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.
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 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.
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.