Watch manufacturers are always keen to find ways of showing what their timepieces can do. In the 1950s, Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex and its sibling brand Tudor (so called because Wilsdorf loved Great Britain), was keen to show off his patents, such as the Oyster swimproof case, and the ‘rotor’ self-winding mechanism designed to withstand vibrations and shocks.
While Rolex was assigned to Everest mountaineers, the Tudor Oyster Prince watch was put to the test on the wrists of an eclectic bunch: the Royal Navy expedition members that spent two years under the ice in the Arctic or the riveters working on the construction of New York’s skyscrapers, and even stonecutters who were operating pneumatic drills for 30 hours at a stretch. The idea was to demonstrate that Tudor watches were made to survive extreme conditions.
In a happy coincidence, in 1955, an entrant in the 1,000-mile Monaco International Trophy for motorcycles – a kind of Monte Carlo rally for motorcyclists – chose to wear the Tudor Oyster Prince on his ride. This really was a test – the trip pitted the timepiece against merciless vibration, dust and rain, with no real stops apart from at ferry and border crossings.
The rider was an accomplished competitor in the field of international rallying, and completed the course on an Ariel KH 500cc twin, a luxury tourer of the day, capable of doing 90mph. Having finished the challenge, he approached Tudor with his story and Wilsdorf embraced it as part of his promotional narrative, even creating an advertisement about the achievement.
This illustrated ad, with its evocative image of a daring, goggle-wearing motorcyclist haring around a mountain road, caught the eye of Sven Olsen, Tudor’s UK general manager. He came across this story in the Tudor archive and, he explains, it struck a chord. Olsen happens to be a keen motorcycle enthusiast whose everyday ride is a vintage Triumph Trident. And when he heard that there was a new 1,000-mile bike rally launching in the UK – The Great Mile – he had an idea: why not recreate the 1955 test, but with contemporary Tudor watches?
Taking place at the end of August 2017, the 72-hour rally saw classic, classic-style, custom and café racer motorcycles ride from The Castle of Mey in Scotland to the southern tip of Cornwall. Olsen invited two friends to join team Tudor and all took part on vintage-style machines. And, of course, they all wore current Tudor watch models.
‘I wore the Tudor Black Bay Chronograph on a denim strap,’ says motoring journalist Hugh Francis Anderson, who was one of Tudor’s riders. ‘At first I questioned the denim, uncertain of its suitability with the Chronograph, but once on my wrist I fell for it immediately.
As for the journey, Olsen says: ‘It was like doing an intense Duke of Edinburgh’s Award challenge. I wasn’t on a modern bike and when you’re doing that distance, on A and B roads, in kit that is 40 years old, it’s tough.’
Anderson agrees: ‘It was incredibly tough, mainly due to the vast amount of riding done per day. I initially thought it would be up to five or six hours, but we easily rode between eight and 10 hours a day, which is tough enough on an endurance bike, let alone a café racer or a vintage machine.’
The ride was organised by Malle, a firm that makes biker gear and accessories, and, Olsen says, it attracted a large crowd of participants on all manner of beautiful machines, many of them vintage. ‘There were Laverdas, an exotic Ducati Paul Smart replica, some awesome BMWs and several old British bikes – Triumphs, Nortons and Broughs.
The Tudor team had their bikes driven up from London on a truck and then flew up by plane to the start of the ride. ‘We met at The Castle of Mey, which belonged to the Queen Mother,’ explains Olsen. It is the most northerly inhabited castle in mainland Britain. ‘They were very kind to us there and made us feel very welcome. The grounds there are great and we set off along a beautiful tree-lined road, then nailed it through the Highlands all the way down to Glencoe, where we spent the night in bell tents.
‘Perhaps the finest moment was riding through Glencoe as the sun burned the early-morning mist off the surrounding mountains,’ says Anderson. ‘It was cold and bleak, but immensely beautiful.’
Over the next two days the riders headed down through the Lake District, took in the Snowdonia National Park, and then through the Brecon Beacons to Bristol and down to Lizard Point in Cornwall. The weather alternated from fine to showery and, as you would expect, breakdowns were a problem. Olsen explains that many of the bikes on the road were probably not used to doing more than a couple of hundred miles a year, never mind 1,000 miles over 72 hours.
‘We had breakdowns, of course, but if you have problems, you find solutions. There were two support trucks with a brilliant mechanic who could work on everything from the most modern racing Ducati to a 1972 Norton Commando,’ says Olsen. ‘You name it, he could fix it. One minute he had his laptop out, plugged into a modern motorbike, the next he’d be borrowing my imperial spanners. His knowledge was astonishing.
Olsen was on his 43-year-old 750cc Triumph Trident, which, remarkably, can do 125mph, though no one was racing on the ride, just completing timed sections. He wore the direct descendant of the Tudor Oyster Prince, the Black Bay 41, which to this day still carries the words ‘Rotor Self-Winding’ on the dial.
‘It was hard,’ he recalls. ‘Everybody found it hard. We were quite surprised. It doesn’t sound much – you could drive 1,000 miles in a car in a day, to get to the South of France, for example. But doing it on old bikes really does test man and metal.’
And the watches? Did they perform well? ‘Without a shadow of a doubt,’ says Anderson. ‘Many of the Tudor timepieces of old were celebrated for their reliability in the face of toughness, and the new models are no exception. They have a ruggedness to them that meant they came through the ride perfectly.’