A timely tribute to a racing legend
If there’s an intellectual laziness to the question, “What’s your favourite watch?”, there’s far more taxing a challenge in the demand, “What makes a watch great?” Greatness in watches is hard to define, although watch cognoscenti typically get it right. What then of the new Tag Heuer Autavia? Is it a great watch?
If the question seems at all pressing (#watchworldproblems), it’s because this year the company has relaunched the Autavia for the first time in nearly 15 years, and, if you ask those cognoscenti, the first time properly since it was discontinued in the mid-Eighties.
Tag Heuer’s current catalogue is awash with watchmaking legends, the Carrera, the Monaco and the Monza first among them. But before all of those came the Autavia, introduced in 1933 as a dashboard stopwatch for drivers and pilots — its name is a portmanteau of “automobile” and “aviation” — and as a wristwatch chronograph in 1962, at the start of a decade that saw Heuer (as it was then known) turn from a maker of industrial instruments into one of the planet’s sexiest brands.
In the early Sixties, Heuer, like the Swiss watch industry, was moving into one of its most successful periods. The Autavia was the brainchild of Jack Heuer, the company’s then 30-year-old boss and the great-grandson of its founder. Heuer saw how the speed and glamour of motor racing was capturing the minds of ambitious men, and decided to create a wristwatch that both racing drivers and spectators could use and wear.
His new timepiece was sold with the promise that it was “guaranteed to function perfectly at altitudes of up to 35,000ft or depths of 330ft under water”.
It was a huge success, so much so that by the Sixties’ end, Heuer was reckoned to enjoy around 10 per cent of the premium wrist chronograph market. The Autavia was a king among chronographs and became a pit lane favourite, worn by F1 legends Jo Siffert, Mario Andretti, Giles Villeneuve, Niki Lauda and Jacky Ickx.
In the Seventies, however, the bottom fell out of the Swiss watch market as quartz swept mechanical watchmaking aside. By the end of the decade, Heuer’s Swiss workforce had fallen to just 78. In 1985, the Autavia was shelved as the company, bought that year by Techniques d’Avant Garde, focused its attentions elsewhere.
In the 32 years since, Swiss mechanical watchmaking has enjoyed a remarkable upturn in fortune. But despite that, the Autavia has reappeared only fleetingly.
Then, in 2016, Tag Heuer announced the Autavia Cup, an online competition asking fans to choose a historic reference from the Autavia archive to form the basis for a new model. The winner, with a three-counter “reverse panda” dial and an unusual 12-hour bezel, was known as the “Rindt” after the Autavia-wearing Austrian racing driver Jochen Rindt, killed during practice at the 1970 Italian Grand Prix, but who became Formula One’s only posthumous world champion. At the 2016 Baselworld watch fair, the new Autavia, an homage to the Rindt, was launched.
The challenge of updating the Rindt for a contemporary audience was handed to Tag Heuer’s lead designer, Christoph Behling. “The new Autavia re-edition captures both the spirit of the past and the spirit of today,” he says. “It captures the first moment when Heuer watches and automotive really connected. It has all the intrinsic fine details on the dial as the original but it has a bolder, more confident case. As such it feels what the Autavia felt like when it came out in the Sixties; bold and disruptive, yet very classy and historic.”
That case is larger than the original, inflated to 42mm from what in 1962 was already a bold 39mm. Inside it is Tag Heuer’s most advanced chronograph calibre, the Heuer 02, a unit with a three-day power reserve that’s 6.9mm, and said to be easier to service than most. It’s a convincing reboot, seamlessly merging old and new.
“There are two things that guide my design taste,” writes Jack Heuer in the recently published Autavia — Story of an Icon. “One is that analogue dials have to be legible for safety reasons, which I learned at university. Because if you misread a dial in a power station it could be a disaster. In addition, I was a fan of modern architecture by Saarinen and Niemeyer.”
“They did a very good job recreating the Autavia,” actor Patrick Dempsey, who recently directed To Jack in homage to Jack Heuer, tells Esquire. “The Autavia was special to Jack and represented him. Had he not had the success with the Autavia, he wouldn’t have done the Carrera. The new watch is consistent to the Autavia’s legacy.”
While it certainly makes sense to have it back, the question remains: is the Autavia a great watch? If the answer is yes, it’s not because of its design or functionality, although both are winning. No, the Autavia is a great watch because it tells the story of both the company that made it and the industry behind it. And that, for the record, is what makes a watch great.