Exploring the Heuer Autavia “Villeneuve”

A few years earlier I had learned a little history of the Heuer watch company while writing about it’s most famous creation, the Heuer Monaco automatic chronograph.   I would say controversially famous because despite the technological innovation of marketing the first automatic chronograph movement followed by the bold design masterstroke of housing it in a square case with a contralaterally placed crown – the watch sold poorly.  That is, it sold poorly until legendary actor and film maker Steve McQueen chose to wear it on screen for approximately 15 minutes in the movie Le Mans.

Then a few weeks ago an email from a vintage watch reseller, who also writes engaging blogs to cleverly market their ever shifting inventory, appeared and sent me down the rabbit hole again.  This time with a Heuer watch with a true motorsports provenance dear to my heart.  The Autavia Chronograph model named after and worn by Canadian Formula One driver, Gilles Villeneuve.

After reading about the watch, I did a quick search and one was readily for sale at a local Toronto jewellery store. But I’m a cheap bastard and would never spend that much on a watch, unless it had been worn by Villeneuve … but then it would be worth so much more.   So Canadian, he got his start racing snowmobiles and then drove for Ferrari for many years, nearly becoming World Champion in 1979.   Quick and like a devil on the track, he was also known as a sensitive gentleman off it and died during qualifying at the 1982 Belgian GP after crashing into a slower car.

The Autavia model name first appeared on a dashboard mounted stopwatch in 1933 used to time both automotive and aviation speed competitions. In 1962 the first wrist chronographs bearing the same name were introduced and continued evolving until 1985. In 2012 TagHeuer reintroduced the Autavia line for its 50th anniversary. The early watches were of course manually wound and even when the automatic movement known inhouse as Calibre 11 and Calibre 12 became available, some of models in the mid to late 1970s still featured manual Valjoux movements for their proven reliability and accuracy. Dials could feature two or three subdials and Heuer became a pioneer in motorsports marketing establishing themselves as the watch chosen and worn by professional drivers in the upper echelons of Formula One. Heuer created distinct models worn by drivers such as Jochen Rindt, Mario Andretti, Derek Bell, Graham Hill, Gilles Villeneuve and of course the greatest Heuer Ambassador of them all, Jo Siffert (with whom became the driver that Steve McQueen modelled his own movie character). It was such a different time, when such watches were not luxury items and priced sensibly to be within reach for even the average working man who perhaps demonstrated disciplined savings. Formula One drivers themselves did not make silly money either, nor did any other professional athletes of the time. Income disparity of our times is undoubtedly a factor in the political unrest we see in all Western democracies.

It was definitely a different time, a time when sending in proof of purchase for 10 packs of Viceroy cigarettes would get you an Autavia for only $88. That’s like only a week’s worth of smokes for the true 1970s man.  Heuer experienced great growth in the US market in the 1960s but it began to fall off in the next decade.  Similarly, Viceroy cigarettes was known to cater to a female demographic and seeing falling sales wanted to appeal to more men.   By associating the brand to a real racing team they sought to further attract more men by offering this fantastic deal with Heuer.
The Viceroy Autavia had a reference number of 1163V. Nearly identical to the 1163, the Viceroy had red tipped hands, 12 numerals on the left subdial and a tachymeter bezel.  It was a real Autavia and not some special diluted facsimile created for the promotion.  Heurer moved several thousand of these units along with attracting attention to their other models. The Viceroy advertising campaign allowed Heurer to appear in publications well beyond their meagre marketing budget and was an enormous success.

Autavia OrangeBoy
The restless marketing mind of Jack Heuer in action. This is the relatively rare “Orange Boy” variant reference 73363 featuring the Valjoux 7733 manual movement. The nearly identical Benrus Dato Reference 73463 and the Zodiac Reference 73463 clearly demonstrate their Heuer origins and use the Valjoux 7734 manual movement with the date register. Heuer made watches for Benrus, Zodiac, Clebar, Bulova, Hamilton, Fresard, Tradition (Sears & Roebuck brand) and many more brands in this era to increase their production and sales.  As values rise for the real Heuers, these alternate branded versions also rise.  It is interesting that Heuer Leonidas SA never appeared stamped on the movement and only the ersatz manufacturer.

It was this interesting revelation with the 3rd generation of Autavia models which ran the manual Valjoux movements beginning in 1972 that gave me an idea.    I was never going to pay $5-6k USD for a vintage Heuer Autavia when I could have bought a case of smokes for $5 and paid $88 for a Viceroy Autavia in 1972.   The prices for some vintage watches are driven by speculators and profiteers who care nothing for the watch or the story behind it. 

But I could buy a Valjoux 7733 powered vintage chronograph that very likely was manufactured by Heuer, buy some compatible hands of the correct color and style, and a redial to create a convincing Franken Autavia.

The Roxy Diving chronograph is in excellent shape, a German brand established in 1935 as a subsidiary of Castan and Kotalik of Pforzheim but long defunct.  The glaring error of the redial is that 17 Jewels – Incabloc never appeared on any Heuer.  This space was typically left blank and very occasionally imprinted with the name of a famous Heuer retailer, like Gubelin, a jewellery store which began in Lucerne and expanded to Zurich, Geneva, St. Moritz and NYC.  Collectors swarm over these ultra rare examples.


Fakes abound on eBay, despite assurances of authenticity. Again the dial is a glaring fake although apparently certain French brands made by Heuer had this type of imprinting. But then they would not be labelled Heuer and also by French law would require the additional line “Fab.Suisse” above “Swiss” and certainly not the “Swiss Made” shown.  Autavia does not appear on the dial and every single Heuer Autavia has an external bezel along with some variation of dauphine hands and never ones with squared ends.
Hands and dials successfully swapped after grueling precision. But the simplest thing I can’t get done is seating the crown back in!   The visibility of the “Panda” subdials is significantly better than the Roxy dial.   The Roxy was truly mint, likely never worn, and freshly serviced.  Off to the watchmaker it is.
Very similar to this early 7763 sample.

Some might criticize me for making this watch, but I have no intention of selling it as a Heuer Autavia and this was only performed as an exercise.  The issue at heart is that the value of these vintage watches has increased so much that they are now considered luxury items when that was never their original intention.   In 1972 a 12″ B&W table top TV cost about as much as the $88 Viceroy Autavia.  A larger 20″ B&W TV would be similar to a regular priced Autavia.  A 20″ color TV would cost as much as a Heuer Monaco.   So these watches were well within the purchasing power of even the average worker, with some careful budgeting and saving.  But today all the esteemed Swiss mechanical brands have moved into the luxury market in order to remain profitable and I greatly respect their business acumen.  This move has also affected vintage values to unanticipated levels, motivating unscrupulous sellers to manufacture counterfeit watches. 

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