Wei Koh spends some quality time with Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange & Söhne at the Hampton Court Concours d’Elegance and rediscovers the importance of permanence in an age of guaranteed obsolescence.
In 1896 Henri Mazel applied the term la synergie sociale in his argument against Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which he felt did not take into consideration “social love,” or the capacity for two human beings to, together become greater than the sum of their individuality. Anyone seeking proof of Mazel’s definition for social synergy need only look at the relationship between Wilhelm Schmid the CEO of A. Lange & Söhne and his wife Yvonne.
Because it is not every spouse that shares your passion for vintage automobiles so sincerely that she will accompany you in an open-top AC Bristol, navigating flawlessly in the middle of the bone chilling British rain. Yvonne Schmid laughs about this as she recalls the rally besieged by rain and cold, in the days leading up to the Concours d’Elegance at Hampton Court, a royal seat once occupied by Henry the 8th.
And while that British monarch was made infamous for beheading his ex-wives as an extreme alternative to divorce, which was forbidden by the Catholic Church, Schmid and his charming spouse effortlessly militate against their locale’s colorful past by together making what is a truly exemplary showcase for teamwork.
Yvonne Schmid explains, “It’s part of vintage car culture. When it starts to rain you just turn up your collar or put on your goggles and continue. It’s part of the charm of a vintage rally.” She says this seated beside me in Kew Gardens, during the unveiling of the Little Lange 1 Moon Phase “25th anniversary” a gem of a watch that though positioned towards the woman’s market — with the charm of its reduced size and small complication — would also make a great discrete gentlemen’s timepiece.
When I ask her how she met her husband, a man who has become my good friend and one of the individuals I admire most in the watch industry — in particular for his ethics and gentility — she says, “He was very persistent. He was working for Castrol at the time. While I was studying, and to pay for school I would work as a hostess at the Castrol stand during trade shows.
“Now, there was a very strict rule against fraternizing between employees but Wilhelm was always passing by for a conversation and I found him both very kind and charming. I remember once I was going to Hamburg and was looking for a place to stay. He was not in town but he offered me his apartment. When I arrived, he had arranged everything so thoughtfully, I could feel what a considerate person he was even though he wasn’t there.”
And that as Henri Mazel would explain, would become the flashpoint that would set the Schmids on their course. Says Yvonne, “Since he was a young man, he has had two loves, watches and vintage cars.”
“Do I see a synergy between the two?” asks Wilhelm Schmid. “Absolutely. Both are technology that from a modern perspective is charmingly anachronistic. Today cars are fully electric and almost drive themselves. Today, time is given to you by every electronic device. And at the same time these objects lack soul. They lack spirit, emotion and identity.
“Whereas, if you look at the movement of the Datograph with its incredible chronograph train, or at the Zeitwerk and think about how a constant force mechanism is building up energy for each jump of the minute — it is so fascinating. If you lift the hood of a car like my Bristol and see how the carburetors feed the perfect mixture of oxygen and fuel to the motor, this is similarly intoxicating.
“Mechanical watches and vintage cars are about emotion. They are micro universes of mechanical engineering and design that together create a kind of magic. They are also similar in that they take education and practice to master. You need to learn how to assemble a complex watch like a Triple Split, which has a split indication for seconds, minute and hours. In the same way you have to learn to master the mechanics in a completely mechanical car, and in some instances, you even have to learn how to start one of these cars the right way.
“When I have my Bristol unloaded, I always tell the person in charge at the shows not to start the car because there is a very specific sequence involving priming the carburetors.
“This trip someone tried to start my Bristol and he couldn’t. He said to me ‘It won’t start.’ I went to the car, performed the right sequence and it started immediately. Because I know my car it is an extension of me. In the same way my Zeitwerk Date is an expression of my identity.”
Since 2012, A. Lange & Söhne has been the key sponsor to the Concourse d’Elegance, the world’s preeminent vintage car competition, in which the rarest and most mythical automobiles are restored by their owners to condition far beyond factory-new — with a slavish devotion to detail easily crossing the threshold into obsessive compulsion. The fact that this is such a successful and truly synergistic — there’s that word again — partnership, has everything to do with Schmid’s genuine and unbridled affection for vintage automobiles.
I first learned of this two years ago when I drove in a vintage rally from Munich to Lake Como where the legendary Concourse d’Elegance at Villa d’Este is held, in the company of several highly amusing German gentlemen including, of course, Schmid, my dear friend Alexander Kraft and vintage car expert and Villa d’Este judge J.P. Rathgen.
During the heady opiatic and genuinely bucolic, combustion engine driven sojourn that took us through the Swiss Alps, I discovered several things innate to the German perspective. The first is that in Germany, Porsche drivers have the image of being your provincial town’s most successful dentist, who erroneously fancies himself something of a weekend rally legend.
I believe the Italian equivalent for this would be the “Burrino” which literally means the butter maker or an agrarian based self-appointed expert on urban sophistication. To learn more about this term, click here.
The second thing is that all Germans hate traffic and it drives them to fits of near apoplection. And the third is that when they need to, they can drive very very very fast, something I discovered when Schmid and I were compelled to skip the last sector of the rally and head directly to Villa d’Este for him to welcome some Asian guests that had arrived considerably before schedule.
I had to marvel at the way he skillfully piloted his near half century old car, seemingly symbiotically connected with the vehicle, heel toeing on the ancient pedals as he down shifted for bends. I recall him saying, “If you think about it the design freedom related to cars and to watches is incredible.
“For a car you simply need to connect four wheels with a motor and a chassis but look at the incredible expressionism you see in the huge variety of shapes and designs in cars. Same thing with watches, you essentially have the integration of a (usually) round case, dial and set of hands. Yet, there is a seemingly endless variety of designs.
“For Lange, we’ve always expressed an utterly unique East German sensibility, which is about function and the best finish. Yet I think we can agree that the designs are also totally original and quite devastatingly beautiful.”
As a result of the brand’s association with the vintage car world, Schmid has single handedly transformed Lange’s events into some of the hottest tickets on the social calendar. He smiles when he says, “When I took over the company, we had an official partnership with the Salzburg music festival, which incidentally, Wei I notice you never came to.
“To me, we had to associate ourselves with a world that was more appealing, more mechanical, more technical and one that brought together different generations of passionate collectors. It was clear to me that this should be the Concourse d’Elegance.”
2019 marks the second year of partnership between A. Lange & Söhne and the oh so very British Concourse d’Elegance at Hampton Court. This competition differs from others in that rather than being judged by a jury of experts it is the owners of the cars that decide, which is the best in show and in each individual category.
As a competitor with his AC Bristol, Schmid is therefore able to cast his vote and his goes to a stunning blue Frazer Nash Targa Florio from the mid ‘50s. This choice also demonstrates Schmid’s insight into vintage car collecting as there were only 14 examples of the Targa Florio made to compete in endurance races such as the Sebring 12 Hours. These cars used parallel tube frames, lightweight alloy bodies and highly tuned 6-cylinder engines, good for 120 horsepower. It is a connoisseur’s car.
Says Schmid, “I love that these events are simultaneously world renowned and somehow wonderfully intimate. You can stroll around and look at every one of the cars in competition in an hour. And it is wonderful to have a vintage car competition where the patron is Prince Michael of Kent.”
As he says this, we watch the individual many consider the most stylish man alive and the patron of the Hampton Court Concourse d’Elegance, stroll in a stately manner across the lawn accompanied by his entourage.
He stops in front of a Rolls Royce made for a Maharaj outfitted with shotguns, presumably for shooting tigers, should the need arise. Says Schmid, “The thing to understand is that everything is changing so rapidly in the world. Objects are all built with a guaranteed obsolescence. And this creates a sort of unease in the soul. But when you walk around, or better yet get in and drive an older car, one which has no electronic aids of any kind, you feel reconnected with perenniality.
“It’s the same thing when you strap on your Lange timepiece. Look at the Lange 1 or the Datograph, these watches celebrate their 25th anniversary this year and they are more relevant than ever.” It dawns on me in this environment of amazing vintage machines that the message is clear, to don a Lange, really any Lange from a Pour le Mérite Tourbillon to a Lange 1, the experience fulfills you in a way that dispels the neurosis of temporal impermanence the 21st century is awash with, and connects you with eternity. And this in the theory of Henri Mazel is two entities empowering each other, one human and one mechanical to be greater than the sum of their parts.