Vintage Carreras and Monacos may hog the limelight, but to true aficionados of Heuer’s motoring chronographs, the Autavia is hot property.
There is one question that divides music lovers into two related, but utterly separate camps: “Lennon or McCartney?” The infectious melodies of Paul versus the political lyrics and blues edge of John. When 550 musicians were recently asked this question in a survey, the results were surprising. Not because Paul thumped John, or vice versa, but because the answer, frequently, was Harrison. Long live the contrarians.
In the world of vintage Heuers, the equivalent question is “Carrera or Monaco?” The legend of these two chronographs is writ large, in no small part because of their revival in the late 1990s as faithful re-editions. The spirits of both iconic designs cast long shadows, which stretch from the past, arch over today and extend into the future. Both models form a core part of the TAG Heuer range today just as they did 45 years ago. The Carrera, launched in 1963, is the smaller and more classic of the two, with its clear circular dial in contrast to the ‘70s bright blue of the outrageous square Monaco.
When posed the Carrera or Monaco question, the answer for many Heuer collectors, and not just the contrarians, is “Autavia”. Because while the Carrera and Monaco are today synonymous with motor racing, it’s the Autavia that was, according to historical fact at least, the real deal, with the first Autavia used to time car races.
It’s the Autavia that came first and it’s the Autavia that outlived its famous siblings, remaining in the catalogue right up to the bitter end of Heuer in 1985. The Autavia was the heart and soul of the Heuer range for more than 30 years, and yet today is a model almost forgotten by all but the loyal Heuer devotees.
And, as you can see above, it wasn't just actors or motor racing drivers who could be found wearing a Heuer Autavia. Mick Jagger, left, sports an Autavia as he shares a joke with John Lennon and (to a lesser extent) Yoko Ono. Picture by Bob Gruen.
Despite its relative obscurity, the Autavia model has a fascinating story and it’s not without the odd twist and turn. The model began as a stopwatch rather than a wristwatch, its name being a portmanteau of “AUTo- AVIAtion”, the intended market for the range of timers that were mounted on plane and car dashboards. In his autobiography, Jack Heuer recounts the story of how, in his rallying days, in one race he misread the dial of his car’s Autavia dashboard timer by one minute, meaning that he placed third instead of first. As he recounts:
“This error infuriated me and I realised that the dial of the ‘Autavia’ stopwatch was unclear, confusing and very difficult to read correctly in a speeding rally car.”
Needless to say, a re-design was on the cards. Two new timers were developed, the “Autorallye” and the “Monte Carlo”, and the Autavia was promptly retired. But despite this, Jack Heuer – who had a thing for nomenclature, his favourite thing about the Carrera being “the way it sounds” – loved the name and decided to re-use Autavia for his new range of Chronographs.
Jack Heuer had taken control of the family business in 1961, averting the sale of Heuer S.A to Bulova. One of his first missions was to revitalise the company’s range of chronographs, and he began with a clean-sheet design that was the first Heuer chronograph to feature a turning bezel. After 12 months of development, the Autavia Chronograph was launched and became an instant sales success.
A legend is born
This first generation Autavia is perhaps the most elegant of all subsequent designs, with its 38mm stainless steel case resembling a larger early Carrera case, but with rounder, softer lugs. The very first models featured oversized registers and dauphine hands. Powering the new chronograph range were the hand-wound twins from Valjoux, the 92 (two register) and the legendary 72 (three register) calibres.
The second generation Autavia followed in 1968, with a lightly refreshed 40mm compression case that had flatter, squarer lugs. But the major changes came the following year, when Heuer launched its in-house automatic chronograph movement, the Calibre 11. Determined to make sure that the world noticed the “newness” of the Calibre 11-powered range, Jack Heuer totally redesigned the Carrera and Autavia in 1969 and launched a new chronograph designed to attract everyone’s attention – the Monaco.
This third-generation Autavia changed its looks entirely, with its cushion case and short, square lugs. While the first generation Autavias were largely an exercise in monochrome, these new designs brought with them a range of colourful dials, including perhaps the best-known Autavia of all: reference 1163T with a white dial and bright blue highlights, known as the “Siffert” Autavia.
Joseph “Jo” Siffert was a Swiss Formula 1 driver, who cut his teeth driving for the works Porsche Sportscar team. Siffert was one of the first drivers sponsored by Heuer, earning CHF25,000 for placing the Heuer logo on his race suit. Not only quick behind the wheel, he also had a keen eye for a deal, as Jack Heuer recounted to me a few years ago:
“Jo was a born ‘wheeler and dealer’ and he would always have a collection of watches, that he would place with all of his friends on the circuit, at somewhere between wholesale and retail prices.
“We didn’t mind of course because it was in public and so actually, on the Formula 1 circuit, if you looked around, they all wore a Heuer Chronograph…all bought from Jo! So, we supplied him- he paid for it, right, but he got wholesale. We were very supportive of that trading activity because he put it exactly in the right hands of those in his world.”
Jo Siffert’s other significant contribution to the Heuer legend was the role he played in getting Steve McQueen to wear a Heuer Monaco.
Siffert was McQueen’s mentor during the filming of the movie Le Mans in 1971, and McQueen wanted to look as authentic as possible, choosing to wear the same Gulf-striped race suit as Siffert, including the iconic ‘Heuer Chronograph’ badge.
McQueen also followed Jo’s lead in wearing a Heuer Chronograph, But rather than Siffert’s Autavia, he chose the Monaco. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that while the real driver wore the Autavia, the actor wore a Monaco.
The third generation Autavia lived on through the 1970s and into the mid 1980s essentially unchanged, apart from the odd new dial colour or small change to the case (reference numbers 11630 and 11063).
While other movements were offered, right until the end you could buy an Autavia with Heuer’s own movement. But when the Heuer brand died in 1985, the Autavia followed, as TAG Heuer set about transforming the company and its model range.
The modern Autavia
You might expect that when TAG Heuer began to revisit its past in 1996 with the re-edition series, it might have started with the Autavia.
But instead it chose to remake the Carrera and Monaco, each of which wore the ‘Heuer’ shield and marketed these two models as flag-bearers for the brand’s heritage. The return of the Autavia would have to wait for another legendary comeback – the return of Jack Heuer.
In 1999 TAG Heuer was acquired by LVMH, which installed Jean-Christophe Babin as CEO. The young Babin, mindful of his inexperience in the watch market, set about luring Jack Heuer back to the company that he left in acrimonious fashion back in 1982.
But Jack Heuer wanted to be more than simply a figurehead and immediately after his first meeting with Babin in 2001, a letter quickly followed with ideas for new watches. Top of that list was the revival of the Autavia. Just as he did in 1961, Jack Heuer played a key part in the development and design of the new, fourth generation Autavia.
Launched in 2003, the new 43mm Autavia was different in execution to the Monaco and Carrera re-editions. For starters, it wore the ‘TAG Heuer’ badge rather than ‘Heuer’ and instead of being a remake of a past model, was instead a modern interpretation of the 1970s Autavia case.
TAG Heuer even went as far as fitting a new-generation Calibre 11 movement, which shifted the crown to the left-hand side of the case, just like the third-generation model of 1969. Despite seeming to tick all the right boxes, the TAG Heuer Autavia was not a sales success. While collectors lined up for the Monaco and Carrera remakes, the Autavia proved difficult to move. ‘‘Not enough like the old one”, they said.
Perhaps the watch would have been more of a success if it had looked exactly like the old one, but that is not Jack Heuer’s way - his Autavia was a modern interpretation of the classic look and having designed the vintage Autavia once, he didn’t feel the need to simply copy one of his greatest hits.
And so by 2005, the Autavia disappeared again. Even the 50th anniversary of the Autavia in 2012 failed to generate a cursory press release, let alone a commemorative edition. But the Autavia story didn’t quite end in 2005, because in the last 5 years or so, collectors began to wake up to the 2003 TAG Heuer Autavia, to the extent that today it commands prices higher than those first Monaco and Carrera re-editions.
There is an enduring attraction it seems, beyond the draw of “retro” or trends, that keeps people coming back to the Autavia. And while in 2015 we don’t have a watch called Autavia in the TAG Heuer range, if you look close enough you’ll see that the 2015 TAG Heuer Formula 1 series uses the same basic case design as the 2003 Autavia. So, the Autavia returns, albeit by stealth.
The weight of marketing dollars today supports the legacies of the Carrera and Monaco lines, and indeed they each have proud histories and stories worth telling. But you can’t tell the story of TAG Heuer’s modern history without placing the Autavia at the centre where Jack Heuer, and I for that matter, believe it belongs.
The four generations of the Heuer Autavia
First Generation: Autavia 2446
The classic version of the screwback-case Autavia is this “Panda” black dial with three white registers, indicating the use of Valjoux’s legendary 72 Calibre. These early 2446 Autavias are among the most collectible of any vintage Heuer – the earlier, the better, and the more valuable.
Second Generation: Autavia 2446C
The second generation compression case squares off some of the soft curves of the earlier generation and adds a splash of red to the dial and central chronograph hand. Again using the Valjoux 72, this was the last Autavia to be offered with only a hand-wound movement.
Third Generation: Autavia 11063 GMT
The GMT Autavia was a staple from the early days, with each version sporting the distinctive red and blue bezels. As many collectors know, these bezels unfortunately wear easily, meaning that there are few examples today in mint condition. This example dates from the early 1980s and is the last of the GMT Autavias with Heuer’s own Calibre 14 movement.
Fourth Generation: Autavia CY2110
Despite not resonating with collectors at the time, the white-dial TAG Heuer Autavia is fast finding popularity a decade after it was first released. The combination of the classic “Siffert” colours and modern ETA-derived Calibre 11 movement is the way to get the vintage Autavia look with modern TAG Heuer reliability.
David Chalmers is the founder of Calibre11, the blog dedicated to all things vintage Heuer.