October 2016 saw the 45th anniversary of Jo Siffert’s untimely passing in 1971, at the age of 35. The racing accident that claimed his life marked the end of the greatest sponsorship arrangement in sport to that point.
Still, Jo Siffert lives on through the watch that unofficially bears his name, the Heuer Autavia 1163T.
Known to his friends and family as ‘Seppi,’ the Swiss racing driver played an integral role in the success of Heuer’s relationship with Formula One. He was the first brand ambassador appointed by Jack Heuer, and the most successful. Legend has it that even while waiting on the grid, he’d badger fellow drivers to buy a watch from him. By the early 1970s, most of them had a Heuer on their wrists. It went the other way too—Jack Heuer would say that Siffert was constantly trying to sell him a Porsche 911.
He has also said that enlisting Siffert was one of the greatest marketing decisions he ever made.
It’s important to remember that this was before sports ambassadors really became a ‘thing’—Jo Siffert didn’t wear his Autavia because he was paid to, but because he genuinely liked it. Siffert was a natural salesman. He had risen through the ranks the hard way, from limited means. Starting out in motorcycle racing during the late 50s, he financed his passion selling scrap metal and used cars, smoked cigarettes to curb his hunger pangs, and slept rough between races. Not long after, Siffert moved into motor racing and formed his own team. Then, in 1962, he joined Formula One. He simultaneously took part in endurance races, and in 1966 won the 24 hours of Le Mans.
In 1968, while driving for the Rob Walker Racing Team, Siffert took the checkered flag at Brands Hatch, in what was to be the last Grand Prix victory for a company unsupported by an automobile manufacturer. A year later at the Basel Fair, Jack Heuer–in partnership with Breitling–announced the world’s first automatic chronograph within three models, one of which was the Autavia.
The Heuer Autavia
The Heuer Autavia began its life in 1933 as a dashboard timer. Later introduced as a wristwatch in 1962, it swiftly became a flagship of the Heuer Brand, the first mass-produced chronograph to have a specific model name (taken from Auto and Aviation). Racing and flying are two endeavours that naturally require the greatest precision in timing.
Over 80 different Autavia designs were produced in the years leading to 1985, with variations in casing (but always steel), dial configurations, and colors. The Autavia has a rotating bezel that gives a range of different functions to the chronograph, from countdown timers to logarithmic tachymeters, which helped drivers know how much distance they’d covered during a race. Siffert’s preferred model, the Heuer Autavia 1163T, is now known as the Siffert Autavia. Only 1000 of this white-dialed version were produced, making them a rarity today.
By now, Siffert’s success on the track, particularly with Porsche in the World Sportscar Championship, had cemented his fame. He had also begun a friendship with actor Steve McQueen, another petrolhead who lived and partied hard. It was of course through Siffert’s intervention that McQueen wore a Heuer in his tribute to the famed endurance race, Le Mans, in 1971. Partly through Siffert’s efforts, Heuer had become known as one of the leading watch brands for amateur and professional sportsmen.
Then, on October 24, 1971, at Brands Hatch, everything came to an end.
The Fall-Out and the Revival
Not realizing that the suspension of his BRM P160M had been badly damaged in a small collision earlier in the race, Siffert crashed during the 15th lap. Unable to escape from his burning car, he died of smoke inhalation. Jack Heuer learned of his friend’s death over the radio.
The incident led to widespread safety reform in Formula One, and Siffert’s funeral was attended by over 50,000 people.
Following Jack Heuer’s return to the company, the Autavia 1163T was reissued in 2002. Although TAG Heuer’s tribute met with mixed reception, there will always be a place for the original in the drawer of any genuine collector. Part of the Autavia’s enduring appeal is its link to the glamourous motor-racing heritage embodied by Siffert, but only the very best watches retain their desirability for so long. The Autavia is one of them.
During his brief Formula One career, Jo Siffert notched up only two wins and two pole positions. And yet, he had a great impact on the sport of racing, not least by helping to forge such strong links between his fellow drivers and Heuer.
Images Credits: Header, 1, 5; Crown & Caliber. 2-4; Wikimedia Commons.