TAG Heuer Autavia Chronometer Flyback (CBE511B.FC8279)
The TAG Heuer Autavia, the maison’s cockpit-inspired watch, is in fact the first of the company’s “Big Three” references, predating both the Monaco and the Carrera. Its strong features are rooted in history and steeped in confidence; it’s been a trusted tool for adventurers everywhere, for decades. And it’s always been at the cutting edge of its era, whether through its readability, its watertight compressor case, or as the first automatic chronograph movement.
In 2022, to celebrate the timepiece’s 60th anniversary, we’re welcoming a release of three new TAG Heuer Autavia. The new editions will echo the original in terms of case design, but will bring a fresh 21st-century perspective with chrono pushers, an extra large crown, a bi-directional 60-minute bezel and a sapphire caseback.
But before we get carried away with the new release, let’s put ourselves in reverse and tell the story of the TAG Heuer Autavia’s origins.
A tale as old as time: chronographs
Chronograph literally means “time writer,” though considering the use and function of the instrument, “time recorder” would perhaps be more accurate. Heuer’s “Time of Trip” chronograph, which debuted in 1911 made the company the biggest name in high-precision dashboard timing instruments for rally drivers and motor racers.
The family’s interest in aviation led them to rethink the timer both for the car and the aeroplane, which led to the name “Autavia,” (a combination of the words “automotive” and “aviation”), and ultimately the christening of the dashboard timer known as the Autavia, accurate to ⅕ of a second.
Originally, the Autavia was conceived as one of a series of dashboard instruments made by Heuer and was generally paired with a Hervue clock, a clock with an eight-day movement. Heuer instruments were the choice of rally drivers and, by the middle of the century, anyone who loved motorsports, including a young, recently graduated Jack Heuer.
Jack (Heuer) of all trades
To show off the family company’s dashboard instruments, a young Jack Heuer started to participate in car rallies. In his second rally, he and a teammate were close to finishing first, but came in third. Jack was furious at the loss, blaming the fact that he had misread the dial. He called the Autavia dashboard stopwatch “unusable rubbish” and stopped its production. Withdrawn from the product line, the old Autavia thus became redundant, but Jack loved the name and wanted to put it to use.
At the time he joined, Heuer was still a stopwatch company and Jack realised it was important to have the brand recognised for its wristwatches, too. When times got tough for Heuer, Jack’s uncle wanted to sell, so Jack offered to buy his uncle’s shares. And that’s how, at just 28, he took over the company. Immediately upon taking control, he decided that what the company needed was a new type of wrist-worn chronograph. His first priority? To recreate the Autavia as a wrist chronograph.
A modern chronograph for a modern man
Jack’s vision was for a completely different kind of watch: one that was recognisable at a glance, that captured the vigour and excitement of piloting (whether an automobile or airplane); a watch that used the latest technology, with useful new functions, and one that was, of course, easily legible under all conditions. Jack, guided by his quest for readability and his admiration for designers like the Eames and Le Corbusier, aimed to launch the modern chronograph for the modern man. The result would be one of the most significant timepieces in the history of the company.
When launched in 1962, the Autavia was a major departure for the brand, the fruit of two decades of design evolution compressed into just a couple of months. The watch boasted a Valjoux 72 hand-wound movement and a rotating bezel. At 39mm in diameter when measured at the bezel, it was a large watch for its time. The stylish notched bezel with its 12 divisions catered to the wearer who might, at any moment, fly halfway around the world—hence, the second time zone display.
It was bold, it was modern, it was stylish and it was certainly highly legible. The very first Autavia brochure claimed: “New Autavia Chronographs for pilots, sportsmen, divers and scientists,” essentially presenting it as a miracle watch. Overall, the watch was advertised as a modern timepiece for the modern man, intended as a tool for a man who could fly a plane as easily as drive a sports car.
The Autavia on the road
In January 1962 in the Ferrari pits at the 12 Hours of Sebring race in Florida, Jack had an epiphany: that the spectators and fans of motor racing were a “natural target client group for Heuer.” It was at Sebring that he first heard about the fabled Carrera Panamericana, which, among other things, led Jack to trademark Carrera as a future watch name.
Jack had the brilliant idea for Heuer to sponsor the promising young Swiss racing driver: Jo Siffert. Siffert had gotten famous after stealing the British Grand Prix from experienced drivers like Jackie Stewart and Jacky Ickx. He also drove for Porsche in endurance races including the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“Gentlemen, Heuer presents… the World’s First Automatic Chronograph”
The launch of what would become the Calibre 11 Chronomatic took place in high style in 1969, with sales up a staggering 34% from the preceding year. The automatic Autavia was the watch to wear. As the new decade dawned, it signified that its wearer was hip to the very latest technical developments.
What was new and exciting about the automatic movement? It was easy to read with its larger (42 mm) tonneau or C-shaped case. Its movement construction dictated that the winding crown be positioned at 9 o’clock on the case. This idiosyncratic crown location was evidence of the mechanism’s superiority: By placing the crown on the left of the case, this new watch was showing that once wound, the motion of the wearer’s wrist rendered winding the crown almost redundant, hence its placement on the other side of the dial.
Heuer Autavia (1563MH)
The Autavia is inextricably linked with the high glamour of motor racing’s glory days. And indeed, motor racing proved the perfect medium for promoting the new Autavia. Jo Siffert was the first active driver-slash-salesman, and a successful one at that. But besides Siffert, famed motorsport pilots and Autavia wearers included Derek Bell, Jochen Rindt, Mario Andretti, Clay Regazzoni, Graham Hill (who, true to the Autavia spirit, was an airplane pilot as well), and Gilles Villeneuve. These were days of high-octane, cigarette smoking glamour.
All the colours and shapes of the Autavia
To date there are over 85 Autavia references that exist, in varying colours, shapes and sizes. From their introduction in 1962 through the mid-1960s, Autavias were black and white (or white and black). The Autavias of the 1970s reflected the mood of the decade, with the modern C-shaped case and a burst of colors, including yellow and orange, the latter particularly popular in the 70s. Red was first used as an accent in the compressor cases of the late 1960s, but dominated the 1970s, and it evoked a strong theme of motor racing.
Heuer Autavia 2446 "Rindt"
New ends and new beginnings
When Heuer was acquired by Techniques d’avant-garde in 1985, tastes had changed and the rugged versatility of the Autavia seemed out of place. The Autavia, however, did go out with a bit of a bang, with a large coated case available in four colours, including a gold-plated version with a gilt dial and registers.
And then…radio silence for the Autavia until 2003, when a watch bearing its name was released. It was certainly not a purist’s product, but the watch was dignified and held a link to the timepiece’s origins.
2016 clocked a never before seen move in luxury watchmaking. TAG Heuer introduced a world first in Swiss watchmaking: collector and fan-based design. Known as the Autavia Cup, this process opened a new chapter in the Autavia story. It also honoured the avant-garde ethos of the TAG (Techniques d’avant garde) era by using a new calibre entirely conceived and designed in-house, with assembly taking place at the brand’s Chevenez plant. The then newly created Atelier de Restauration had an integral part of this new Autavia chapter. Through the collaborative design process, one watch emerged as an overall favourite: the Autavia Ref. 2446 Mark 3, designed in 1966 and nicknamed the “Rindt” after the celebrated Formula 1 champion Jochen Rindt.
The 2017 Autavia model was, according to some, not a re-release but rather a completely new Autavia, a new branch on the model’s family tree, worthy of its name. The new model was more imposing than its fan-favourite ancestor from the 60s: It was 42 mm (rather than 39) with a 12-hour graduated bezel and a new Heuer 02 calibre proprietary chronograph movement. To meet modern-day requirements, it was self-winding with a reserve of 80 hours and water resistant to 100 metres. Overall, it was legible, balanced and, of course, avant garde.
Finally, the Autavia returned as a full collection in 2019. Drawing inspiration from the timepiece’s original design, the new collection offered quality, precision and timeless style. Seven COSC-certified Calibre 5 models made up the sporty Autavia collection – five in sleek stainless steel and two in noble bronze, with a range of strap options to choose from.
TAG Heuer Autavia Chronometer Flyback (CBE511C.FC8280)
The 2022 editions, released to honour the collection’s 60-year legacy, are a tribute to the intoxicating freedom of the open road, or tarmac. Building on the iconic codes of the Autavia’s origins, the new releases shift this legendary timepiece into high gear. New features and a bold, contemporary look with extra large crown and chrono pushers provide an updated take on legibility for today’s adventurer.
Ready to ride off into the sunset?
TAG Heuer Autavia GMT (WBE511A.BA0650)