Ball Fireman Racer – Entry Level? Yes and, most definitely, No.
Every single high volume watch brand will have an “Entry Level” model or range of models.
Ball Watch has also adopted this attitude to their most accessible range, the Fireman Racer.
There have been no obvious corners cut in detailing, material, design, specification and finish for their model that starts at just £950. It is slightly baffling.
Each Fireman Racer has a healthy specification that includes Water Resistance to 100m and shock resistance of 5000Gs. Couple this with a very wearable 40mm case in 316L surgical grade stainless steel, antireflective sapphire glass with a 2.5 magnification window over the date aperture, a red stitched rubber strap that looks like leather or a beautifully finished satin/polished bracelet, easily operable crown and you have the perfect workaday utilitarian wrist watch.
Also included are the Ball Watch signature Tritium Gas Tubes giving high levels of legibility whatever the light conditions. 15 of these are applied to the hands and hour markers.
Black dial with red indexes, black dial with white indexes, white dial with blue indexes and new white dial with black indexes. Either rubber straps with red or white stitching or steel bracelets are available throughout.
Individual design details lift this watch way above merely perfunctory and it is, actually, an insult to refer to this wonderful timepiece as entry level.
Functions and Details.
I love the multi-faceted aspects of the case. There are also contrasting satin and polished finishes which add a true sense of opulence and help lift the watch above the usual fit-for-purpose, function-over-design tool watches on the market. From caseback to sapphire glass The Ball Watch design team have been allowed to fully express themselves with a concave chamfered edge, followed by indented sides, followed by a tooled groove, followed by a chamfered concave edge and finally the polished chamfered bezel. In addition to this the lugs are multi-angular with satin finished uppers.
The crown is large enough to be able to handle with ease but does not have any degradation in the overall comfort by virtue of having been ergonomically designed.
The dial of the Fireman Red is mainly monochromatic with a contemporary twist in the form of the deep red applied numerals on the Fireman Racer Red. The other alternatives are highlighted above and include the fully monochromatic black/white and white/black with another striking example being the white/blue. The extent of detail applied to the dial is, once again, a revelation at this price point. So much design effort has been lavished on the dial, in fact, that it could have easily become fussy to the point of incongruous. However, subtlety has been maintained and the result is a dial that will continue to delight in differing lighting conditions as light toys with the various elements, such as the concentric circles, the matt black centre and the sunken tritium gas tube hour markers.
The broad-arrow styled hands are perfectly legible and the rhodium plated chamfered flanks contrast perfectly with the black or silver dials.
The date window is perfectly legible behind its sapphire glass magnifier. You do, of course, have to line your sight up with the aperture through the magnifier perfectly because viewing at any kind of angle renders the date indecipherable.
Once again, the caseback makes you wonder where Ball Watch get their price points from. It’s almost as if they have a retail price calculator that goes something like “think of the first number that comes into your head when you see this watch and times it by 0.7”, or something like that. The high relief depiction of a steam train is both relevant in its appointment as a reminder of the incredible history of Webb C Ball and the reliable nature of the Fireman employed to keep the trains running in appalling conditions. We are also reminded that the Fireman Racer is shock resistant and utilises Tritium gas tubes, and why would you not want to be prompted of such bonuses.
Strap/buckle and bracelet:
The hand stitched rubber strap is cunning as it looks like leather. The surgical grade steel bracelet is meticulously finished and elevated from realms of utlitarian by screwed in links and a concealed, machined clasp unit. Both options suit the watch well, offer good comfort and maintain the aspirations of the watch to be considered a luxury product.
The strap/bracelet options mentioned above coupled with the 40mm width, 11.4mm height and smooth, high relief caseback ensure lasting wearer comfort.
The Fireman Racer is more suited to casual/sporty attire but does not look inappropriate when booted and suited.
So-called entry level doesn’t always mean good value. Often brands, especially at the same price points of Ball Watch, try to shoe horn their way into a price point lower than their core range. This makes sense as far as accessibility to a new and more frugal audience is concerned but often short cuts are forcibly applied to these watches, such as stamped clasps, pinned bracelet links and hollow end links. Movements will almost certainly not have received the same attention as their more expensive brethren and the accuracy in a mechanical timepiece could be a lottery when you buy it. The Fireman Racer bucks this trend and offers well thought out design, a specification any tool watch would be proud of and luxurious fit and finish.
By the way, the fully automatic movement maintained an accuracy of +5 seconds per day whilst I had the pleasure of borrowing it for a few days. This is good enough to pass the most stringent limits of the COSC.
The Fireman range is named after the hardest working but least paid member of the steam train workforce. The watches crafted by Ball Watch mirror this. These workers were incredible value for their money and so are the watches. The Fireman Racer epitomises bang for your buck like no other watch I know of.
The Fireman Racer is that rare watch which introduces the brand to an audience that cannot afford the Hydrocarbons, Trainmaster and Engineers, etc, and also introduces them to the quality of fit and finish and high levels of detailing that are consistent throughout the rest of the catalogue.
I have had the pleasure of spending considerable time with the Fireman Racer, both in rubber strap and bracelet guise, and I’m constantly waiting for “the catch”. It’s a horological conjurer’s trick to offer all of this for as little as this: £950 (rubber strap) and £1010 (steel bracelet) at time of writing. How Do They Do That?
It’s nice to conclude that every watch in the Ball Watch catalogue will continue with the same eye for detail and quality assurance given that the Fireman Racer is the starting point when ascending the price list in order. Speaking of which, given that the Fireman Racer enters the price list at the bottom one may assume that the watch had been created to allow those only of a limited budget to be interested. This is definitely not the case as I have four more expensive Ball Watches and would happily add the Fireman Racer to my collection. It has a unique character of its own.
Now at this point of a review I would normally like to offer a little balance to my enthusiasm for this watch by highlighting any flaws with the watch’s design, etc, or any elements I feel could have been done better. I’ve wracked my fairly fertile brain and could not think of one amendment I could make that would not affect the price point. The only element I would change is the length of the rubber strap. I have 17cm wrists which is not truly abnormal. When I wore the Fireman Racer with the rubber strap on its final whole I could still get two fingers in between my wrist and the watch. The consequence was a watch that moved around far too much for my liking. The 40mm diameter is a great choice for those with smaller wrists in this climate of bigger-is-better in the watch world so why not allow it to fit this aimed-at demographic?
I would be happy, nay delighted, to have one of the Fireman Racers in my collection. I would feel as if I had cheated the system by having a fabulous looking watch that I could wear here, there and, indeed, everywhere. In fact, my feelings would be bordering on non-ingratiating smugness to have beaten the system.
I would be a very proud wearer. Not something normally associated with “Entry Level”.
Many Thanks to Andrew of Andrew Michaels Jewellers for loaning me the watches for this review.
All words and images by Richard Atkins, unless otherwise stated. This article may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the permission of the author.