Mar/Apr 2021 edition Issue #15 AutoMobilia Resource Magazine Written by Dr. Ronald Frank with Photos by Michael Furman
A Hobby Whose Time Has Come: The Mechanical Automobile Clock (1900-1960)
The evolution of mechanical automobile clocks runs parallel or in tandem to early automotive history. The beginning of the 20th century marked the gradual extinction of the horse-drawn carriage and the rise and dominance of the internal combustion engine. The automobile industry was moving at lightning speed.
As the automobile established its rightful place in society, there was a demand for automobile accessories as a means of improving the rugged driving experience. This burgeoning accessories industry presented the automobilist with a range of extras, some of which were for utilitarian purposes and others that were purely luxury items.
Waltham panel clock for utility vehicle, New England Telephone Telegraph, 8-days/7J/KS6422. c. 1920s.
As an example, if we were to take a look at the dashboard of the Ford Model T or the Stewart instrument board, we have before us what can be considered a “blank slate.” The dash is devoid of any extravagant instrumentation and lends itself as the perfect platform to accessorize and personalize according to the needs of the driver.
The birth of the automobile clock as an accessory supplants the carriage clock or pendule d’officier. As the pace of life became more hectic and demanding, the clock became an indispensable on-board instrument to accurately monitor time for the occupants of the vehicle.
9th C.T. Silent Auction Catalog
The earliest automobile clocks were essentially simple pocket or “dollar watches” adapted with a case and bracket for dashboard installation. As demands increased, watch and clock manufacturers established dedicated divisions for specialized automotive instruments. The clock design and pricing reflected the numbers manufactured and the particular intended marque. In other words, there were many inexpensive clocks that were mass produced, while some manufacturers chose to be exclusive and cater to the most coveted marques, such as Bugatti and Duesenberg, which were rightfully fitted with more complicated higher-quality, multi-functional chronometers. Some of the most notable brands include Waltham, Elgin, New Haven, Chelsea, and Phinney Walker (U.S.A.) and Smith, Kienzle, Jaeger, Junghan, Omega, and Zenith (Europe).
A page from within the Charles Terwilliger catalog featuring spring wind automobile clocks, 1969.
Clocks came in many different designs. Most would reflect the current design of the time, e.g. Brass Era, Art Nouveau, or Art Deco. The era of mechanical automobile clocks overlapped the Art Deco period spanning the years of 1910-1939. This would explain the appearance of this influential design in the construction of a great many of these clocks. The more decorative clocks included those with Bakelite cases, enamel guilloché dials, and ornate casework with elaborate etchings.
In addition, there were combination units for clocks and speedometers. Furthermore, mechanical clocks were installed in automobiles as rearview mirror clocks, steering wheel clocks (where the pendulum winding the mainspring is triggered with the turning of the steering wheel), gearshift knob clocks, or clocks as part of the rear compartment vanity case.
Smith Motor Accessories (MA) dash clock with exquisite blue guilloché dial, c. 1930s, UK.
In the 1930s, some manufacturers started to offer electric automobile clocks, and gradually the mechanical watch would be replaced over the next 30 years. By the 1960s and 1970s the accessories business had essentially become obsolete. Many items, including automobile clocks, which had previously been available as aftermarket purchases were now fitted as standard equipment, and this effectively marked the demise of the mechanical automobile clock.
Waltham deco dash clock. Case resembles wings of Mercury; c.1920s.
The Collector’s Perspective First and foremost, the allure of collecting antique car clocks is their connection to early automotive history. Mechanical automobile clocks are attractive and appeal to automobile enthusiasts, horologists, and design aficionados. These clocks are exceptional products of the success of the machine age and are truly a form of artistic excellence. The handling of one of these heavy metal timepieces leaves one in awe and appreciation of the labor-intensive work involved in creating one of these spectacular timekeeping instruments.
Pure car clock collectors are few in number and, as a group, are a limited entity. Most people in search of car clocks seek out a special model, one that is “correct” for their particular antique automobile, as in a restoration project. Many have to rely on old automobile literature to find the clock most compatible with their vehicle. Unfortunately, very often, the information regarding the provenance is not readily available.
Phinney Walker dash clock for Hupmobile c. 1930s.
Collecting automobile clocks requires patience and a good eye. These clocks can be found in many places, ranging from yard sales to antique automobile shows, as well as antique and clock shows. Although these desirable clocks are scarce, the advent of e-commerce and online auctions have made it easier to find them in greater numbers and in more pristine condition.
Many of the vintage clocks seen in today’s market are structurally and mechanically of poor quality. The cases are often worn and pitted, and each demonstrates a unique patina. Some cases may be cracked, such as those made of pot metal, or may show evidence of rust accumulation. The dial may show cracks or crazing of the porcelain; the crystal may be cracked or chipped, or the hands and numbers may show wear and loss of paint or luminescence. The numerals may be faded or absent altogether. Some lack a crystal or a stem. The long, coiled wire stems may be bent or sheared secondary to rusting.
Jaeger multifunctional chronometer for 1930 Duesenberg.
Rearview mirror clocks often have a loss of the mirror silvering. The rubber knob of the pull-wind mirror clocks may be dried, cracked or fragmented. The clocks may be devoid of mounting brackets. The clock-speedometer combination units are rarely found intact and complete, usually missing one or more of the components. Many parts may not even be original to the item and may have gone through some “restorative rehabilitation.” Therefore, the challenge remains to find the most pristine pieces in the market.
The value of a clock depends on the usual criteria of condition, quality, and rarity. The most sought-after pieces have been known to command prices in the several-thousand-dollar range. Clocks having the original packaging materials with instruction inserts are certainly valued appreciably higher.
Phinney Walker, 36-hour pull-wind “butterscotch” Bakelite case. c. 1920s.
Many clocks can be obtained for less than a $100, though at that price they generally will have a number of flaws. In the $200 to $500 range, you can expect to find pieces that are generally acceptable both functionally and cosmetically. In the $500 to $5,000 range one can expect to find pieces that are generally NOS (new old stock). The top of the line would be represented by a clock such as the Jaeger multi-function chronometer in superb condition, which can have a value in excess of $5,000.
Waltham 8-day /15J with unique U.S. Time Zone dial.
In February of 2016, the most expensive automobile clock on record sold at auction by Artcurial auction house at the Retromobile exhibition in Paris and was acquired by the Breguet Museums. The clock, #2023 8-day mechanical Breguet, installed in the center of the steering wheel, was one of nine such timepieces manufactured for Bugatti specifically for the Type 41 Royale. Only six Royale models were ever produced. The clock, in its original box, sold for an astounding $86,000 (U.S.) including the buyer’s premium, a price clearly reflective of its rarity.
Breguet #2023, 8-day, center mount in the steering wheel for Bugatti Type 41 Royale, 1 of 9 produced. Purchased for $86,000 in 2016 at auction by Breguet Museums. Breguet.com. Photo contributed by the Breguet Museum.
The catalog for a 1969 automobile clock auction made mention of the limited information available and lack of interest at that time regarding automobile timepieces. It was astutely mentioned in that catalogue by the auction curator, Charles Terwilliger, that “there was great diversification and imagination used in the design of old automobile clocks. It goes without saying that anyone interested in them, or interested in starting a collection of them, should think about picking them up now before competition drives their prices up.” Indeed, Mr. Terwilliger deserves kudos for his prescient forecast at a time when automobile clock collecting wasn’t even a consideration.
DR Ronald Frank
Top: Waltham, 8-days, Art Deco design, in the shape of an inverted triangle attributable to the Hudson automobile, c. 1930 Lower Right: Sandoz, 8-day, mirror clock for Graham Paige motor cars. Guilloché dial with the company logo representing the three founding Graham brothers. c. 1930s.
Sandoz, 8-days, hinge mount, opalescent glass, c. 1920s
Rearview mirror clock by Standard Mirror Company, Buffalo, N.Y., decorative blue glass, c. 1930.
Waltham combination clock speedometer, model 200, 1920/1921.
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