Zenith is one of those brands you can hardly go wrong with. Whether it is vintage or a watch from their modern collection, there is plenty to choose from. How come? Simple. The El Primero movement. It was one of the first automatic chronograph movements on the market in 1969. A strong competition was going on back in the day between Seiko, Zenith and a joint-venture of Breitling, Büren and Heuer. All three companies came up with a new self-winding chronograph movement. More than 50 years later, the Zenith El Primero is the last one standing from those three ‘firsts’. The Zenith El Primero movement is still in production and also being used in the new Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up watch.
That’s a strange name indeed. You have to know that the name of this watch was different when it was introduced in Basel, earlier this year. Zenith introduced it as the Pilot “Café Racer” but renamed it later on to Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up.
The “café racer” is basically a stripped motorcycle to drop all the unnecessary weight and parts to gain speed. It is based on this culture by rockers, showing off their fast motorcycles during gatherings and meetings. The goal of these racers was to reach 100 miles per hour (160km/h). Starting at a café, race to a specific location and come back to the starting place. If possible, before a single rock song could play on the Wurlitzer. Ton-up simply refers to the 100 miles an hour, that a café racer had to be able to accomplish (at least).
The Zenith Pilot Watch is based on a watch from their heritage. And perhaps I should not be analyzing these kind of things too much, but there is little association between a pilot’s watch and café racers or ‘ton-ups’. I should take it as it is I guess, and just accept the fact that they took a pilot’s watch as a basis for a watch to commemorate this motorcycle culture. In the end, you could say that some of these ton-ups are pilots as well.
Enough with all the background information. We want to look at the watch. The Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up is – by design – a true pilot’s watch. Large case diameter of 45mm and a very readable dial, with large Arabic numerals. Another typical pilot’s watch feature are those big and luminous hands. One of the most important requirements for a pilot’s watch was the crown. It should be large, easy to grasp with your gloves on. Zenith managed to do all these things correctly. And in style. Aside from the Ton-up referral, this watch is well-designed and well built. Whether you like the link Zenith makes with a certain lifestyle or not, this watch is difficult to be negative about. Great design, clear use of Zenith’s heritage and – of course – the engine that never stops.
As you can see this Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up has a two register chronograph lay-out. A small seconds dial at 9 o’clock and a chronograph minutes counter at 3 o’clock. As you are probably aware, the ‘original’ El Primero movement has a three register dial lay-out, with sub dials at 3, 9 and 6 o’clock. The classic chronograph lay-out that is loved by many. So, is this an entirely new developed movement? No, it is definitely based on the original El Primero movement and if you look at the blue prints that are shown on the Zenith website for each model, they are very similar in design and construction. That is also the power of the El Primero, that Zenith was so keen on to tell us during our visit to the manufacture in 2014.
As you can tell from the photos we took of the watch, the Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up also lacks a date. This, and having two instead of three sub dials makes a difference of about 72 parts in the movement. This is, caliber 4069 of the Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up compared to the more classic design Zenith El Primero caliber 400B movement. The specifications of the movement (dimensions, high-beat 36000vph and a power reserve of 50 hours) remains the same. Action on the pushers feels awesome as always with these column-wheel El Primero movements.
As Zenith calls it, the stainless steel case is ‘aged’. It gives the Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up this vintage look & feel to it. Like the bronze Oris Carl Brashear that I reviewed yesterday, the material (stainless steel in this case) has this small layer on top of it. Call it patina, or whatever Zenith did to it, but it gives the watch this used and worn look. In a good way, that is. You will also come across this appearance on the metal parts of engines.
With a diameter of 45mm, the thickness of the case is ‘just’ 14.25mm. This used to be quite thick, but for modern standards I would say it is quite modest. Especially for a big watch like this Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up with huge crown and big pushers.
The crown and pushers are done very nicely and have this ribbed structure to it. Again it reminds me of engine parts, from a plane, car or motorcycle. These parts also underwent this ‘aging’ so it matches perfectly with the case. The lugs of the watch are bend downwards rather steeply, but this will ensure that you will get away with a 45mm case rather easy.
The caseback of the Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up is made of titanium. Light-weight and strong material, that will take away some of the heaviness of a large watch like this. The watch we have here has the original engraving, as it was during the introduction of the watch bearing the old name. The beautiful engraving shows a café racer and the Zenith shield. In the bezel of the caseback a couple of numbers are engraved like the reference and the serial number.
Would I rather have been able to look at the movement? It is no secret that I am not a fan of showing all movements for the sake of it, without wanting to sound like a watch snob. I don’t care much about a standard off-the-shelf ETA or Sellita movement, I believe they are workhorses. But this El Primero is something different. I always love to take a look at those. Perhaps an engraved caseback with a hinge would be perfect, allowing me to admire the movement whenever I want, without having to lose this beautiful work of art on the back.
I already mentioned the dial and hands before, but I can’t stress enough that it is really done well. The color scheme as well as the shape of the hands, it all matches up. The dial has this slate-grey tone with a grained pattern and the Arabic hour markers are printed with this Super-LumiNova material in a nice beige color. It gives the watch this vintage look, for sure. Where I am not much in favor of that typical orange-like color that some brands use to create faux-patina, Zenith did it more modest (and fitting) with this beige tint. The same SL has been used for the hands of the watch. “Pilot” is printed in an orange tone right above the 6 o’clock marker. Between quotes as the name is protected by another brand.
The minute track is printed in a color that matches the rest of the printing perfectly, with a bit of orange every ‘5 minutes’. The minute and second hand are long enough, so they perfectly use the outside track.
A vintage looking strap, with stitches matching the dial colors, is delivered with this Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up. Zenith used this green oily nubuck leather strap which has a rubber lining. This lining extends the life of the strap drastically, as sweat and moisture will eventually destruct your leather strap. The rubber lining will prevent this from happening. Attached to the strap is a titanium pin buckle, to keep your Zenith in place.
This watch is not a limited edition, but I wonder if you are going to see it very often. It is a timepiece that you need to ‘dare’ wearing in my opinion. Certainly not for everyone, but Zenith has enough other watches to keep you occupied. This Zenith Heritage Pilot Ton-up reference 11.2430.4069/21.C773 has a list price of €7500 Euro, including taxes.
For this, you will get a very well designed and constructed chronograph watch with pilot watch roots and a wink to the café racer culture. Even though Zenith risks that some of the target audience rather invest their money in their bikes, it is a very interesting and cool tribute to this motorcycle culture.
More information via www.zenith-watches.com
The image of the BMW café racer was used from Kevils Speedshop, they have an amazing selection of Cafe Racers, Scramblers, Trackers, Brats and Bobbers.
Ever since he was a young child, Robert-Jan was drawn to watches, even though it were digital Casio and quartz Swatch models at the time. In the mid-1990s, his interest increased when he started to read about mechanical watches in... read more