Zenith Ton-Up ReviewThe Ton-Up takes a pilot's watch design and combines it with vintage motorcycle racing heritage to make one of Zenith's most popular watches of 2016.
The Ton-Up is an interesting watch, from the standpoint of inspiration, because it's essentially a Zenith pilot watch that takes inspiration from an entirely different kind of vehicle, cafe racer motorcycles.
The Ton-Up is one of the most vintage new watches I've ever seen, ironic since it's not a historic reissue, but a novel invention for 2016. The thing not only looks like a pilot's watch released 70+ years ago, it looks like a pilot's watch that's 70 years old.
Take the case, for example. It's steel, but Zenith applies a process to make it "aged" steel. This isn't to say the case is unfinished or unpolished. This is indeed a kind of finishing and polish, but a very particular way that simulates the kind of finish a watch would have after decades of ownership.
Stylistically, it's quite in line with other Type 20s from Zenith, which is to say that it's a very, very legible and functional pilot's watch.
Most notable, of course, are these highly stylized and huge luminescent numerals. I appreciate that none were cut off despite this being a chronograph.
Zenith has opted for a bi-compax layout, which keeps the dial quite a bit less cluttered than other common approaches. Now that we're very close, we can observe that this is indeed a textured dial, although this is not obvious while on the wrist. It's a very rough and grainy surface which, in effect, causes its matte appearance.
When the moon is out the Ton-Up is in a class occupied pretty much only by other Zenith pilot watches. I generally will use dive watches as a sort of luminescent benchmark, but honestly, this thing will blow most dive watches out of the water, pun intended. Also note that all three hands have very unique shapes, meaning that this watch is practically impossible to misread even in adverse conditions.
That is, of course, thanks to its gorgeous, vertically brushed cathedral hands. Note the proportions of each hand. The hour hand barely touches the numerals and the minute hand barely touches the ring outside of them. This is thoughtful design, not the result of a parts bin watch shoehorned together.
At an angle, we can start to appreciate the unusually dynamic character of the dial as the light cascades a bit more unevenly over it.
Being from the Pilot collection (now confusingly the Heritage collection, if you also happen to be a fan of Tudors) it has a massive onion crown, which was originally used to make it easier to wind and set the watch with gloves on. It also features large pushers to activate the chronograph easily, which I find useful whether you’re wearing gloves or not.
We do get a cool retro motorcycle motif on the back, although unfortunately this means we can't enjoy the look of the legendary El Primero underneath. I won't rehash my discussion of the El Primero here since we can't see it, but check out my discussion of it in the Chronomaster
and Classic Cars reviews.
It's a very interesting movement so if you're not already a fan, it's worth a read.
In keeping in line with the vintage pilot theme, it's quite large at 45mm, although this isn't as large as some other Type 20s. Even a 5'10 weakling like myself could get away with wearing this watch. The crown, of course, screws down for 100 meters of water resistance. In a world where ordinary three handers can be 14 or more millimeters thick, I appreciate that Zenith didn't go out of their way to make the watch fat. Despite the chronograph inside, it's 14.25mm thick, thin by no one's standard, but certainly in line with modern convention, particularly on a sporty 45mm piece like this.
Oddly, I think the pre-aged look is going to find two seemingly incompatible groups of fans. The first segment is the "scratches add character" crowd which will obviously find much to like here. The other segment is the one I belong to, which is the "scratches are tools of the devil" crowd. Because the watch is essentially covered with scratches from day one, it'll be nearly impossible to see a minor scratch if you contribute to its "character" down the road. Thus, in a very weird, counterintuitive way, the Ton-Up will look "new" much longer than most of its contemporaries because it looks old right of the box.
More generally, it's one of the sincerest attempts at a new vintage watch out there. I often differentiate between vintage-inspired watches, which are watches that take elements from other eras to give them a retro appeal, and new vintage watches, which try to look like they actually are a watch from the past. The Ton-Up goes further than pretty much any other watch I've ever seen along that latter path.
Thus, I think the question is whether the style appeals to you or not. It's extremely well made and houses an El Primero inside, so from those angles you're covered. It's not even ridiculously huge. If you're into vintage motorcycles, this connection makes a lot of sense, but I think you can also entirely ignore the motorcycle element and just go for it because you like old school pilot's watches. In either case, the Ton-Up is a watch with purpose, not just an also-ran in a sea of competitors.