Whisper it, but while Richard Mille founded the most revolutionary watch brand of recent years – with boutiques near numerous St. Regis hotels in cities from Jakarta to Beijing – his first passion has always been cars, as the extraordinary garage at his French château attests.
Crunching up the driveway towards Mille’s private residence near Rennes in France, I’m reminded of a scene from the pages of a Tintin comic book: in particular, Marlinspike Hall, home of the doughty Captain Haddock.
Like Marlinspike, perfect symmetry, manicured grandiosity and Louis XIII style are all present and correct at Monsieur Mille’s own château in northern France – right down to the surrounding lawns and sprawling parkland. The only difference between my cartoon fantasy and real life seems to be the owners themselves: one, a cartoon seadog; the other, a swarthy, urbane genius of modern watchmaking, who single-handedly breathed hi-tech life into a fusty old craft at the turn of the millennium.
On this visit, though, it isn’t the house I’ve come to see, nor the mind-bendingly complex tourbillon ticking away on his wrist; it’s the building just to the right of the sweeping driveway, just within the moat (yes, there’s a moat). Outwardly, it’s built in keeping with the château’s light brickwork and slate tiles. Inwardly, it’s packed to the brim with pure motorsport nirvana, with a few classic coupés thrown in for good measure.
When we enter, the first car crouched by our feet is Bruce McLaren’s original Formula One car of 1966 – one of only three “M2B” chassis models ever built. “If, when I created the company 15 years ago,” Mille says, “someone had told me that my watch brand would one day partner with McLaren, I wouldn’t have believed it. This car paved the way for 50 years of racing. I’m used to saying my main business is automobiles, and watchmaking is to help me pass the time!” he chuckles, as we venture inside, classic racer after classic racer revealing itself beneath the low oak beams – a Lotus 49B here, Matra MS5 there, a BRM P115 next to that. “For me, the racing machines always came first,” Mille explains.
But which car came first? When did his collection start to snowball? “My first-ever car was a rusty old Peugeot,” he says, with trademark gusto. “I was a student at the time, full of dreams and testosterone. The car didn’t really fit my ideals nor my lifestyle! But a ‘collection’? Does it start when you have two or three cars?” he ponders out loud. “I really don’t know, to be honest. I suppose it became serious when I started paying big money for some cars, like my ’67 BRM.”
His collection is not all F1, though. Picking our way around the heart of his artfully cluttered man-cave, it’s clear that Mille’s favorite era is what he refers to as the “golden period” of Le Mans: the heyday of the 24-hour endurance race, from the mid-1960s to ’70s. (A preference underscored by his Porsche 907 and 908/3, not to mention an original Ford GT40 – the famed American “Ferrari Killer” that occupies every petrolhead’s fantasy collection – all squeezed into his garage’s workshop area.)
“Squeezed” being the operative word. Without building another annex and further upsetting Marlinspike’s symmetry, surely something has to give? “I wouldn’t sell anything in my collection now,” he says. “I’d rather perform hara-kiri!”
And his next purchase? “I’d rather not say,” he grins, sliding the doors home emphatically, “because if I do, and you publish it, the price will be even higher when I find it!”