Saturday, May 24, 2014

Review of Frederique Constant Vintage Rally Chronograph Automatic LE

Model # FC-396SB6B6

Brand/Model:  Frederique Constant Vintage Rally Chronograph Automatic (limited edition of 1888 pieces)
Movement:  in-house Swiss automatic
Material:  stainless steel case, leather strap
Complications:  chronograph timing in one-second increments up to 12 hours
Price:  MSRP $3,395 USD, can usually be found discounted

Plenty of photos follow the review. Click on the pictures to enlarge.

The Frederique Constant (‘FC’ for short) brand is a relative newcomer in the world of Swiss-Made watches.  The company was formed in 1988 and is an independent, family-owned enterprise.  The company’s first watches appeared in 1992 and have since become synonymous with high-quality at affordable prices, which translates into value.  The company has its headquarters and watchmaking facilities in Geneve. 

FC states all of its watches are ‘individually assembled by hand…in a dust-free and air-controlled environment with proprietary and custom-made tools and machineries, with each watch passing an extensive quality control process.’  This is quite impressive, especially considering the price points of these timepieces.

Frederique Constant’s slogan is ‘Live Your Passion’ and the company has become involved in various forms of motorsports, largely with vintage rallies, hence the genesis of the watch reviewed here. 

Many of FC’s watches have true in-house movements, which is also nice, considering the prices at which their watches can be acquired.

I wanted to try an FC watch and the Vintage Rally collection really appealed to me.  This collection celebrates the fabled Peking to Paris road rally that began way back in 1907.  The Peking to Paris rally is still run today, occurring every few years, covering over 7,500 miles and more than 30 days of driving.  It seems like the ultimate adventure to me, but alas, the entry fee is at least $60,000 USD not including your car, fuel, spares, etc.  I guess I will live vicariously through this watch. 

The FC Vintage Rally chronographs come in three styles, with each variation limited to just 1888 pieces, all of which are individually numbered.

The watch reviewed here is a classic ‘panda’ chronograph, meaning it has black subdials against a silver or white dial, a look that many watch collectors adore.  This watch is extremely legible, although the hands could stand out a bit more, but it looks smashing and has a bevy of great features.

The FC Vintage Rally chronograph starts with a fully polished all stainless steel case (316L stainless) that measures 42.8mm without the signed crown, 45mm crown inclusive.  Even though these dimensions sound rather large, this watch does not wear large nor appear oversized on the wrist, a testament to its overall well-executed design.

Frederique Constant tends to use this case in several models and even though it has cool scrolled-down lugs on the side, the case itself is devoid of any complex chamfers, angles or detailed brushed surfaces.  The bezel is also part of the case, which makes the case easier to manufacture, hence saving money.  This is not a criticism, but rather one place where the company chooses to save a bit of money to offer the value it does.

Lug spacing on the Vintage Rally chrono is a rather odd 23 mm.  I measured it several ways and I came up with 22.5mm, but that’s close enough.  The inside of the strap is stamped ‘23’, so that is the official size, but in any case, it’s a non-standard size. 

One very nice feature that FC includes with this watch is double spring bars on each side of the strap.  The strap ends are curved and I think they use double bars to assure the strap stays put, because curved bars can be dicey at times.  Overall, a great touch, but it may make putting an aftermarket strap on the watch a bit difficult to achieve a proper fit.

Case thickness is 14.9mm, with the caseback being a display type secured by six small screws.  The caseback shows off the nicely finished movement with the exceptionally decorated ‘Peking to Paris’ rotor resplendent in its rose gold color with red and black inlaid printing.  Superb!

The crown is signed with the FC logo and the chronograph pushers have ‘meat tenderizer’ ends, meaning they have a cool cross-hatch pattern on them for better tactile feel.  Another small but fine touch.  The crown is a bit small for effective hand winding of the watch, although FC adds a notch on the case below the crown to make it easier to get your fingernail under the crown to pull it out for setting.  Again, a small, but thoughtful, detail.

The dial is a model of simplicity and function, while retaining a great look.  The dial is silver (which can look a bit white in certain light) with hand-applied rectangular markers and hand-polished pointer style hands.  The markers and hands are in-filled with white lume but lume quality is rather weak.  As I noted previously, the hands are a bit hard to see at times depending on where they are on the dial.

The chronograph subdials are nice and large, without looking garish and feature clear white printing on the markers and arabics, with white pointer style hands.  The subdials are ever so slightly set into the dial and feature black backgrounds with circular patterning.

The chronograph seconds hand is a simple silver stick.  The subdial at 3 is the chronograph 30-minute totalizer, the subdial at 6 is the chronograph 12-hour totalizer and the subdial at 9 is the seconds hand for the watch.

There is also a black chapter ring with one-fifth minute gradations encircling the dial.  Minimal dial printing is a great touch, as many readers know I don’t like a lot of extraneous printing on a watch dial.  The name ‘Frederique Constant’ appears below the 12 position, with ‘Geneve’ below the company name.  And that’s it!  Simplicity at its finest.

The dial is capped with a convex (very slightly domed) sapphire crystal that is fit perfectly into the case.  Overall build quality and fit and finish on this watch is excellent.

The FC Vintage Rally chronograph is factory rated at 10 ATM of water resistance.

Inside the Vintage Rally chronograph is FC’s caliber FC-396 in-house chronograph movement.  Set in 30 jewels and beating at 28,800 vph, this movement hacks and can be manually wound.  The movement is finished to a reasonable degree of finery, with polished plates and perlage appearing in certain areas.  And of course, the decorated rotor is worth the price of admission on its own.

While I have found the accuracy of the movement to be nothing to write home about, I’m sure it could be regulated down tighter.  I have also found other manufacturer’s in-house designs to be lacking somewhat in the accuracy department, so this point is not a dint to FC. 

During my stewardship and wearing, the FC Vintage Chrono has run about +11seconds/24 hours, with a solid power reserve of 52-3/4 hours.  All watch functions, from time setting and winding to start/stop/reset of the chrono work flawlessly.  Overall, I give this in-house movement a thumbs up.

The FC Vintage Rally chronograph comes on a black ‘crococalf’ strap (leather with croc patterning) with gray contrast stitching.  The strap is moderately padded and has curved ends at the case with the aforementioned double spring bars.  The strap measures 22.5/23mm at the lugs and tapers to 18mm at the clasp. 

The clasp is a polished machined deployant with a signed pushbutton release.  The part of the clasp that carries the FC logo is brushed with the logo in polished relief.  The clasp is the type that allows the free end of the strap to tuck under the other end of the strap, so the watch has a clean look and feel while being worn.

Another nice detail is that the clasp has two pins that push into the holes on the strap to secure the strap tightly to the clasp.  Many makers use only one pin to secure their deployants to a leather strap, so again, props to FC.

While the strap is fairly nicely finished, I feel it could be of a higher quality and perhaps made of genuine crocodile, especially for the price point.  This is one more area where I feel FC compromised a bit to keep costs down.

Presentation is superb; a substantial outer box with a padded inner box with a plaque commemorating the Peking to Paris rally.  The instructions and warranty information are placed in their own holder in a cut-out in the outer box, underneath where the inner box sits.  All told, it’s a fine way to present this watch.

The Frederique Constant Vintage Rally chronograph is an outstanding piece.  It combines an in-house movement with a classic design theme to create a watch that is unique in its own way and one that wears beautifully and looks great on the wrist.  If you’re considering the Frederique Constant brand, the Vintage Rally chronograph series is a great introduction to this fledgling Swiss marque.

Pros:  in-house chronograph movement, great ‘panda’ dial layout, highly functional yet simple and elegant design, fantastic decorated rotor, many nifty small details

Cons:  crown could be larger, strap could be higher quality, tighter accuracy would be a plus, hands a bit hard to read at times

Verdict:  a high-quality, unique and fairly rare watch that represents strong value with an in-house movement and true Swiss manufacture and design.  Frederique Constant has a winner here and this watch should bear strong consideration if you want a well-designed and sporty automatic chronograph

Thanks for reading and enjoy the pics.




  1. The movement is not truly in house, it uses the Valjoux 7750. Otherwise, great review!