Driving watches are back and, like the cars they emulate, they are radical, large and luxurious, reports Simon de Burton

The daddy of all motoring watches has been unveiled in Milan. Designed by Swiss master watchmaker Michel Parmigiani, the Parmigiani Bugatti wristwatch has taken more than four years to develop and costs £139,000.

The daddy of all motoring watches has been unveiled in Milan. Designed by Swiss master watchmaker Michel Parmigiani, the Parmigiani Bugatti wristwatch has taken more than four years to develop and costs £139,000.

Inspired by the yet-to-be-perfected Bugatti Veyron supercar, the watch has been made in the style of the driving watches of the 1920s and 1930s, which were worn on the side of the wrist so they could be read without having to release the steering wheel.

It contains a unique movement - described by Parmigiani as "an engine on the wrist" - which is arranged horizontally rather than vertically and can be seen in action through a series of transparent crystals. The case is in two parts and the "body" of the watch rests on a separate "chassis", supported by rubber shock absorbers.

In order to give the winding crown the 100 turns required to enable it to run without stopping for 10 days (known as "power reserve") each Bugatti watch comes with a motorised, high-speed winder which winds in five seconds - slightly longer than the Veyron supercar is expected to take to hit 100 mph from standstill.

Yet, remarkable as the Bugatti is, it is only one of a series of timepieces linked to prestige car marques and famous motor races. Back in 2002, when the now familiar Bentley Continental GT was still to be released, a band of journalists were expensively helicoptered to Bentley Motors at Crewe to be given the unremarkable news that the GT's dashboard clock, which is not much larger than a 10 pence piece, would be signed with "Breitling". We failed to appreciate that we were witnessing the embryonic stages of one of the most successful marketing campaigns in the history of mechanical horology.

The Breitling dashboard clock was, of course, just the start: the Swiss watchmaker, famous for its butch, multi-function chronographs beloved of would-be fliers, was in bed with Bentley as its watch manufacturer. Two years later and the "Breitling for Bentley Motors" brand is leading a major trend for high-quality, car-related mechanical watches.

The current Breitling for Bentley line-up comprises the original Bentley Motors watch, the Le Mans (a limited edition with 24-hour dial introduced after Bentley's victory at Le Mans last year), the "6.75" (named after the 6.75 litre Arnage engine) and the Bentley GT. Like the cars, the watches are large, statement-making objects: the 6.75 has a case measuring 49mm across and even the GT, intended as a "unisex" model, comes in at a wrist-dragging 44.8mm.

And with their myriad cogs, wheels and springs in hand-crafted cases made out of steel, gold and titanium they don't come cheap - the "standard" starts at £3,575.

If you're the Ferrari type, however, former European rally champion Luigi Macaluso - owner of watch company Girard Perregaux - has the "pour Ferrari" range which begins at £3,870 and rises to €250,000 (£171,000) for a limited edition to commemorate the Enzo supercar.

Another major player is Chopard, the Swiss firm famous for its jewellery. The family owned business is run by Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, a keen collector of classic cars who sponsors and competes in the Italian Mille Miglia car event.

Chopard produces new Mille Miglia wristwatches each year and presents one to each competing team. Versions available include the "racing colours" which come with coloured dials, each representing a European country - collectors clamour to buy an entire set of five presented in a miniature cantilever tool box for around £10,000.

The company also has a watch commemorating the Monaco Historique classic car race and, at a starting price of £3,370, the limited edition Jackie Ickx "6/24" which pays homage to the Belgian racing driver's six Le Mans victories.

Another car-loving watchmaker is Gerd-Rudiger Lang, founder of the German manufacturer Chronoswiss, which has recently been commissioned to create a set of dashboard instruments for the Dutch Spyker sports car. Chronoswiss will also make a wristwatch for Spyker owners with their car's chassis number engraved on the back, as well as a standard model.

Possibly the best-loved car watch, however, is the TAG Heuer Carrera which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year (cue £1,700 special edition) and was named after the legendary Carrera Panamericana car race.

Earlier versions were worn by racing drivers including Niki Lauda, while petrolhead actor Steve McQueen made the distinctive square-dialled Heuer Monaco legendary when he wore a blue one in 1971 during the tedious car race movie Le Mans.

Production of the original Monaco stopped more than 20 years ago, but it was reintroduced in the late 1990s and is now one of TAG Heuer's most popular designs. The brand also offers the Autavia, originally made for automobilists and aviators, as well as the Monza (named after the race track) and the F1 as worn by David Coulthard.

Its latest car-themed watch is the made-to-order SLR chronograph which will be available to owners of the new Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren supercar. The winding crown is embossed with a three pointed star and the buttons to operate the functions are mounted on top of the watch case to emulate the car's gear change switches.

And next year TAG hopes to go into production with what is possibly the ultimate driver's watch, its Monaco V4 which contains a movement designed to look like a V4 car engine and driven by 13 tiny rubber "fan belts". Due out next winter, the watch is likely to cost €10,000.

Dunhill is also set to launch its new "Car Watch" which has a dial covered with a magnifying crystal to make it easier to read while driving. It also plans to produce the Bobby Finder SP30 (Bobby Finders being spoof spectacles dreamed up by Alfred Dunhill in 1903 after he became one of the first people to be fined for speeding; SP30 being the code for a speeding ticket).

Cartier, too, does a nice line in driving watches called the Roadster, while owners of the recently launched Cadillac XLR can demonstrate ownership by flashing a wrist-full of Bulgari's Diagono Aluminium Chrono with conspicuous XLR logo.

Alternatively, you could check the time on your mobile phone like most people do - just not when your driving, that's all.

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