The California Mille is an enthusiast driving event inspired (and licensed) by the Italian Mille Miglia car rally series. For 2022, during the 31st installment, 57 pre-1957 sports cars drove 1,000 miles exploring scenic routes in California. This year, the convoy of beautiful, temperamental, “important,” valuable, characterful, and well-maintained vehicles started out from Hollywood, California, and began a several-day journey through some of my state’s most beautiful driving locales. Swiss watch brand Chopard has been a multiple-year sponsor of the California Mille, with a long history of being the official watchmaker of the original Mille Miglia event. Joining them for a segment of the 2022 California Mille event, I was able to spend a whole day driving in a 1957 Porsche 356 with acclaimed driver and friend of Chopard, Mr. Patrick Long.
Vintage car rallies are a strange cultural experience for people who aren’t intimately familiar with the unique visceral pleasure you can get from driving one of these old cars. From the outside, the entire pursuit seems quixotic. A few scores of wealthy automotive enthusiasts first purchase and restore, then maintain and learn how to drive now-antique cars that were never meant for much practicality or versatility, in the first place. Those owners then transport the precious automobiles to California while driving them for a week and praying nothing too expensive breaks in the process.
Species of car collectors are as varied as species of watch collectors. America has a particularly avid group of enthusiasts who purchase rare older cars and then get together with like-minded people to display or drive them. There are few other places on earth with this number of participating owners who can dedicate the resources to the vehicles and spare the time to carefully drive them at special events. They most definitely have their analog in the vintage watch-lover community.
Like some vintage watches, many of the better-regarded pre-1960 sports cars have skyrocketed in value over the last several years, mainly because of asset traders entering a once collector-dense space. There are still plenty of cars for lower-budget enthusiasts to buy, but the big-name lots are all very valuable assets, these days. That means many of the cars that run in the California Mille cost several hundred thousand dollars just to acquire in the first place (let alone operate and maintain). The cars are beautiful and their historical significance is often self-evident, but why do these particular car people go crazy for such high-maintenance lane maidens? To answer this question, I asked a number of the participants to share their thoughts.
If you listen to vintage car enthusiasts speak socially, especially those who actually drive their cars, their conversations typically gravitate to mechanical troubleshooting. Stories about current and past mishaps and near-misses dominate dialogs. There seems to be a rather widespread belief that these 75 to over 100-year-old cars can operate well if only they are babied enough. The reality is that the fun of driving these antique autos is their unpredictability, relative danger, retro flair, and sense of nostalgia, and they offer a more direct driving experience than other types of cars. The same road that would be thrilling in a 1950s Porsche might be relatively tepid in a 2020s Prius. Wires and crumple zones might make cars more convenient and safe, but they also remove the rider from the road. So, to have more fun while driving, one solution is to drive a more primitive car and do so with a support group that can lend a hand if your engine gives out and you have no idea what to do about it. This is why private car rallies like the California Mille are popular.
The typical automobile in the Mille Miglia is 1950s sports cars or pre-World War II exotics like French-built coach cars. German cars, such as Mercedes Benz and Porsche, are quite popular, as are British roadsters such as Austin Healey, Jaguar, and Aston Martin. You’ll also see a fair number of Italian names like Ferrari and Lancia. Nearly all of the cars are beauty pageant candidates on their own, and together they are like a traveling museum performing for crowds to admire and drivers to experience sensations entirely unavailable in today’s production automobiles.
In addition to being a serious car enthusiast event, the California Mille is an escapist’s vacation, where participants are whisked away to elegant venues while basking in their primary hobby. Often second or tertiary hobbies include wristwatches, which is why it makes so much sense for a brand like Chopard to participate. It isn’t merely a marketing relationship. The Scheufele family that controls Chopard is among the patrons of vintage automotive appreciation and restoration. An intimate understanding of the mindset of the people who attend events like the Mille Miglia or California Mille is what allows a family-run company like Chopard to warmly embrace the support of the club of members who participate in the California Mille.
For 2022, Chopard produced a new limited-edition set of 31 watches to honor this latest running of the California Mille. The watch is based on the legacy Mille Miglia GTS platform and is known as the Chopard Mille Miglia GTS Automatic Chrono California Mille 31st Edition. Chopard will, in due course, entirely update its Mille Miglia and Classic Racing watch collections, but this family of watches is still attractive and aging gracefully. The big racing-inspired sports watch here has a 44mm-wide polished steel case that is water resistant to 100 meters. The prominent proportions of the case give it a lot of personality. The dial is extremely legible with a face that is mostly perlage polishing in style. While this is, indeed, a decorative technique applied to watch movements, this polishing is also common on the metal dashboards of some vintage automobiles. The watch contains a high-grade version of the Swiss Made ETA Valjoux 7750 automatic movement, which unfortunately is not visible through the caseback, but it is COSC Chronometer-certified.
While the Mille Miglia GTS is an aging platform, it is still handsome and has merit today as a daily wear for car lovers or an appropriately themed timepiece to wear to vehicular-interest events. Few such products are as classy as those coming from Chopard, a brand that always tries to combine tool watch functionality with jewelry appeal. Attached to the case is a textured rubber strap that is handsome but a bit on the thick side. I’m partial to this watch on steel bracelets (which are available) or NATO-style racing straps (which are fun). To connect the watch with the California Mille event, a small event logo has been placed on the dial. While not vividly original in the watch enthusiast sense, the California Mille 31st Edition watch has proven popular with its intended audience — a group that legitimately cares as much about their watch game as they do their car game (well, almost as much). Price for the watch is $7,72o USD.
Day 1 of the California Mille was my first time attending the event, as it was for the driver of my ride, Patrick Long. In going with the vintage theme, we are given paper instructions on how to follow the day’s course, which is nearly 250 miles. Easily the longest day and a real stretch for some of these cars, and there’s potential fatigue just from sitting in them. As the navigator, it was my job to follow along with the written notes while consulting the odometer and the time of day. I found myself flipping through bound driving route pages while looking at instrument gauges and my wristwatch. At times, phone navigation wouldn’t work given large zones of poor reception. It was a welcome experience to help navigate the old-fashioned way, a still-useful skill. Zeal in modern times for analog experiences never ceases to captivate my interest. It is also a major driver behind an interest in both classic cars and traditional wristwatches.
Long and I talked watches and survival skills for the racetrack. He is a seasoned veteran and a dynamic personality who began his career as a car-racing athlete and today leverages his experience for nuanced entrepreneurial ambitions. In addition to having his hands in various business ventures, Long is an official Porsche factory test driver, and he is also the co-founder of the popular Luftgekuhlt event series that is specifically for enthusiasts of Porsche cars with air-cooled engines. Both he and the Luftgekuhlt events are also sponsored by Chopard.
Success for Chopard comes in how intimately the brand bonds with California Mille participants. The Chopard name isn’t just on signs, but Chopard’s team and products are there each day to share the entire experience with them. There is even a Chopard-labeled car in the rally. The point is that Chopard makes it very clear that, in addition to sponsoring the California Mille, it is also a serious patron. I look forward to seeing how Chopard continues to evolve its relationship with the world of classic cars and enthusiast motorsports, as both the brand’s products and people fit in so well. Learn more at the Chopard website here.Images of the California Mille 2022 by Zach and Gina Hammer.