One of the biggest new watch releases of the year for vintage fans is the TAG Heuer Autavia. The result of the Autavia Cup competition, which asked fans to vote on their favorite vintage model for TAG Heuer to recreate, the watch takes the brash ’60s racing style of the original and makes it the basis of a thoroughly modern watch. We showed you the prototype last year and gave you the full specs of the final model when it debuted officially at Baselworld. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
Jeff Stein founder of OnTheDash, and Talking Watches veteran is the authority on all things vintage Heuer. So, obviously, when I heard he’d taken delivery of his 2017 Autavia, I knew we needed to talk. Luckily, Jeff is a generous guy and offered to do an on-the-record interview after spending some serious wrist-time with his new watch.
We talked about how Jeff first heard about the new Autavia, his involvement in the process, and why, even as a hardcore Heuer guy, he was still able to find some surprises in the new watch. Enjoy our conversation, below, and visit OnTheDash for Jeff’s full description of the new Autavia, and some additional photos.
When did you first become aware that TAG Heuer was going to reissue the Autavia?
My introduction to the watch was in November 2015. I was in New York for TAG Heuer’s launch of the Connected watch, and was just sort of hanging out with the guys from TAG Heuer. I had known many of them for a while as pen pals and from swapping emails and such. This was the first time that I had met the social and electronic media guys, and they introduced me to Jean-Claude Biver, and we started talking about the recent surge in interest in the vintage Autavias.
I’m sure that he’d had the thought before, but I suggested to him that this would be the perfect time to do a reissue of the Autavia. So, we started looking at my website, OnTheDash, and looking at the different versions, and talking about which ones collectors were chasing, which ones had the value in the market, etc. He basically looked at me and said, “Well, you guys, the collecting community, tell me which one you want and you’ll have it in early 2017.”
He said there were two conditions. It had to be a traditional round case, the style of the 1960s, and it had to be an acceptable modern size. He threw out 42 millimeters, which is exactly what it turned out to be.
And where did it go from that first conversation?
About a month later, the social media and electronic media guys at TAG Heuer started thinking about how to engage the community in selecting which version would be reissued. They came up with the idea of the Autavia Cup, a head-to-head, single elimination tournament like March Madness in the basketball world. So, I helped them select which watches would be in the Autavia Cup, which ones should be paired against each other to give the contest some longevity through the rounds. You know what I’m saying? If this were basketball, you wouldn’t want the four top seeds in the same bracket, you’d want to spread them out. So, I was involved with them throughout the Autavia Cup competition, to the point that they selected the winner.
Were you involved at all in prototyping and designing the actual watch as it came to be?
I was visiting Switzerland in June of 2016, and saw a prototype that was 3D printed. It was a two-register model, and it had different style hands. You know, we chatted about it in very general terms, but I thought it looked great. I thought they were off to a great start. Then the first real prototype that a lot of people saw was in September 2016, when TAG Heuer had the collectors summit. This prototype held up and was very close the production model was very close to this prototype. I think it would be fair to say that it got a very good reception at the collectors summit in September 2016.
How do you feel in general about brands making reissues or watches inspired by classic references?
I like the “inspired-by” approach much more than the literal approach. To me, there’s not much purpose in making one that is identical to the 1962 version, the 1966 version, or the 1968 version. I like the inspired-by approach. It helps TAG Heuer sell watches, because they need 42mm, they need a date, they need the modern sapphire crystal, perhaps. So, I’m all for that. There are certain of the old Autavias that I would like to see an identical watch [for], but that’s probably a pretty small segment of the collecting community [that would be interested].
For this watch, do you have any major complaints? Anything you’d have done differently?
The biggest compromise is probably the size, the 42mm. The largest of the original ’60s Autavias was about 40.5mm, and that was the 2446C. So, it’s a millimeter and a half different, but to me it’s very well executed. It’s not just that they took a 1968 Autavia and blew it up to 42mm; they worked on the thickness, they worked on the shape of the lugs, to get it to be a wearable 42mm, and I think they succeeded in that.
It’s interesting, the most controversial aspect of the new Autavia is probably the date. A lot of the old timers, the vintage crowd, if you will, couldn’t stand the idea of a date on a reissue of a 1960s chronograph, but I think they did a very good job with it. It’s tucked into the six o’clock register. It’s there when you want it, but it doesn’t hurt your eye when you don’t want to see it.
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A lot of people thought the bezel was too wide, too strong. That was also my very first reaction when I saw the watch back in September. But when I first took it out of the box a couple of weeks ago, and when I’ve been wearing it, I like the strength of the bezel. I like the power of it. It’s very strong. To me, it’s consistent with the sapphire crystal, with the size of the watch. It’s not the soft, domed plastic crystal, and to me, the size and geometry of the bezel is complementary to the new watch.
I guess one other sort of difference that some people have taken issue with is the minute recorder it’s a 30-minute recorder at three o’clock, and it has the usual markings for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, but the other markings are at two and a half, seven and a half, 12 and a half, etc. So, when the minute recorder is on two minutes, it’s not on a hash mark. It’s a little bit short of the two-and-a-half-minute hash mark. I think design-wise this is cleaner. I think the designers maybe won out on this element, but in terms of its legibility, in the ability to read it quickly and reliably, I think you need all 30 of the hash marks. Those are probably the elements that have drawn most of the comments.
As someone who wears a lot of vintage watches, how did you find this watch on the wrist?
It fits well, it wears well. I’ve worn various 42mm watches that feel a lot bigger, and sort of fit on top of the wrist and don’t blend in as well. They might not tuck under the cuff as well. This one stays close to the wrist it’s a good feel without looking bulky on your wrist.
The other thing is the bracelet, which is styled very closely after the original grains of rice. It’s just dead on. It fits very well, it’s very comfortable. It actually reduces the bulk of the watch, compared to having a leather strap. I think they did a fantastic job with the bracelet. That was the other reaction of the vintage crowd when they first saw it in September: “Oh my god, these bracelets on the originals sell for $3,000 to $5,000. Here it is on a complete watch that costs less than that.” A lot of people will be trying to fit the modern bracelet to the vintage watches.
How long did you wear the new Autavia when you first got it?
What I really wanted to do was essentially go cold turkey on vintage watches for a full week. Between September, when we saw the first prototype in the metal, through March, I had seen every Autavia in the world next to this new one. From the very first ones from 1962 to the last of the manual-winding versions you know, ’68, ’70. There had just been a constant flow of people putting the old one next to the new one and shooting the side-by-side shots. I just decided I wanted to get away from that. I didn’t want to put them side by side, I didn’t want to try to take the killer group photo. I just wanted to have the pure play in wearing this watch and seeing what it felt like. So, I didn’t look at an old Autavia during those eight days. I liked the new one coming out of the box, and I liked it more after wearing it for the eight days. It grew on me. Very comfortable, just easy to put on and go.
Then day eight, when I put the vintage one back on for a few hours, it felt great, it looked great as it always had, but it wasn’t like, “Oh my god, how am I ever going to wear the new one again?” The new one felt as though it belonged with the old one. I’m happy to have both in my collection, and happy to wear either one of them. That’s not always the case when you put on a modern watch and then go back to the vintage one. The vintage ones are special because they’re so rare; they just felt like two different watches and I liked them both, and look forward to wearing them both.
The new Heuer 02 movement is another big part of this release. Can you tell me why this is so important?
Everybody was waiting for the next movement to go alongside the Calibre 1887. For me, the most exciting thing about this movement is that it was designed to be relatively simple, and it was also designed to be something that other complications could be driven off of. So, if you wanted to add a power reserve, or if you wanted to add a triple calendar, or you wanted to add a GMT, this would be a good base movement that could have complications.
Part of the excitement of the new movement was what might lie ahead, and particularly with a model like the Autavia that has had a GMT version over the years, I think people were looking forward to what might be built with the Heuer 02 movement. And I think the other excitement was just that it’s a new movement.
Do you think this watch signals the start of a new core product family for TAG Heuer?
I hope so. I mean, I really hope that this will become the third full line, if you will. There’s the Monaco and the Carrera. When I saw how many SKUs Omega has in the Speedmaster, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had that many SKUs on the Autavia?” That’s not realistic in the short term, but when I look at the lineup of Carreras and see the variations, and the same with the Monacos if you look at what Heuer has offered over the last two or three years, which are commercially available, I’m hoping that the Autavia will become a full line. I don’t know how realistic that is. That’s a business decision to be made by TAG Heuer, but I think the enthusiasts already have a list of what they want as the second one, the third one, the fourth one.
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In terms of the heritage and the pedigree, it’s the Autavia that the racers wore more than any other model of any other brand in the ’60s. When you study the old photos and you see Andretti, Rindt, Villeneuve, Regazzoni, and Bell so many racers wore these. Then there was the Viceroy promotion, and everybody at the track wanted one of these, and for $88 they could have it.
It’s hard to imagine anything is going to displace the Carrera, just because of the pure design, the pure style of it. I think that’s going to keep its spot. Same with the Monaco and the McQueen imagery, if you will the bold square. A 1970s look out of the box, if you will the circle in the square. I’d be very happy if the Autavia is one of the “big three” and if it can hold a position with those other two.
Let me ask you something I think a lot of readers are wondering at this point: As a real Heuer purist, were you worried that TAG Heuer would mess this project up?
Sure, I was worried. You want the brand to do well, and you want them to make good looking watches that can help the company be successful. Yeah, I was worried that they would do something wrong, go the wrong direction. But once Jean-Claude Biver said it was going to be ’60s-style, with a round case, and that it was going to be inspired by one of the old ones, I think things were pretty safe. There’s hardly any version of the Autavia that they made from ’62 to ’68 or ’69 that I wouldn’t be happy to wear. So, as long as they were sort of staying within, between the white stripes on those, then I wasn’t really worried.
I was worried that there would be a mistake, that they would do something that just didn’t look right to me, but they kept pretty close to the vintage models, and that’s a pretty safe place according to my aesthetic.
My final question how did the Heuer 02 movement perform, coming out of the box?
As a chronograph, the start, stop, and reset were excellent. The feel is really nice. Interestingly, it ran within less than five seconds a day variation. It gained four to five seconds a day, which I thought was pretty good coming out of the box. I took it off and left it on a shelf Saturday night, and a question for me was whether it really had three days of power reserve. And it ran for exactly 80.5 hours. This was originally one of the big selling features when it was called the CH80. I was pretty enthusiastic about that feature, as well. I mean, what that really does is it lets you take a watch off, put it on the shelf, and then pick it back up without having to wind or reset it. I thought it was pretty neat that out of the box, on the first attempt, it beat the 80-hour power reserve that it was billed to have.