June 13, 2024

The original 1962 Autavia was offered in a choice of two- or three-register models, both of them manual-winding chronographs with black and white dials in round stainless-steel cases. By the end of its run, however, the Autavia had been produced with a dazzling array of dials, cases, hands, movements, bezels and bracelets.

Throughout its life, there were basically two styles of Autavia – the models from 1962 to 1969 used traditional round cases and were powered by manual-wind movements, while the models from 1969 used C-shaped cases, to house both the new automatic movements and the manual-wind versions. In this article, we look at the models – and there were close to 25 – offered by Heuer from 1962 to 1969. In a subsequent article, we will cover the Autavias produced from 1969 through 1985.

The Racer’s Chronograph

To understand the Autavia that Ed. Heuer & Co. launched in 1962, we start with Jack Heuer, the great-grandson of company founder Edouard Heuer. Trained as an engineer, Jack joined the company in 1958 when he was 25, travelling to America the following year with the aim of growing the company’s US market share in stopwatches. At the time Heuer only had about a 2-3 per cent share in the US, compared to a dominant 20-25 per cent in the rest of the world.

In his heart, however, young Jack was a racer (on skis and in a car), so he found himself spending more time peddling his stopwatches and timing gear at the racetracks, than at less exciting outlets such as laboratories, schools or military bases. And, while the corporate objective may have been to promote the stopwatches, Jack’s passion lay in designing chronographs for the racers.

Jack knew what the racers wanted: legibility, so that they could determine the time in an instant. This dictated the largest possible registers, contrasting with the colour of the dial, plus a main dial cleared of scales and markings that might interfere with quick, reliable readings. Racers wanted reliability, suggesting stout stainless-steel cases and rugged Valjoux movements and a strong, sporty style, different from the chronographs that might be worn with a suit. Jack added one more feature to create the ultimate tool watch – a rotating bezel that the racer or pilot could use to measure elapsed time, to determine speed over a measured distance or to track the time in a second
time zone.

Combining the words “automobile” and “aviation”, the name “Autavia” declared that Heuer’s new chronograph was built for racers and pilots. The fact that the watch had a model name was itself an innovation that added to its appeal – previously chronographs produced by the company were known only by their reference numbers.

As Jack travelled from track to track and race to race, selling his timing equipment, he now also had the chronograph that people wanted – whether weekend racers, rally drivers, navigators, or world champions. Mario Andretti and Jochen Rindt both wore Autavias in the 1960s, while Derek Bell, Steve McQueen, Clay Regazzoni, Jo Siffert and Gilles Villeneuve followed suit in the 1970s. No other watch, from any brand, had this dominant presence in the pits and paddocks during the golden age of racing and rallying.

It is difficult to draw precise lines between the different models and executions. Rather than having clear breaks between different models – as we have with model years for most cars – Heuer typically changed cases, dials, hands, bezels and other elements at different points in time. As existing supplies ran out, Heuer incorporated the new components, sometimes resulting in “transitional” models that puzzle collectors, even to this day. In this article, we will focus mainly on the changes in dials and cases, addressing other elements as they were paired with these.

While there were numerous variations of the 1960s Autavias, all of them shared some essential features – they were all manual-wind chronographs, in round stainless-steel cases, with rotating bezels and backs marked “Stainless  Steel Chronograph – Waterproof – Guaranteed 330 Feet Under Water”. And, importantly, they were built well enough that collectors continue to enjoy them, 55 years after they left the factory.

The Screw-Back Case Autavias

First Execution Dial – “Big Subs”

The first execution Autavia dials had oversized registers, known today as “Big Subs”, which would distinguish them from all models that would follow. The watch was offered in two models – with three registers (including a 12-hour recorder) or with two registers (first, with a 30-minute recorder, soon replaced by a 45-minute recorder). The dials had painted luminous markers with baton-shaped markers and numerals at 12 o’clock (and 6 o’clock on the two-register model). The hands were dauphine-shaped, with the first execution hands being covered entirely in radium and the hands on later executions having polished metal edges, with full luminous inserts.

Cases were 39mm, measured across the bezel, with the bevelled lugs having three surfaces – top, side and chamfer between these two main surfaces. Waterproofing was ensured by the use of a screw-back case and round pushers to operate the chronograph.

Second Execution Dial – Dots and Dashes

Within two years of its debut, Heuer redesigned the Autavia dial. The basic black-and-white colour scheme remained, but almost every other detail was updated. The “Big Subs” of the first generation yielded to smaller registers, which are a more standard size for the era and which continued for the life of the 1960s Autavia. Hours were marked by a combination of luminous dots and applied metal markers, with no use of numerals. Hands were metal-edged dauphine hands, first with wide lume and later with thinner lume.

Third Execution Dial / Second Execution Case – As Worn by Andretti and Rindt

Introduced in 1965/66, the longest running of the early Autavias was the third execution dial in the second execution case. This screw-back case had the same size and basic geometry as the first case, with the most noticeable difference being a narrower bezel. The third execution dial had large steel hour markers, with lume plots applied directly on the ends of the markers. Hands were the thin matchstick variety with luminous inserts.

Today’s collectors have named the three-register model the “Rindt”, as it was the model worn by the 1970 Formula 1 World Champion, while the two-register model is called the “Andretti”, as this model was worn by Indianapolis 500 winner and future Formula 1 World Champion, Mario Andretti.

The Transitional Autavia Case

Marking the transition between the first execution bevelled-edge cases (wide bezel) and the second execution bevelled-edge cases (narrow bezel), Heuer produced a short run of “transitional” cases. This case has straight non-bevelled lugs – with no chamfer between the top and side surfaces – and the wide bezel of the first execution case.

Fourth Execution Dial – All Lume Markers

The last dial used in the screw-back case Autavia appeared for a very short production run (circa 1968), just prior to the start of the compressor case Autavias. The distinctive feature of this dial is that its rectangular hour markers are all luminous material, applied directly to the dial. This is reminiscent of the very first Autavias, except that the earlier versions used numerals for the 12 (and the 6 on the two-register model) and tritium replaced the radium used on the earlier models.

Special Order Tachymeter Dial

Heuer offered a special order dial in the second execution screw-back case, which has a tachymeter scale printed on the edge of the dial. Available in either two- or three-register versions, this Autavia has plain steel markers and triangular lume plots applied directly to the dial, with the numerals 12 and 6 formed in polished metal.

The Compressor Case Autavias

In 1968, Heuer changed the Autavia case from the screw-back configuration to a snap-back design “compressor” case. These cases had a larger diameter (40.5mm bezel diameter) and were deeper than the previous screw-back models, with thicker, angular lugs. Despite the new construction, the caseback markings remain the same as on all previous models – “Stainless Steel Chronograph – Waterproof – Guaranteed 330 Feet Under Water”.

First Execution Compressor Autavias

In the first execution models of the compressor case, Heuer carried forward most of the elements of the previous screw-back models – standard size registers, applied metal markers and simple matchstick hands. The bezels were updated, however, being built with groups of serrated teeth, with inserts indicating either hours, minutes/hours or the tachymeter scale. In the mid-1960s, Heuer incorporated a date window into the Carrera chronographs, and in 1968/69, Heuer brought this useful feature to the Autavia, in the Autavia 30 Dato.

Second Execution Compressor Autavias

The second execution compressor Autavias, introduced around 1970, introduced several design changes. The steel-polished markers on the dials were given black inserts, with adjacent red accents; there is a wide red chronograph second hand (in  place of the white second hand on the earlier models); the hands have black stripes; and the pushers change from smooth to fluted. The red accents on the compressor Autavias were the first use of colour on the Autavia dials, and would be carried forward to the next generation of automatic Autavias.

The Autavia GMTs

Around 1968, Heuer introduced its first Autavia GMT chronograph, which resided in a screw-back case. In addition to the standard hour and minute hands, there is a GMT hand that makes one revolution in 24 hours. This GMT hand may not be set independently of the primary hands, but the bezel is rotated to the appropriate plus/minus position and the time in a second time zone is determined by reading the GMT hand’s position on the bezel. The movement is the Valjoux 724, a modified version of the Valjoux 72.

As Heuer transitioned the Autavias from screw-back cases to compressor cases, the Autavia GMT chronographs made this same transition, moving to the ref. 2446C compressor case in around 1969. Uniform features for the GMTs included a bright “Pepsi” bezel, with all 24 numerals, with the night hours (19 to 5) on the blue area and the day hours (6 to 18) on the red area. There was also painted luminous markers for the hours, and a triangular tipped GMT hand.

The compressor-cased GMT Autavias followed the same basic evolution as the standard models, with the hands going from plain polished steel to more colourful hands, with red inserts and tips. The bright white registers grew from being smaller, in the earlier executions, to becoming larger, in the later ones.

The First Silver-Dialled Autavias

The first execution compressor model was the only early Autavia to feature a true “panda” dial design – a silver dial with either two or three black registers. These dials are thought to have been an early test for the American market (circa 1968), and it appears that these models never went into production. These silver-dialled versions of the two and three register Autavias are housed in the same cases as the standard models.

From the 1960s to the 1970s

The 1960s was a decade of rapid change in style, technology and popular culture. Consistent with this broader theme of change, in the first eight years of the Autavia chronograph, Heuer used a rapid succession of dials, cases, bezels, hands and other components, in offering two- and three-register models as well as GMT and date complications. Through it all, the Autavia emerged as the favoured chronograph of racers and motorsport enthusiasts.

The year 1969 would bring even more dramatic changes in the Autavia, as it would be powered by the newly-developed Caliber 11 automatic movement and housed in an entirely new C-shaped case. One thing that would not change, however, was the position of the Autavia as the chronograph of motorsport, as the Autavia would become even more popular among racers and their teams.

Wing and Wheel Logo of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

In the 1960s and 1970s, Heuer produced chronographs with a variety of logos, on a special order basis. We see many motorsport-related logos – for example, relating to the Shelby Cobra, Sunray DX and Cougar Trans Am teams – as well as logos related to street cars (such as Volvo, Audi Sport and MG) and aircraft (Beechcraft, for example). Considering the hierarchy of motorsport venues, and relatively scarcity of these watches, perhaps the most prized of all these logo-marked dials would be this Autavia with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway “Wing and Wheel” logo.

It is unclear who ordered these watches or how many were produced. The watch shown here was given as a gift from Tony Hulman, then the owner of the Speedway, to one of his business colleagues. The collectors community has seen fewer than five of these Wing and Wheel Autavias, making it among the rarest of the vintage Heuer chronographs.

Big Bucks for the Big Subs

December 2016 and January 2017 saw a significant break-out in prices for vintage Autavias, with two of the ref. 2446 “Big Subs” models setting records for vintage Heuer chronographs (other than the Heuers worn by Steve McQueen).

In December 2016, Christie’s sold a “Big Subs” Autavia with metal-edged hands for $125,000 at an auction in New York. While there had been reports of private sales of Autavias approaching the $100,000 mark, this public sale blew through that mark, with room to spare.

This record would not be on the books for long, however, as in January 2017 a Big Subs Autavia with all lume hands was sold for approximately $200,000 through a German dealer. The watch was listed on the Rarebirds.de site, and with social media support from Instagram, Hodinkee and the ChronoTrader forum, within six hours the watch had thousands of views and was sold to a private collector in the US.

The Autavia – It’s All About the Bezel

Over the course of its production from 1962 to 1985, a defining feature of the Heuer Autavia was the rotating bezel. Here, we have a look at the design and functions of this extra “tool” that added to the usefulness of the Autavia:

Minutes – Marked from 0 to 60 around the bezel, align the triangle with the minute hand at the start of an event, and the bezel shows the elapsed time. Numerals show the count every 10 minutes.

Hours – Marked from 1 to 12, the hour bezel can be used to count the elapsed hours or it can be pre-set so that the hour hand will show the time in a second time zone.

Minutes/Hours – Used on the later Autavias from 1969, this bezel is marked for both minutes and hours.

Tachymeter – The tachymeter converts the elapsed time (in seconds) over a measured distance (one mile or one kilometer) to the speed for that distance. Cover one mile in exactly 40 seconds, and the bezel shows the speed of 90 miles per hour.

Decimal Minutes – Rather than indicating the seconds, the decimal minutes bezel divides the minute into 100 units, making it easier to add and subtract different combinations.

GMT – Heuer’s approach to the GMT indication was to mark the bezel for all 24 hours, with a separate hand making one rotation per day. This hand may not be set independently of the watch’s main hands, but by rotating the bezel, the user is able to select a second time zone, with the time in that location being shown by reading the GMT hand on the GMT bezel.

Decompression – The seemingly random numbers on the bezel indicate the “bottom time” that will be safe for the diver, at specific depths. Align the arrow with the minute hand at the start of the dive, and when the minute hand reaches your depth, it’s time to return to the surface.

*With grateful thanks to Paul Gavin, Richard Crostwaite, Abel Court and Jeff Stein for supply of the watches.