As you might have noticed, this week HODINKEE is at the annual Copperstate 1000 vintage car rally in Arizona, and it seems like a great time to look at one of the most interesting new rally timers. The Montblanc Timewalker Rally Timer 100 is, as we noted when it was first announced, a modern re-interpretation of a vintage rally timer in the Minerva archives. Minerva is a famous name among vintage watch enthusiasts – the company was originally founded as H. C. Robert, in 1858, in Villeret, and "Minerva" started out as a sub-brand. Eventually, the company became Minerva SA, Villeret, in 1929, having gradually shifted from its beginnings as an établisseur (a company that buys and cases supplied movements) to a designer and manufacturer of movements in its own right.
Minerva was one of many companies nearly snowed under by the blizzard of increasingly inexpensive quartz watches that started to come on the market in the 1970s, and the Frey family – the last family owners of Minerva – eventually sold the business to an Italian investor named Emilio Gnutti, in 2000, who brought in a new technical team. The new owners, however, seemed to struggle to successfully bring Minerva into the spotlight for modern watch enthusiasts, and in 2006, Minerva was acquired by the Richemont Group for Montblanc, which already had a significant manufacturing capacity in nearby Le Locle. Along with manufacturing capability, came a portfolio of watch and chronograph movements, modernized variations of which Montblanc has introduced since 2006 in its Villeret collection.
The Minerva name is still alive in the term Montblanc uses for its movement development and research division in Villeret – the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie – and the factory itself is now simply referred to as the Montblanc Manufacture in Villeret.
Minerva, as we’ve mentioned, produced many dashboard instruments for use in motorsports, and particularly for rallying, but what exactly is rallying and why is keeping track of time in the car so important? Rallying, unlike other forms of racing, doesn’t take place on a circuit. Instead, rally drivers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint, often on public roads (which may or may not be closed to regular traffic). Rallying goes back to the very early 20th century, but as cars became faster and competition more keen, safety considerations made rallying largely a sport taking place off-road or on closed roads (where most of the professional action is today).
Rallying on open public roads is generally not oriented around maintaining the highest possible speed and shortest times; rather, drivers and their co-drivers try to complete each stage of the course within a specified time limit. HODINKEE founder Ben Clymer is participating again this year in the Copperstate 1,000 vintage car rally, which is held yearly in Arizona, and which benefits the Phoenix Art Museum; it’s been run every year since 1990. This is an open road vintage sports car rally covering over 1,000 miles in four days, with recording of individual times for each car – last year Ben piloted a 1962 Porsche 356 and this year, a 1960 Lancia Flaminia Sport Zagato. Last year’s event was pretty colorful (it included a complete engine swap on one car, conducted at night under pretty trying conditions, and some extreme weather) and you can follow his progress this year on HODINKEE Live.
The Montblanc Timewalker Rally Timer 100 (which is on the road with HODINKEE at the Copperstate Rally 2017) if taken on its own, looks like a pretty contemporary take on a dashboard timer. Lined up against the vintage model it’s based on, though, you can see the connection between old and new, although the Rally Timer 100 has not, thankfully, just reproduced the original model. Take the large onion-shaped crown on the vintage model – sure, Montblanc could have reproduced it in the modern version, but it would have made the Timewalker much clumsier as a wristwatch, and I think it would have seemed a little affected as well – a little bit too much Ye Olde Ralleye Tymer, if you catch my drift.
The Timewalker Rally Timer 100 does have some Timewalker family design cues but these don’t jump out at you in a jarring fashion at all. Yes, the shape of the hands is the same as other models in the Timewalker collection, but here, they seem as if they’re there to do a job, not function as overt Timewalker visual branding as such. As Montblanc’s Davide Cerrato demonstrated during his time at Tudor, he’s pretty good at quoting attractive aspects of vintage watch design in a modern context, and that same fine sense of what works and what’s not is present here as well.
This is a very large watch, at 50mm in diameter, but of course, it’s not just a watch – it’s meant to be a dashboard timer and its folding lugs allow it to be used as a desk clock as well, so 38mm would have been as silly for it, as a 50mm case would be for a tuxedo watch. The titanium case means that if you do choose to wear it on the wrist, it’s going to be light and comfortable (we found it to be) and it’s a solid choice of material from a technical standpoint as well. The choice of a pocket-watch sized movement dictates a larger diameter in any case.
The movement’s one of the very nicest, classical column wheel chronographs anyone makes right now: the Montblanc caliber M16.29, which is based on the Minerva caliber 17.29. M16.29 is really a pocket watch movement, as was 17.29 – it’s not particularly thick, at 6.30mm but at 16.29 lignes, or about 38mm in diameter, it’s obviously going to be used only in larger watches. For the Timewalker Rally Timer 100, it’s an excellent choice, however; a pocket watch monopusher, column wheel controlled, lateral clutch chronograph is exactly what you’d have found in an early-to-mid 20th century dashboard timer, and just from a pure aesthetics standpoint, it doesn’t get much better looking than this.
Probably the only thing that keeps it from being mentioned in the same breath as, say, the Lemania 2310, the Patek CH 29-535 PS, or the L951.6 (in the Lange Datograph) is its size, which means it’s never going to be found in a truly, timelessly classic wristwatch. For what it is, though, it’s stunning, and there’s really nothing else out there like it – hand-wound, column wheel, lateral clutch pocket chronograph movements aren’t exactly thick on the ground these days, so it has uniqueness going for it.
The movement, in my opinion, is what makes this such a remarkable watch. One thing I like very much about the design is that it doesn’t overplay or underplay the importance of the movement – like the hands, it seems to be there to do a job, not call attention to itself, but it’s so good it doesn’t need to blow its own horn. It’s an insider’s pleasure in a big way; and, too, it doesn’t hurt for you to have some emotional connection to the pocket watch idiom, and to understand what such movements mean in terms of the history of their use in dashboard timers.
It also helps if you have some connection to what Minerva used to mean to the watch enthusiast community. I’m old enough to remember when Minerva watches like the Pythagore were a big deal on enthusiast watch forums, in the 1990s, and there was a great deal of affection for what they represented – the last flicker of charm from a very old, family owned business, where for better or worse, things were being done the old fashioned way.
"There is something very human about the watches made by Minerva at that time. When we reflect on the head watchmaker still working part-time well into his 70s, the beautiful French girl fitting and adjusting hairsprings by hand … the shortcomings in execution are poignant signs of the last days of a long-held family business."
John Davis, The Minerva Pythagore, Review For ThePurists.com, 2002
That the Pythagore was never quite the finished to the highest standard mattered less than that it was a conduit to a way of doing things that was really sputtering out, and which doesn’t exist anymore, because it’s just unsustainable. But seeing the caliber M16.29 and having it on the wrist is delightful not just because of my own personal memories, but because it represents both a survival of those traditions and connection with a decades-vanished aspect of Swiss watchmaking culture.
In 2002, watchmaker John Davis, writing for ThePurists.com, wrote, in a review of the Pythagore, "There is something very human about the watches made by Minerva at that time. When we reflect on the head watchmaker still working part-time well into his 70s, the beautiful French girl fitting and adjusting hairsprings by hand, the two full-time watchmakers and the local women and men who would come in part time to mind the machines or assemble movements, the shortcomings in execution are poignant signs of the last days of a long-held family business."
Say what you like about a pen company in the watch business, I’m pleased as punch Montblanc and Richemont put the necessary cash into not just keeping Minerva alive, but making it an essential part of Montblanc’s watchmaking lineup – and that they’ve kept the name alive. In an industry, and with clients, who struggle to remember the past, I think Montblanc’s treated the Minerva heritage with great care and respect and I give them a lot of credit for it.
The Montblanc Timewalker Rally Timer 100: Case, 50mm x 15.20mm, brushed titanium with conversion system allowing use as a wristwatch, dashboard clock/chronograph, or desk clock. 30m water resistance. Movement, Montblanc caliber M16.29, approx. 38mm x 6.30mm; 18,000 vph, lateral clutch, column wheel controlled, monopusher chronograph with 50 hour power reserve. Limited edition of 100 pieces; price, €38,000, or about $40,517 at the time of publication. Read more about Montblanc Villeret right here.