the pet project of Carroll Shelby, a successful 1950s race driver who turned constructor after being forced to retire for health reasons. Shelby was hell-bent on building a car that could bloody the Roman nose of Ferrari – then the dominant force in motorsport – which he did by strapping a whopping Ford V8 into an AC Ace chassis. (The English company’s involvement explains why it’s sometimes referred to as the ‘AC Cobra’ in the UK.) It was the car’s underdog victory in the 1965 FIA International GT Championship that earned it a permanent place in the affections of motorsports fans everywhere except Italy – although the serpentine Capeland sold remarkably well over there too.
With a history of quality and accuracy that dates back to 1830, Baume & Mercier is certainly no upstart. But it’s also not among the biggest names at the front of the watch world grid. There’s perhaps a sense too that, having been content to be quietly excellent for so long, it could stand to make a bit more noise. (And when it comes to making noise, a quiver of Cobras is, as we know, unmatched.) In this way then, the two brands have in common not only a drive for excellence and performance and a penchant for engineering complex mechanical assemblages out of metal and leather, but now – with the advent of the Capeland Cobra – you can also count risk-taking among their mutual character traits. There’s still the question though of how you create a hybrid of American car and Swiss watch without neutering one or ballsing up the other. It’s one that, Alexandre Peraldi, Baume & Mercier’s Design Product Director, has considered extremely carefully. Wearing a blacked-out kilt that’s more Kanye West than William Wallace, he doesn’t fit what you imagine to be the mould of a Swiss watch designer. (“A kilt is the easiest way to wear a skirt: nobody questions you – but they do start talking to you in English.”) However, he was initially reticent to take inspiration from a car, despite his CEO’s repeated entreaties – until he found out that it was the Cobra, which he remembered fondly from his youth. Peraldi’s thoughts immediately turned to Baume & Mercier’s Capeland model: not initially an obvious choice with its trad styling but, he explains, the shape reminded him of the headlights on a Cobra. By serendipity, Burgol Racing Technologie, a leading European Cobra specialist, happened to be located just down the road from Baume & Mercier’s Geneva HQ. So Peraldi inhaled the petrol fumes and translated it into details subtler than the cobra second hand, like the hour and second hands that evoke the arms of the steering wheel, subdials that evoke the cockpit dials and a vulcanised rubber strap made from the same stuff as the tyres. You half-expect the parts to be lubricated with the same engine oil.
Combined with the black and yellow livery – a famous Cobra colourway – these extras give the new version of the Capeland an injection of what Peraldi aptly calls “venom”. Or in the case of the ADLC – Amorphous Diamond-Like Carbon coating on the all-steel version, which is virtually scratch-proof, it makes it look as hard as it is. Throw in functions like the chronograph (basically a stopwatch) and tachymeter (a scale around the bezel that enables you to calculate average speed based on how many seconds it takes to travel a set distance, and is a lot less complicated than it sounds) and you have a watch that pays fitting tribute to a time in motorsports that is gone but not forgotten.
On that note, one of the guests of honour at Baume & Mercier’s Cobra meeting is retired racer Allen Grant, who unveils four ultra-limited editions (just 15 apiece) of the Capeland, each dedicated to a legendary driver: Dan Gurney, Ken Miles, Dave MacDonald and Grant himself. It’s simultaneously a celebratory and poignant moment as Grant recalls how many of his contemporaries, like Miles and MacDonald, died tragically young behind the wheel: motorsports may be much faster now, but it’s also far safer. But then nobody ever won anything by playing it safe. The 2016 Capeland Shelby Cobra watches are now available at baume-et-mercier.co.uk; prices start at £3,200.