Tag Heuer

A timely trib­ute to a rac­ing le­gend

Esquire (UK) - - Watches - Robin Swith­in­bank

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.

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