A Week On The Wrist: The TAG Heuer Autavia 2017

A Week On The Wrist: The TAG Heuer Autavia 2017

Make no mistake, this is a thoroughly modern watch.

On my first official day here at HODINKEE, I walked into the office to find a surprise waiting for me. After I had a chance to settle in at my desk, Stephen handed me an unexpected treat: a watch that I had wanted to get on my wrist ever since it was announced in late 2016. He then asked me to wear it for seven consecutive days and deliver my impressions for one of my first HODINKEE articles. How could I say no? A few weeks later, here is A Week on the Wrist with the TAG Heuer Autavia 2017 – officially known as the Heuer Heritage Caliber Heuer 02.

There were qualities about the new Autavia that piqued my interest from the very beginning and kept bringing me back to it – the unusual process that went into its development (more on that later), the earnest approach to honoring a classic design and doing so thoughtfully, and the use of one of the great new affordable in-house chronograph calibers out there, to name just a few.

Autavia Cup winning watch on its side.

The all-new TAG Heuer Autavia Cup.

As I set out wearing this Autavia, it occurred to me that I’d written about it—as well as its equally interesting genesis—three times already, for different publications and in different contexts. Generally speaking, I tend to serially editorialize just the watches that I’d consider buying myself. That in mind, I can’t think of a better way to kick off my new role here than sharing my thoughts on the new Autavia after spending some serious quality time with it.

Here goes.

How This Watch Came To Be

The launch of the tribute watch we have here coincides with the 55th anniversary of the first Heuer Autavia wristwatch, released in 1962. The oh-so-popular and collectible sports watch was designed, as its name suggests, with both aviators and motorists in mind – the name is a contraction of “Auto” and “Avia.” The name Autavia appeared much earlier than 1962, however – but on dashboard clocks instead of wristwatches. These made their first appearances in 1933 and they could be fitted either into a plane’s cockpit or a car’s dash.

The first Autavia was not a watch at all, but a dash timer.

An early example of an Autavia dash timer.(Photo: Courtesy Jeff Stein, OnTheDash)

Vintage Autavias are among the most sought-after Heuers, with prices soaring in recent years. Generally speaking, they wear like modern watches because of their chunkier size. As a point of reference, the Heuer Autavia Ref. 2446 Mark 3 was a 39 mm timepiece, just a hair smaller than a modern Rolex Daytona. And while the Monaco is the most stylishly avant garde, coming in a square case made iconic by Steve McQueen, and the Carrera is the prototypical round racing watch that is still TAG Heuer’s number one bestseller, the Autavia precedes them both and is finally getting the recognition it has deserved all along.

The Biver Effect

Following last year’s successful revival of the Monza, TAG Heuer CEO Jean-Claude Biver turned his sights to another watch that was ripe for revival. But he did so with an unexpected twist that was itself aimed at drawing attention to the watch before its design had even been decided.

Jean Claude Biver has revitalized TAG Heuer.

TAG Heuer CEO and LVMH Watch Division boss Jean-Claude Biver.

He decided to pit 16 vintage Heuers against one another in head-to-head competitions in which collectors would vote them up or down online. The competition was called the Autavia Cup and it was formally announced at Baselworld 2016. After each round, there would be winners and losers, with the former advancing to the next round. Then, just a few weeks later, there would be one Autavia crowned king, and it would serve as the inspiration for the new generation Autavia, to premiere less than a year later.

Over the course of the competition, more than 50,000 votes were cast, reflecting a very enthusiastic engagement from Heuer fans around the world. And from those votes, we got our winner: the 1966 Autavia Ref. 2446 Mark 3, a watch that sold for $119.50 at its debut.

The winner of the Autavia Cup was announced in April 2016.

As our friend Jeff Stein of OnTheDash told HODINKEE earlier this year, he helped TAG Heuer arrange the bracket in such a way that none of the heavyweight favorites would knock each other out in the early rounds, making for a more compelling competition the entire way through. The differences were all in the details, and the Autavia Cup itself helped ignite interest in the history of this important model.

I can’t think of another example of a major watch brand crowd-sourcing a major watch launch like this. If you can, drop me a note in the comments, please.

Understanding The Rise Of Vintage Heuer

There are now early Heuer Autavias selling for more than $200,000. That is a staggering amount for a watch that was long overshadowed and, until this year, not even in the current production lineup. It’s really difficult to overstate just how meteoric the rise of the Autavia has been in the vintage market.

In December, a first-generation Heuer Autavia achieved a $125,000 hammer price at Christie’s New York, becoming the first-ever six-figure Autavia at auction. In a story on HODINKEE, Ben openly wondered if the tables might actually be turning for the Autavia, long the less pricey alternative to the Rolex Daytona, and the less beloved cousin of the Carrera.

This first generation Autavia fetched $125,000 at Christie’s in 2016.

Earlier last year, Phillips sold an example of the 2446 Mark Three Jochen Rindt for more than $76,000. Keep in mind, this is a watch that originally sold for $119.50 back in the 1960s. There’s enough evidence at this point to reasonably conclude that these results are not one-off aberrations, though not all Autavias were created equal, and the surge in prices is most acutely felt in very specific references.

“The values of 1960s Autavias have exploded in recent years, while the Autavias from the 1970s and 1980s have been strong, but not nearly as exceptional,” says Jeff Stein, founder of OnTheDash, a leading resource for collectible Heuer watches. “I believe that the traditional chronographs from the 1960s, with the classic Valjoux 72/92 movements will always have an advantage over the the C-shaped cases from the 1970s and ’80s, with their fatter, cam-actuated movements.”

heuer autavia

This Heuer Autavia sold for over $200,000 earlier this year, setting a new record for the model.

But even here, there are a few notable exceptions to the rule, as Stein says that the Chronomatics, “Orange Boys,” “Exotics,” and GMTs all have achieved high prices in the vintage Heuer marketplace and will continue to do so.

Geoff Hess, another Heuer expert with a reputation for also collecting the best in vintage Rolex, attributes the surge in popularity of vintage Heuer to what he calls “a perfect storm of factors.” Vintage watches are more popular now than at any other time. Heuer is celebrating its own history with well-made tribute pieces like the Autavia 2017; a large community of collectors has grown up around Heuer; and of course, with its associations with racing and film legends Mario Andretti, Jo Siffert, and Steve McQueen, vintage Heuer sport watches have achieved a level of coolness bested only by Rolex, which has become expensive enough to price out many collectors.

vintage autavia and modern tag heuer version side by side

The new Autavia and the watch that inspired it. (Photo: Jeff Stein for HODINKEE)

So where should you look for value, assuming you don’t have six figures to throw down on the best Autavias? Fortunately there are still plenty of opportunities to get great vintage Heuer watches at a  reasonable price, especially, as Stein says, if you’re willing to look at smaller watches from the ’40s and ’50s.

Now let’s get back to the new guy.

The Autavia 2017

While a watch is of course more than the sum of its parts, let’s break the Autavia 2017 down and get a sense of its strengths and weaknesses. I’ll say right off the bat that this watch’s main strengths are its dial and its movement, and that while its large case is going to be a deal breaker for some of you, I don’t think that it should be. In general, I’m a “just buy the bracelet version” kind of guy, and with this watch I’m willing to double down on that sentiment.

The Case

When you birth a modern sports watch from a 1960s design, lots of things will, by necessity, change. Generally speaking, in terms of performance, you can expect a whole lot more from the watch as a result of these cumulative changes. With the Autavia 2017, the most conspicuous difference from the Ref. 2446 Mark 3 is the watch’s dimensions. The Autavia 2017 is 42mm in diameter, compared to 39mm for the original. It sits high on the wrist (nearly 16 mm thick, not svelte by any stretch), putting this new Autavia in a size range that is definitely going to irk some of the purists out there. But with this concession to girth come modern enhancements that make it a wearable everyday watch for lots of situations in which one wouldn’t dare put any vintage watch, especially a rare and collectible one.

Side view of the Autavia 2017

This modern tribute to the Autavia comes with a nicely beveled—though undeniably thick—case.

Most obviously there is the water resistance to 100 meters – not too shabby for a chronograph that was originally designed for the race track. During my weeklong test-drive, I took this new specification to heart and used the Autavia 2017 to time a whitewater rafting adventure on the Saint Lawrence River rapids near Montreal. The watch and I were completely drenched by the end of the day, with cascading waves of rapids battering down on the Autavia strapped to my wrist. To be honest, I had second thoughts about bringing this loaner into such a punishing environment – it was only my first test drive for HODINKEE, after all – but it stood up to the battering and kept the water out just fine.

The Autavia case has a pretty standard three-part construction with a screw-in sapphire crystal caseback, offering a view of the Heuer 02 movement inside. The case middle’s sloping lugs look like they might just hug the wrist nicely, but they never really get a chance to offer any ergonomic benefit due to the protrusion of the caseback. Nonetheless, the package itself is well designed. Those lugs are nicely beveled along their edges too. This bit of finishing on the case is something we almost take for granted in modern timepieces positioned at a certain price point, but it’s hardly a common feature in vintage watches.

View of the crown and pushers of this watch.

The extra-thick sapphire crystal, beefy bezel, and thick case contribute to this watch’s nearly 16mm girth.

The Bracelet

For the majority of my review time with this watch, it was affixed to my wrist by an Aged Hunter Green leather strap from the HODINKEE Shop. I found the textured green nubuck a more-than-fitting companion for the black dialed Autavia, but I knew toward the end of the review period that I wanted to experience this watch on its supplied bracelet. (The only reason I did not do the entire test drive on the bracelet was that I was traveling and did not have the correct tool for subtracting links.) This bracelet, it should be noted, is special: a modern TAG Heuer-supplied tribute to the fantastic Gay Frères beads-of-rice bracelet that shipped with the original 2446 Mark 3. These old Gay Frères beauties have all of the suppleness and comfort of Milanese mesh, with the strength and form factor of a more conventional stainless steel construction.

Beautiful "beads of rice" bracelet on the Autavia 2017.

For a $150 upcharge, you can have this nice seven-row beads-of-rice bracelet.

For my last few days with the watch, I managed to switch over to the TAG Heuer-supplied beads-of-rice bracelet, which doesn’t quite hit the mark of the original from Gay Frères. But, to be honest, who would really expect it to? The new one from TAG Heuer is certainly comfortable enough when compared to modern bracelets supplied with similarly priced watches. It doesn’t tug at arm hairs or pinch your skin (these are the concerns I had when looking at it). It rounds out the look of this watch pretty well, and when you consider that the new Autavia is both larger and heavier than the 2446 Mark 3, it only makes sense that there should be more heft and sturdiness to this bracelet. For only a $150 premium over the supplied leather strap, it just makes good plain sense to go for the bracelet when buying the Autavia 2017.

The Dial
autavia 2017 dial oblique view

The dial is a well composed copy of the original panda-style layout. There are a few tiny differences, of course, but on the whole this is a nicely executed homage, starting with a pretty much perfect copy of the 2446 Mark 3 font on the sub-dials. Similarly, because this watch is part of the Heuer Heritage line, the word TAG is absent from the dial. And the transfer of Autavia printed right over the Heuer logo inscribed in a pentagon was handled deftly. Whereas the lowest sub-dial in Ref. 2446 Mark 3 had no date window and the word Swiss printed in black against a white backdrop, this year’s Autavia does have a date, and the words “Heuer 02” printed in its place. Just below the date window, off of the white register and taking up a small portion of the chronograph seconds scale, the word “Swiss” is printed. Would a young Jack Heuer, fresh from his engineering training and famously obsessed with the legibility of displays and markers, have allowed a conceit such as a disruption of the chronograph scale? My inclination is to say that he would not, but this is a quibbling detail about a design that is otherwise quite nice.

TAG Heuer Autavia 2017 Panda Dial

With a few small exceptions, this dial is a spot-on replica of the one found on the Heuer Ref. 2446 Mark 3.

Tight shot of the Autavia dial

A tight shot of the Autavia 2017 dial.

You’ll notice right off the bat the the hours totalizer and the running seconds sub-dial have exchanged places too, a modification necessitated by the new Heuer 02 automatic chronograph movement at the heart of the Autavia 2017.

The Movement

The original Autavia 2446 Mark 3 came with the hand-wound chronograph caliber Valjoux 72, and as we’ve already discussed, that movement made for a completely different form factor in the finished watch. While some of the purists out there – perhaps most of the purists out there – are going to wish that the Autavia 2017 also came with a manually-wound chronograph caliber and a thinner case, the fact is that we are dealing with the realities of the modern watch industry. As much as HODINKEE readers are going to want a thinner timepiece and a sub-40mm diameter, the majority of watch consumers, and therefore the people who manufacture and market watches at popular price points, have tastes and objectives that are not always closely aligned with that of the enthusiast. But setting all of that aside for just a moment, if we may, there is so much to be excited about in the Heuer 02.

If you’ve followed TAG Heuer over the last five to 10 years, then chances are you remember the Caliber 1969 launch in late 2013. Caliber 1969 was an in-house column wheel chronograph with vertical clutch that was entirely developed and created in-house at TAG Heuer. (This movement was subsequently re-named Caliber CH80, a nod to its 80-hour power reserve.) The announcement of the movement even came along with a brand-new state-of-the-art manufacturing center in which it was to be made. But just as the movement was about to go into production, news came from La Chaux-de-Fonds that the project would be placed on indefinite hold. Some industry pundits even questioned the wisdom of adding yet another in-house chronograph movement to a stable that already included the more than serviceable Caliber 1887. TAG Heuer had been on a dizzying upmarket trajectory during a time saw a company, long associated with volume and aspirational quartz and ETA-based watches, producing limited, expensive, and experimental chronographs, the most exotic even featuring an escapement that replaced the balance spring with magnets.

A view onto the Heuer 02, which was initially announced some four years ago as the Caliber 1969.

What we know now is that upon taking the reins at TAG Heuer, Jean-Claude Biver wanted to pause the project and determine where, strategically, the movement would fit into TAG Heuer’s future plans.

This is a great movement that Ben wrote about about way back when it launched under its original name. The finishing is more than decent, even if it’s performed almost entirely by machine. And its performance, as well as the action of the pushers, exceeds what I’ve come to expect from chronographs in this price range.

On The Wrist

So now that you know what I think about the case, with its perhaps too-large size; the movement, with its automatic winding and modern chronograph construction; the bracelet, with its relative heft and stiffness compared to a mid-sixties classic; and the dial, with its fine design that is nonetheless disrupted by an added date window and some additional text – what do I think overall?

I very much enjoyed wearing this watch, and it made me smile whenever I paused to look at it. If you want a vintage Autavia, you should probably get just that, but don’t expect anything like the performance or reliability of a modern timepiece. Maybe the most telling thing about this watch is that it has the year 2017 in its name, because despite the vintage looks, this is very much a modern watch.

I didn’t hold back when wearing this watch – taking it, as I already mentioned, on a punishing rafting trip that left both me and it completely drenched. It stood up to the test without giving me any reason for complaint. The quality of the case and bracelet is definitely there to justify the price.

Pressing the pushers on the Autavia Chronograph.

Activating the chronograph function.

Out of curiosity, I asked to see a friend’s earlier Autavia Heritage reissue – the 2003 “Jo Siffert” – for the sake of comparison. To be fair, there has been enough variability within the Autavia range to make apples to apples comparisons difficult – the Siffert was cushion shaped, for example, and Ref. 2446 Mark 3 is round. But my expectations were confirmed. Not only is the chronograph movement in the Autavia 2017 a great leap forward from the ETA that equipped the Siffert reissue, but the case, dial and bracelet are too.

Wrist shot depicting thickness of the case.

The case, which rises 15.6 mm on the wrist, has serious presence.

I mention this because these qualitative improvements make for a vastly more enjoyable wearing experience than I was expecting, as much as I already liked the look of this watch. So while the Heuer 01 Chronograph, with its Big-Bang-esque aesthetics, and the Connected, with its march into smart-watch territory, may be the product releases that get the most commercial attention in TAG’s Biver era, the Heritage Line is definitely getting better and better. If you don’t believe me, just take another look at the Monza from last year. The fit and finish on these watches is excellent for the price, and I can’t think of many watch lovers who wouldn’t get at least some enjoyment from wearing them.

The Competition

What’s the Autavia 2017’s competition?  If we’re talking about affordably priced chronographs of some quality, then you may also want to have a look at Tudor’s recently launched Black Bay Chronograph. While this particular watch does not have an in-house movement (Tudor sources it from Breitling, in exchange for allowing Breitling access to Tudor’s own in-house time-only movement), it does have an escapement and silicon balance spring made in house by Tudor/Rolex. Staying within the LVMH Watch Division, you can get into a vintage-inspired Zenith El Primero while staying under $7,000. And of course, the Omega Speedmaster Professional more than delivers on vintage looks while keeping you right in the $5,000 range.

Another in-house chronograph you may not be aware of is the new one from Frederique Constant, which debuted in Basel this year. The Frederique Constant Flyback Chronograph Manufacture can be had for under $4,000, and as the name says, it’s a flyback chrono. If you’re willing to extend your budget up to $8,000, then check out the Master Control Chronograph from Jaeger-LeCoultre. This is a great looking watch from a product family that several of us HODINKEE staffers fell in love with at SIHH.

But I have to say, especially when you take price into account, the Autavia 2017 is really, really tough to beat.

Final Thoughts

If I were to go forward with this purchase – and on reflection, I very well might – I would go for the bracelet version, even taking into account the above-mentioned limitations. As imperfect as this bracelet may be, it’s a more than justifiable $150 upgrade to $5,300 from the strap-equipped version’s $5,150 price.

tag heuer autavia with vintage pen and lighter

The Autavia 2017 is a special watch indeed, and following on the heels of the Monza of a year before, it adds further proof that the desire to make excellent Heritage models at TAG Heuer is alive and well in the Biver era. The fact that one can have an in-house chronograph with vertical clutch – from a major Swiss brand, no less – for just north of $5,000 is in itself a heartening reminder that there are still pockets of value to be found and enjoyed in contemporary watchmaking.

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