Jay Leno: Why a luxury watch is like a fine automobile -- and vice versa

Story highlights

  • Jay Leno is a comedian and TV host, as well as an avid car and watch collector
  • Here, he explains his ongoing fascination with the mechanical -- both on the road and on his wrist

This is an edited excerpt from a new book called "Drive Time: Watches Inspired by Automobiles, Motorcycles and Racing" published by Rizzoli.

(CNN)Mechanical watches and automobiles have a lot in common.

A contemporary twin clutch paddle-shift transmission might be faster than a conventional manual gearbox, but I don't think it's more satisfying to drive.
    An electronic watch might keep time to the hundredth of a second, but that's nowhere near as rewarding as that quiet moment when you wind the crown on a mechanical watch each evening before you go to bed.
    You either get it or you don't.
    It's very satisfying to double-clutch a non-synchronized manual gearbox on a Mercer, a Bugatti, or a Bentley, or quickly operate a gated shifter on a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, or Porsche. I enjoy the mechanicalness. It's that simple.
    Here's why: When a battery goes dead on a digital watch, I think, "Oh, now I have to go somewhere and find a place that has this particular battery for my watch."
    What if I'm on the road and I can't get to the store? Whereas, with my mechanical watches, all I do is turn the little thumbwheel, and it's back up. (If it's a Rolex, simple motion is all it takes.)
    I've never tried to take apart and reassemble a watch the way I might work on a car engine or a carburettor, but I admire one guy who could: Rollie Free.

    The ultimate in precision

    On a Vincent Black Lightning in 1948 at Bonneville, he reached 147 miles per hour. Then he had an idea: To go even faster, he took off his leathers and rode in a prone position with his weight over the back wheel -- wearing just a bathing suit and sneakers.
    He hit 150.313 mph, setting an American motorcycle land-speed record.
    But Free was not only a great motorcycle mechanic and rider; he was also a watchmaker and repairer. I have all his tools, and it's really impressive to open the toolbox and see all those intricate little pieces.
    Rollie was the epitome of the connection between going fast and telling time: He could expertly tune his Vincent Black Lightning, a 1,000cc motorcycle with relatively large pistons -- yet he could also work on the gnat-sized pieces of a fine watch.
    That's what made his motorcycles go so fast. He could tune them perfectly because he understood precision parts and knew how to work with tiny pieces.
    Car designer Carroll Shelby with the three Shelby Cobra roadsters that would win the 1963 USRRC Manufacturer's Championship. The brand worked with David Yurman to produce a black rubber-coated steel chronograph with the Shelby double racing stripe on the dial.

    A patient art form

    Mechanical devices are just inherently fascinating. People who know nothing about fine mechanical watches can still see their quality. An electronic watch with a flashing digital light? Please.
    Anyone who turns over a mechanical watch, especially one with a visible movement, will gaze at it for 10, 15, even 30 seconds because it resonates quality and reflects the effort that went into making it.
    My first fine watch was a Jaeger-LeCoultre; I still have it. And my first real watch was a Seiko sports watch with three dials: one with the time, one with seconds, and the other with minutes. I'd use it to time my act when I was starting out. I still wear that watch. If you watch "Jay Leno's Garage," you'll see it on my wrist. It's got to be 30 years old, and I've had to service it only once.
    Overall, I've got probably 100 watches. Like automobiles, paintings, even buildings, the first thing you notice with a watch is how it looks. Are the numbers cool? Is the typeface interesting?
    Another good sign is a second hand that moves chronometrically -- click, click, click -- like the five-inch Smith's speedometer on a Vincent Black Shadow. That says quality, and it's why so many watches now copy the dashboards of famous automobiles.
    Watchmaking seems to be a lost art, perhaps because it's a very patient art.
    It goes back centuries, after all. I have a chain-drive pocket watch from the 1700s. One day I dropped it, and the tiny chain broke. To find someone nowadays who can fix that chain and make a new link . . . it's crazy how hard that is. To think that the watch was made without computers or any of the sophisticated instruments we have now, it's incredible.
    I could (like a mechanical watch) go on and on. I love them, the same way I love any fine mechanical device.
    This is an edited excerpt from a new book called "Drive Time: Watches Inspired by Automobiles, Motorcycles and Racing" published by Rizzoli.