The worlds of aviation and motoring have always spoken to watchmaking. They’re the same: precision engineering wrapped in functional elegance. It makes perfect sense, then, that for its newest horological creations, French watchmaker Bell & Ross would turn to both realms simultaneously for inspiration. It’s a story of both high adventure and thoughtful reflection.
The saga begins at the end of World War II with American soldiers returning home — many of them restless for new challenges. A racing enthusiast named Bill Burke, who had served in the South Pacific, was one of them. Inspired by the aircraft he’d fought alongside, Burke took the shape of sleek, aerodynamic external fuel tanks from fighters and converted them to fantastically streamlined racing cars.
He purchased a spare drop tank from a P-51 Mustang and installed wheels, a hulking V8 and all the hardware necessary to turn an aviation fuel tank into a racecar. He then ran his machine at the legendary desert raceway, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Soon, so-called “Bellytankers” were a common sight at the flats; the success inspired Burke and others to hone the concept further and further.
More than 65 years later, that success inspired Bell & Ross Creative Director Bruno Belamich to revive Burke’s ingenuity. His modern twist: a full-size Bellytanker concept vehicle that would serve as a mechanical muse while creating two new watches that echo the era. “The Bellytanker is the bridge between aviation and the land universe, a sort of four-wheeled aircraft,” Belamich notes. “It’s a concept that makes one dream, and it recalls the crafted engines built up by enthusiasts. Starting from the design of the concept, I then imagined the watches of the pilots driving these engines.”
The new timepieces in the Bellytanker collection — the BR V1-92, with a 38.5mm case, and the larger 41mm BR V2-94 — both reflect the influence of military aviation and civilian motor racing, in their design, materials and colors. The V1-92 a brushed-steel case reminiscent of the slim watches of the ’40s and ’50s and a curved sapphire crystal that recalls the round windows of aviation cockpits. The copper coloring came directly from the Bellytanker’s wheels, while the V2-94 chronograph features a case that simulates the sculpted bodywork of the racer, and by extension the aircraft it came from — which also materializes in the aircraft-shaped counterweight on the second hand.
For Belamich, designing both watches represented opportunities for linking eras and endeavors together. “We’re in a world of enthusiasts, and we love to revive beautiful stories of boldness and creativity,” he says. “Our stories tell men about their universe, their machines, their uniforms, and their accessories—watches in particular. Time, by extension, links our most extreme worlds together, reflecting the essential utility of our timepieces.”