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Review: Hanhart 417 ES

Bandwagons. You’ve got to love them. They’re a double-edged sword, because, on the one hand, riding atop this proverbial rickety cart is akin to selling one’s soul to the devil’s nastier cousin, but on the other … well, it just might be the missing second step in the three-phase guide to profit. When it comes to celebrities and watches, hitching a bandwagon never was easier, and for this particular celebrity in question, perhaps the easiest. Who and what am I talking about? Roll the tape.

Before we get to the who, let’s talk about the what. And the when. And while we’re here, the where. Hanhart, 1882, Switzerland. Johann Hanhart, of eponymous lineage, founded his watchmaking business in the Swiss town of Diessenhofen, nestled on the German border. Don’t get comfortable just yet, because in 1902, he packed up shop and crossed the border into Germany, to the Schwenningen region. And that’s because Hanhart’s business wasn’t just watches, but more specifically, stopwatches.

Switzerland had earnt itself quite the reputation for making a decent stopwatch, and that was reflected in the price—which was steep. By hopping the divide into Germany, Johann was able to undercut Swiss prices with an equally effective product and—would you know—that made Hanhart a prolifically successful producer of stopwatches. Expansion into the Black Forest, constructing a second facility in Gütenbach, proved that the decision to move to Germany was a good idea. The post-war confiscation and compulsory shutdown of machines and equipment said otherwise.

Willy Hanhart, Johann’s son, was left with nothing more than a handful of watches and tools he’d carefully hidden, and he used those watches in a trade for machines he could restart the business with. By 1949, production was up and running again. With a head start on its competitors, Hanhart saw an opportunity to produce the first post-war pilot’s watch for the German air force, the 417 ES.

Alright, alright, but what does all this have to do with celebrities? Well, get this: you know how Steve McQueen had a penchant for watches that were built more of substance than style? The Rolex Submariner 5512, for example, that kind of thing. McQueen may be most famous for his appearance in the 1971 film Le Mans wearing a bright blue and red Heuer Monaco, but the truth of it is that he preferred his tickers a bit less conspicuous. And, would you know it, one of his favourite pieces was—ah, you beat me to it. The Hanhart 417 ES.

How McQueen got hold of one is uncertain; less than a thousand were made, and they were supposed to be for pilots, not film stars. Nevertheless, had one he did, and wear it he would. A lot. He kept it for most of his life, and it made frequent appearances in photoshoots and even films. He wasn’t approached by Hanhart to wear it, wasn’t paid by anyone to endorse it—he just did. And you can see why.

McQueen’s preference for stark, functional design is exactly what the 417 ES offered, and it makes sense, really. Those fly boys had a job to do, and admiring their watches wasn’t part of it. Clear dial with luminous markers, bi-compax layout, coin-edge bezel, easy-to-use pushers. I mean, it must’ve been good because Hanhart supplied a bunch more through watchmaker Vixa to the French air force under the Type 20 military specification.

So, if the 417 ES was such a favourite of McQueen’s, why, unlike the Rolex and the Heuer, is this not being plastered on every possible platform you can imagine? Hanhart could have been one of many, many brands hitching up to the McQueen bandwagon and really, deservingly so. Well, while those other brands made products in volume that could be sold en masse to Joe Public, Hanhart didn’t. That is, until now.

So here it is, over half a century later, the new 417 ES. I say new, but without seeing them side-by-side, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. You’ve got that crystal-clear dial, that coin-edge bezel, the luminous markings and easy-to-use pushers. The logo borrows from the period and the dial hasn’t been cluttered up with nonsense. It looks to be a rather faithful reproduction.

Could be a pretty short review in that respect, but it’s the detail that becomes apparent on the second, third, fourth and even hundredth take that lifts the 417 ES from sensible business decision for Hanhart to heartfelt passion project. Many of the original 417 ES, for example, featured a straight chronograph second hand, and that would have been fine and perhaps even more cost-effective for the new model, but that just wasn’t enough.

Instead, we get the rarer, more interesting luminous second hand, the slender leaf shape striped with glowing paint and tipped with a skeletonised counterweight. It’s a detail many might not pick up on right away, or even ever, but it’s there, a decision borne of nerd-like levels of enthusiasm for this almost-forgotten watch.

And the experience itself, that has the authentic touch too. In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, keeping the watch down to a smidge over 13mm—more like 11mm not including the authentically domed crystal—would have been impossible with a Sellita 510, and so Hanhart has fitted the 510 M, the manual version, instead. The original was manual and so too is this, and with 58 hours of power reserve, it won’t need a top-up daily—although I’m sure I’d probably do it anyway just because it’s so satisfying.

You get one hundred metres of water resistance too because why wouldn’t you want to be comfortable wearing a watch like this day-to-day. It’s not all sunshine and lollipops, however, because although this watch appears authentically proportioned, the 42mm case is a little oversized compared to the original. Might be fine for some, but I know it’ll be a disappointment for others. The chronograph too, that was a flyback on the original, but not here. And the “antimagnetic” tag on the dial has gone—even though modern movements are actually more antimagnetic than the original 417 ES anyway—which is a shame. However, a caveat: keep your ear to the ground and all that might change.

In the meantime, for those who are more than happy with the 417 ES as it presents itself today, the best news has been saved for last. This watch has been very fairly priced at €1,790, about $2,150 or £1,550. In comparison to the equally lovely Longines Avigation Bigeye, that’s a saving of about £500. For the opportunity to feel a little bit like Steve McQueen? Not bad at all.

You’ve got your Persol sunglasses, you’ve got your Barbour jacket—why not complete the look and throw a 417 ES on your wrist? That would be the pitch if indeed Hanhart had climbed aboard this particular bandwagon, but it hasn’t. It’s a small brand, it produces low volumes of watches and it doesn’t have the budget to compete with the marketing power of its trendy contemporaries. What it does have, however, is a pilot’s watch with proper heritage that Steve McQueen just so happened to think looked pretty damn good. Perhaps you do too.