As a watchmaker and a classic car enthusiast, there are few opportunities that unite my passions so perfectly as a good old-fashioned day at the races. The smoke, the roar of four-stroke engines and the smell of oil against a backdrop of pre-war cars make it very easy to forget which decade you’re in. Add that to a few perfectly-placed vintage chronographs and greasy race overalls and I’m a woman in my element.
The relationship between watches and cars runs far deeper than co-branded collaborations and joint marketing opportunities. At its heart lies a mutual love of mechanical engineering. At its purest form, it demonstrates an appreciation of heritage skills, traditional craftsmanship, character, and style. In terms of a devout appreciation of heritage automotive engineering, there are few more passionate about preserving the past than the members of the Vintage Sports-Car Club (VSCC).
Founded in 1934, the VSCC has become a forum for collectors and enthusiasts to celebrate cars made before the Second World War. Their races, tours and trials are as much a social event as they are a competition. The atmosphere is quintessentially British with a true sense of camaraderie between competitors; it would be hard to imagine F1 racing teams sharing a flask of tea and a good chat before a race.
The VSCC ran its first hill climb at Prescott, a picturesque village near Cheltenham, in 1938 and the course is the home to the Bugatti Owners Club. I joined them for the Long Hill Course, climbing 200 metres over the winding track’s 1,127 yards, the circuit puts the very best of pre-1939 cars to the test.
Vintage watch and car enthusiasts alike share a passion for beautifully crafted machines along with their care and maintenance. It’s about fun over practicality. This appreciation of old-school, back-to-basics, well-made objects, capable of being used and restored for decades after their creation, is clear when you meet members of the VSCC’s racing teams. While modern cars serve a valuable purpose, very few of the vehicles leaving factories around the world today will still be on the road in a century, just as very few modern quartz watches, invaluable though their contribution may be, will be running and on people’s wrists for a hundred years to come.
It was this shared passion that captured the attention of one of the VSCC’s most notable late members – Dr George Daniels CBE. While the horological world knows him as one of the greatest watchmakers of the 20th century, the world of vintage motor racing respected him as a master on the track. In 1988, Daniels travelled to the Nürburgring in Germany to pit a Bentley YU 3250 against the best of Mercedes vintage engineering. He annihilated the competition, prompting the group leader to complain that the race had been unfair, as Daniels was a “professional” driver.
He had been introduced to the Club by close friend and fellow antiquarian horologist Sam Clutton, who had been a president of the VSCC between 1954 and 1957. Daniels once said that as a young watchmaker he had few friends, but as soon as he bought a Bentley he found he had a hundred. More importantly for his future career as a master watchmaker, these friends also happened to be an affluent audience with an inherent appreciation for fine craftsmanship. Clutton would buy two of the 37 watches Daniels created during his lifetime, including the very first watch he made. It was through the Club that Daniels also went on to meet his wife, Julie Marryat, a fellow racing driver.
Vintage car racing requires the same skills for tuning and refining as developing new mechanical watch movements, with the intention that the machine you are creating will run better than when it was first conceived. Daniels’ background in restoration and love of antiquarian horology provided him with an exceptional reference point to build on. This philosophy was integral to the approach of Daniels, who admired the work of Breguet but was never simply satisfied with recreating his achievements. Daniels wanted to build on the foundations laid by the great masters of watchmaking. By using 20th-century equipment and a more modern understanding of engineering, he refined and improved on what had already been, finally presenting his own contribution with the invention of the Co-axial escapement.
Built to Last
The approach Daniels had to watchmaking is similar to that applied to the racing cars of the VSCC. These treasured pieces of our automotive history are very much working machines. Purism towards originality is variable, but a passion to build on and refine the original design is universal. These cars hail from an era when things were built to last, so the ability to repair and maintain them was integral to their design, just as it was to Daniels. It is unsurprising that the appreciation was mutual and Daniels became a much-loved member of the Club, with several members going on to become his clients.
His cars included the 1908 Grand Prix Itala – which he bought from Clutton – the sole surviving car from the French Grand Prix that year. Daniels became somewhat of a Club hero when, in his late-70s, he braved a blizzard and drove the car all the way to Paris to compete in a race. Other firm favourites from his collection included a 1907 Daimler Tourer first built for the Earl of Craven and Sir Henry Birkin’s 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300.
Of all his cars, Daniels was best known for his Bentleys, with his standout car being his 1930 Bentley 4½-litre supercharged single-seater – another car driven by Birkin, who set a Brooklands record at more than 137 mph back in 1931. Alongside his Blower, he raced a 1954 Bentley R-Type Continental Fastback and a 1929 4½-litre Bentley Tourer by Vanden Plas which once belonged to the Maharaja of Bhavnagar.
Daniels’ obituary in the VSCC Bulletin describes him as a “supreme mechanical artist. A 21st-century Leonardo da Vinci of the mechanical world”. A fitting tribute to one of our most celebrated watchmakers and vintage motor car enthusiasts. The tribute closes, as I will: “It simply remains to say, as George always did, ‘Here’s to us and all we stand for’.”
A Note from Dr Struthers:
I would like to thank the VSCC members and librarians for their support in illustrating and researching this piece.