Interview with George Bamford
Cars, wrist watches and construction equipment may not often get mentioned in the same breath - or even in the same conversation - but they all feature prominently in George Bamford's life. Despite the conspicuous differences in scale, all three are the products of engineering, which happens to be George's passion.
George Bamford is the grandson of Joseph Cyril Bamford, founder of the famous heavy equipment manufacturer JCB. Joseph set an impressive example to inspire subsequent generations. Not only did he establish the company that was to become a household name beloved by small boys everywhere, but he was a progressive employer whose workers enjoyed good pay and conditions: an ancestor of whom to be justly proud.
In due course, JCB passed into the hands of Joseph's son, Anthony. George Bamford has not yet joined JCB. His focus is very much on his own projects for the time being: consequently, the Bamford name is now associated with fine personal timepieces as well as stonking great excavators, loaders and tractors. How so? Read on.
George Bamford's love of watches seems to have two roots. Firstly there is the childhood impression of style and cool that he experienced while sitting with his dad, watching movies. The second influence was his early, and enduring, fascination with engineering.
"When I first fell in love with cars it was with Corgi toys and things like that. Then Le Mans was what first made me fall in love with a watch: seeing the Tag Heuer Monaco on Steve McQueen's wrist. I've got to admit that it wasn't the best movie, but sitting in my father's arms watching Le Mans, admiring the watches and cars together I was like, 'Wow, this is so cool!'. My childhood memories are of watching Steve McQueen and James Bond.
"I just fell in love with how all that movement happens because I'm an engineer at heart. I love engines and I love that movement. I learnt how to weld when I was seven and I learnt how to strip an engine when I was eight."
Despite that natural affinity with machinery and mechanical things, George has not followed his father and grandfather into the family firm. At least, not yet.
"My father actually said to me that I wasn't allowed into the family business. He said 'Look, George, you've got to go and learn the value of a pound. You have to go and do something that makes you money and you've got to do it on your own.'
"I was a photographer at the time and I realised I couldn't make really good money at that. I'd just got out of university, studying at Parsons [the prestigious school of design], and I was like 'Christ, I have to do something!' That's when my watch business started."
When he was younger, George had already made a tentative early foray into the world in which he was about to immerse himself, as he had bought and traded watches at flea markets as a kind of hobby. With that modest experience, his interests in engineering and design and the obsession instilled by James Bond and Steve McQueen years before, what followed was surely inevitable.
"I used to trade cars and I used to trade watches. In fact, I should probably have been a car trader instead of a watch trader because I see a lot of car dealers now making a hell of a lot of money. But then watch dealers do also make a lot of money!"
Despite the occasional pondering of whether he would have made more money trading cars than he does making watches, George Bamford is clearly very satisfied with how things are working out.
"I am the master of my own destiny. My ego is fulfilled and I love working for myself and the idea of doing things on my own. I love creating watches, working inside the watch industry and doing my own thing. It's just really cool."
The tangible shape of George's fulfilled ego is embodied in his complementary businesses, Bamford Watch Department and Bamford London. Bamford Watch Department has become the go-to destination for those wishing to own unique versions of their favourite high-end timepieces. Custom colours and graphics transform a great watch into something seen once in a lifetime. Official partnerships with, and approval from, those elite watchmakers gives Bamford a unique credibility.
"Six years ago, we signed contracts with some of the top watch brands to work with them on personalisation. Being accepted has been one of the best things, and to be a part of some of those watch brands really is a cool thing to be."
That cooperation with the classic manufacturers did not come without a lot of work. In the early days, George was widely considered a rebel. The customisation options he offered were most certainly not approved by Rolex and the other top brands whose pieces he considered worthy of his transformational talents. But as George's own reputation developed, so did acceptance by the brands who came to understand that his work enhanced their products rather than detracting from them.
Bamford London offers a more accessible price point for those who want the Bamford style but without needing a lottery win or a second mortgage to fund the indulgence. Bamford London watches bear the Bamford brand and, while they are less expensive than the customised legends sold by Bamford Watch Department, their Swiss movements deliver quality and reliability that more than justifies their cost.
"Bamford London pieces range from about £450 up to about two and a half thousand pounds," says George. "And then you've got Bamford Watch Department that sits above that, starting at four and a half thousand and going all the way up. So we serve those two sides.
"And I'm very lucky, you know? I can honestly say that while our customers can get on without us, we cannot get on without them. So I'm very lucky with the customers that have supported Bamford."
Despite his brands' success, and the fact that he seems to have fulfilled the task his father set him, one can't help feeling that George gets more satisfaction and enjoyment from the process than from the payoff.
"Personalisation is key in my life. I personalise my cars with number plates, you know, and I personalise them with colours, with clocks in them, with just little things that make me smile. Making a unique watch for someone is that same thing. You put it on your wrist and you wear it for you and it's personalised just for you.
"Imagine if you had a certain portion of your watch you wanted to match the colour of this Porsche, with the dial, with the second hand, with everything that could be personalised. Even with a strap that matched the car's kind of chocolate or tan interior, and with a black dial with little silver accents. That, for me, would be the epitome of Bamford Watch Department. We can do whatever you want: we can put Batman into a watch; we can put a car into a watch!
"And that's what I love about Bamford London. I get fulfilment out of actually designing my own watches."
It is striking (no horological pun intended) that so many seemingly disparate parts of George Bamford's life just fit together with the precision of… well, of a Swiss watch movement. His early love of cars, watches, his early introduction to the principles of engineering, his design education all either guided him to his current success or feed into his products. However there is another of George's predilections that provides possibly the most bizarre component to the movement of his seemingly well-oiled life: a love of cartoon characters in general and of a certain beagle in particular.
"Hell, yes, I love Snoopy. I love cartoon characters. There's some amazing things: look at Sesame Street, look at Snoopy, look at… I don't know, even Sonic the Hedgehog or Popeye. I mean, Popeye is so damn good!" It's another example of enthusiasm rooted in his childhood that has survived, undiminished, to contribute to the shape of his adult life.
"Snoopy! If you say the word Snoopy, you cannot help but smile. You really can't help but smile. It just gives you that wonderful thing of, like, how you can't be angry when you hear Snoopy. Snoopy just always makes me smile.
"Oh yes. I have a lot of Snoopy crap, a lot of Snoopy crap, but I love it. I love collecting Snoopy. I love everything that they've created. If there is anything that I can collect, I will: vintage Snoopy, modern Snoopy. Because, for me, for my generation and generations before it was a symbol of hope, of peace, a symbol of happiness. That's why I love Snoopy. I haven't got a Snoopy tattoo, but maybe one day.
"We do the Snoopy with Franck Muller, and we're just so lucky that we can design inside the brands and work alongside them on things like that."
As he's grown up, George's collecting habit has diversified and now focuses on more than just cartoon merchandise: he has an enviable collection of fine cars and plenty of private number plates to display upon them. In fact, even as we conduct this interview with George, we are sitting in his wonderful Porsche Speedster.
"I found it, rebuilt it. I thought this was going to be just a very simple rebuild: change the colour, do a few things, you know. Instead, it was three years of work but I'm so pleased with this car. You know, it's a beautiful, little ugly car. You think about it, if you turn it upside down, it looks like a bathtub but there's something so fabulous, something that makes you smile. It's a bucket list car. Is it going to break down on the side of the road? Yes, it is. But is it going to make me smile? Yes! With cars and watches I'm also obsessed with the sound, the feel, the look."
The driving is as important to George as the aesthetic as he shows when he gushes about his current favourite ride.
"The Ferrari 275 GTB. That for me is the car where I know where each wheel sits. I know how fast I can drive it into a corner. I know how I can get it out. I can just take it to the limit. That car is about the pure driving experience.
"I've had so many experiences in that Ferrari. We drove that to a friend's wedding then, when we arrived, my wife got her dress stuck in the boot and we just couldn't get the boot open. We were late and she was cursing me, the car and everything but I was smiling. I was like, I've just driven hours in this car and we got here! That car's been on a flatbed many times when I've sat on the side of the road because it's overheated or something, but I don't care. I just want to drive it again!
"A car cannot be a show pony. It cannot just sit in a garage. I know a lot of people are like, 'Oh, I can't take it out in this weather', but if it's just a garage queen then what are you doing with the car? Go and experience the car. Go and love the car and make stories about it."
So, we've established that George Bamford can forgive a car the odd tantrum so long as it delivers the experience he craves. That willingness to accept a trade-off extends to a lack of comfort too, so long as it is balanced by a car's other qualities and appeal.
"That Defender is uncomfortable to drive." He indicates a Land Rover. "I mean, the seat is literally on the metal, so you kind of bounce up and down on the road and you're at the weirdest angle, but I love Landies. I have to listen to Bruce Springsteen in it as I just go wherever it takes me. If it breaks down, well, it's taken me to that point. If I get to my destination, well, that's winner-winner-chicken-dinner! It embodies adventure: any type of adventure from driving in London to going on the Camel Trophy [a famous competitive event for 4x4s, renowned for its challenging terrains. The Camel Trophy event was discontinued in 2000]. Carpe diem, you know, just going anywhere."
Watches, cars, cartoons… We almost find ourselves wondering if he can possibly sustain that relentless level of enthusiasm, as we move on to discuss his many personal number plates.
"I love number plates!" We breathe a silent sigh of relief. "And it's not about the value. I'm never going to sell them because they're part of me, although my kids probably will! And it's not because I want to be recognised or because I want to show off that I've got the number plate. I just think it completes the car.
"Yes, number plates are a good investment but it's more than that. Is it in my DNA? Well, I mean, if you look at the history of my family's business, my grandfather bought little Vespas with personal number plates on just to get the number plates. He got JCB 1, JCB 2, JCB 3 and it was one of the greatest advertising things for the business. You had salesmen going out with those number plates on their car.
"I know people look at your car and go, 'Wow, that number plate's worth this or that', but it's not about that. It's about does it work for the car? That Defender there has its original number plates, because they're right.
"I even name my cars after their number plates, give them nicknames. My children don't know that a car's a brand X or brand Y. They know it by its number plate or nickname and that's what I want to happen. I want them to fall in love with the car, not its brand or the value of it.
"I also love when you are on the motorway and you see a plate that's a bit different. You try and figure out what it means. I even named a watch after a numberplate. So there's a watch called B 347 and if you think about it B 347 spells out 'beat'. I saw a number plate very similar to that on the motorway. It wasn't exactly that but it looked like B 347 and I was like, 'Oh my God. That's perfect'. I decided that was what the watch should be called. But no one really knew why I called it that. No one knows even to this day."
A Regtransfers exclusive, right there! Sadly George doesn't actually own B 347. "No, I don't have that plate and I don't even think it's been issued."
What he does have is his favourite number plate on his favourite car: that jaw-dropping Ferrari bears the registration GHB 5.
"Yes, GHB. I'm very lucky to have had a few of them and, you know, the first was bought by my father, years and years ago. It was very forward thinking of him to buy it with my initials. I'm very lucky to have got that number plate from him."
George has accumulated quite a collection. In addition to his initials plates, he has quite a few of those he described earlier: plates he considers perfect for certain cars regardless of whether they immediately convey meaning to an onlooker. His current list includes BWD and BW registrations for Bamford Watch Department and Bamford Watches and registrations relating to his wife's name, Leonora. George's father, JCB managing director Anthony Bamford, the only man ever to own two Ferrari 250 GTOs, also has his own number one initial registration and GTO-related plates.
When we expressed our appreciation of the Bamford family as customers, George was quick to reciprocate very kindly.
"What I love about your brand is that you've built up a name that is really synonymous with giving good customer service and delivering number plates to customers in the right way. You always have the best plates and you've been in the industry so long that you're the trusted name. That's the great thing about Regtransfers: it's the trusted name in number plates."
And we think that's the perfect place to end. We're very grateful to George for his time, his hospitality and his boundless enthusiasm.
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Location photography: Amy England