Zenith are making the most of their 150th anniversary, and the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition is the latest celebratory piece to be revealed by the brand. Although the marketing material focuses on Zenith’s entire history, the truth is that the Zenith replica El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition pays homage to a development made 46 years ago when Zenith released the world’s first integrated chronograph calibre.
The El Primero has gone on to reach a level of reverence modern movements will hope to emulate or exceed. It is, in my mind, the definitive luxury workhorse. Many swiss replica watch aficionados will be familiar with (maybe even tired of), ETA’s family of ‘tractor’ movements, such as the 2824 base calibre or the 7750 chronograph. These are movements that function superbly well, but sometimes lack a little bit of an edge in terms of appearance. No one can fault their longevity or performance, but the Zenith El Primero matches up well in both categories while blasting the back doors of its rivals in the style stakes.
Considering the money Zenith charge for an El Primero in one of their standard chronograph models, you’re getting a really handsome calibre for your buck. With my faith in the performance and enduring aesthetic of Zenith’s most famous calibre unwavering, my first concern is always how they choose to house the movement. It is the case, dial, and message that will, in my opinion, determine the success of each watch to feature the reliable El Primero. And, in this case, how expensive the skin makes the bones…
So let’s start with the message that Zenith were trying to deliver with the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition. Last year, Zenith became the official timekeeper for five of the official motor car races organized by Peter Auto (a company, not an aptly named individual). Through their association with these prestigious races, Zenith hopes to reaffirm their three core values – authenticity, daring, and pleasure. Supposedly, this has been achieved by referencing the grit, glamour, and gut-churning speed associated with motor sports in the watch’s aesthetic. Sometimes, when brands try and attach such emotive characteristics to a watch, it works brilliantly; sometimes, it feels a bit forced. In my opinion, the Tag Heuer Monaco is a great example of the former (for a classic example, check out this article, and for an avant-garde update of the watch, have a look at this recent release).
It gets its pedigree not from snazzy design cues or hidden visual messages, rather from being there, on the wrist of icons. In the case of the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition, I would say the opposite. The idea that those three values would leap out of the dial without any prior knowledge of Zenith’s mission statement is pretty crazy. I find the explanation for the stylistic decisions made interesting and a valuable conversation piece, but that doesn’t mean I think it works in the metal.
When watches try and point your interpretation of them in a certain direction, it often feels a little conscious. There is nothing patently obvious about the Tag Heuer Monaco to suggest its motor racing heritage (it isn’t even round!). When a watch lacks the kind of authenticity Zenith claim to have installed in the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition, it has to be synthesized. And it is fair to say, however successful or otherwise you think they might have been, that Zenith have had a damn good go.
In terms of visual links to speed and daring, Zenith have decorated the right hand side of the silvered, open-heart dial, with a tricolor racing stripe in blue, white, and red. The stripe is continued onto the strap, where a ribbon of color takes over from the printed lines on the dial. I like racing stripes on cars. They are a simple way to decorate what would otherwise be a large, block-colored space. On a watch face, you don’t have so much room to play with. These three stripes, although adding a splash of patriotic color to the display, really clutter what is an already busy dial.
The color scheme is consistent, at least: the open-heart dial reveals the balance wheel and the dial-side end stone, which offers a dot of red to proceedings, and the blued screws that hold the balance display frame also tie in quite nicely. The hour and minute hands are silver with blue stripes towards the centre before lume takes over. The seconds hand is scarlet and features a skeletonized star as a counterpoise. This really turns the volume of the star-spangled banner up in my brain. It’s so in-your-face it kind of makes me smile. I actually like the way Zenith can get away with the star there because it is their default logo, but I doubt any of their designers were unaware of what it would look like. If you want to find an example of daring on this watch, maybe the thought that they’d get away with it should top the list.
I believe the aesthetics of this watch are striking, to say the least. Personally, I prefer the El Primero in a more rarefied setting, but it is not an inappropriate choice of engine for this ceremonial hot-rod of a watch. It, more than anything to do with the aesthetic, symbolizes authenticity and daring. Its creation was a seven-year labour of love that changed the chronograph game. Dressing it up in this Evel Knieval suit may be a bit crass, but its a self-assured enough calibre to take it in its stride. And to be honest, there are a few things I really like about this watch. I am a fan of the classic Zenith case shape, measuring 42mm across and 14.05mm tall.
The brushed, rhodium plated dial background is subtle and a great base on which to build a design. The guiding star logo features prominently on a nicely fluted crown. There is a tachymeter, which is an authentic link to speed and genuinely useful for someone who watches a lot of motor sport live. Even the dial layout is interesting: in addition to the chronograph sub-dials (hours at 6 o’clock, minutes at 3), there is a subtly placed running seconds hand at 9 o’clock. It may not be immediately noticeable because of the way it overlays the open heart feature, but it is there and adds to the movement of the dial, increasing, as I’m sure Zenith would like you to notice, the appearance of speed.
Its impossible to mention this watch’s links to speed without pointing out that the escapement is crafted from silicon and operates at a dizzying 36,000vph, or 5hz if you prefer. That’s fast. It’s a feature that helps improve accuracy and, thanks to the self-lubricating properties of silicon, does so without putting a huge strain on the power reserve, which sits at an impressive minimum of 50 hours. The movement, featuring a classic column wheel, is visible through a glass case back, which has been boldly decorated with Tour Auto logo, which reminded me of something you might see on a Tissot (you can see a more up-to-date example of this watch here) . Functionally, this watch is hard to fault. Stylistically, the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition is sure to divide. Love it or hate it, there is plenty to get your teeth into.
With a price tag of $11,900, this Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto Edition is not the cheapest way to get an El Primero on to your wrist. It stands to reason that a lot of these watches released this year under the 150th anniversary banner will have some residual value to brand-specific collectors, but if you’re looking for an investment piece, maybe something a little more classically styled would provide a better return. If, however, you love cars and the American flag, this could be the perfect watch for you. But if you want one, you might need to summon your inner speed demon, as Zenith have announced that only 500 will be made.