Have you ever bought a vintage watch and wondered what life it led before it ended up in your hands? Well, this is a partial history of one such watch, a Heuer Autavia Viceroy 1163.
In 2001 I had a long conversation with a retired Iowa farmer called Jim who had a vintage Heuer Autavia for sale on eBay. I wanted to buy the watch but the seller had stated ‘No International Shipping’ so I contacted him and we had a great talk about life. Me being a new father and him now retired, his children long gone and how he had learned to build his own website to communicate online, he was a really good chap and eventually we compromised and agreed he would ship the watch to a friend of mine’s office at the Tribeca Centre in New York whom I was due to visit a few weeks later.
So fast forward three weeks and after a rather busy weekend in New York and more than a few cocktails, I delivered the watch to my watchmaker here in the UK for service. I had bought the watch as stock for my small collector website and was looking forward to researching and photographing the watch.
The Heuer Autavia is one of the most famous vintage Heuer watches, so much so that it is virtually a brand in itself. This particular version was a calibre 12, the Automatic chronograph movement that was in competition in the late 1960s for the first in the world with Zenith and Seiko. You’ll notice that, as all Heuer/Breitling/Hamilton counterparts, the watch has a “funky” set-up with the crown for setting the time on the opposite side from the start/reset buttons of the chronograph. This was because the movement was not designed from the ground up but instead, the Dubois-Depraz chronograph module was added on top of a micro-rotor automatic movement.
This configuration led to some very creative designs as the movement was quite tall and the cases had to be bigger than what was current at the time. Therefore, the ergonomics allowed for some cool, bulky designs. The Autavia, the Monaco, the Carrera, the Calculator, the Montreal, the Silverstone, the Monza, etc…
The main home for the automatic Autavia was the Motor Racing world with watches finding themselves onto the wrists of drivers like Ronnie Peterson, Mario Andretti, Jo Siffert, Graham Bell and with actors like Steve McQueen and rock stars like Mick Jagger favouring the fashionable modernist designs.
One morning my phone rang and it was my watchmaker to tell me the Autavia was ready so I grabbed my keys and popped over quite excited to see the watch from New York. True to his skills, he had done a great job with the top case brushing left with its light wear marks (no point in trying to remake the original scored radial finish, it takes too much steel off for me) and he had buffed the polished areas and regrained the caseback. I thanked him and took the watch to my studio and started shooting the watch, which was something of a joy as it’s detailed but colourful dial just looked great every time. I wrote a description of the watch, uploaded the pictures and content to my site then went to bed.
I would often have several watches in service so after the watch was loaded I forgot about the intense excitement that tracking and restoring a watch gives me and moved on to another tired old guy arriving with that familiar FedEx knock. Until…
The Watch more Discussed
A week later I received an email asking me about the watch and immediately asking for a discount… One of the questions was “Is this watch a fake? A what???….”
The questions kept coming with every ping of Outlook and quite brutal ones too… demanding to know why this watch is different from other Autavia watches and was I trying to “pass-off” the watch as a put-together from parts. All this happened within 30 minutes… Hmmm well, I started to realize this was a young person, I mean like a teenager as he was being so brutal even if he had offered me double for the watch: “He was not getting it”. Just then I get yet another email from another collector telling me that one of my watches was being discussed on a well-known Watch Forum (this was On The Dash and the conversation is still there).
What was happening was the “non-potential customer” had taken a shot of my watch and had posted it there and was asking if this was a fake. Not great for me, so I logged in determined to get to the bottom of this… The case of this watch is different from the standard design Autavia. Where the notches are cut in the case to accommodate the pushers they go all the way through the side of the case as opposed to the regular case used in all of the other known Autavia variants where the notches just cut through the half.
As with all of the earlier collecting during this period we were always working retrospectively and essentially what had been found was a design anomaly. Below, a side shot of a regular Autavia and, next to it, the Autavia Viceroy, which shows sections cut right through the case for the pushers.
What was discovered during this quite funny exchange – live on the Internet – and following a few checks with the vintage Heuer god Hans Scragg, a guy who had was a Heuer watchmaker during the 1970s, we identified this watch was the fabled Heuer Viceroy. The Autavia model nicknamed Viceroy was a version of this watch offered as a promotion by Heuer with Viceroy cigarettes.
The advertising image for this promotion was available online and it had been assumed that all Autavias of this style were Viceroys but what we were beginning to find was that slightly more budget designs had been assigned to possible marketing loss leaders such as the Viceroy campaign. By the way, TAG Heuer reissued the Viceroy last year but this watch was the first ever one identified. True Story.
The Watch More Travelled
So with the copy rewritten, it did not take long before a friend of a friend took a shine to this particular Viceroy Autavia and it soon was making its way to London to be much cherished.
Some years passed with a blizzard of watches coming and going and I received a call from Dan, the now-owner, telling me a bad story. He had been burgled and all of his watches had been taken and could I write an insurance estimate for him, which I duly did and luckily his insurance broker came through and he was recompensed for his losses in full. Phew…
So another busy time passed, a year at least and I found myself walking up from the river and on to the Strand in London, this is Theatre Land, the West End, the Strand Theatre one side and the Savoy Hotel and one of the best pubs in London ‘The Coal Hole’ on the other, a wet bright and sunny day with busy commuters blasting past me as I whiled away some time before an evening watch launch I was attending later. Wandering along as I window shopped, I came across a watch shop offering pre-owned and vintage, with my nose pressed up against the window I looked at the watches on offer. Mid 90’s Breitlings nestled next to TAG F1 timers with the usual suspects of suspiciously perfect Rolex Datejust dials and Omega Seamasters my eyes locked on to a lovely Heuer Autavia just there at the back.
Now the thing about the watch I had restored all those years ago was that it was fitted with an early perforated strap I had commissioned myself. These days perforated or racing straps are available anywhere but then, not so much. So I thought I might go inside and have a look at it… I pushed the door open and a very sharply dressed young man stepped forward cooing “hello Sir”… “how are you today, Sir”. Well, I was fine actually but I wanted to find out whether this watch was indeed the one from Iowa.
The young man took the watch from the window and passed it to me… now I never say much in such situations as I want to know what they actually know about the watch I am interested in…
NB. Watch sellers bear in mind that often a customer will know far more about a watch you are selling than you do, so just listen closely.
The identifier for this watch was that when I received it had a very small depression between 1 and 2 on the crystal that was a tiny burn of the acrylic that I had polished out but was still observable if you knew it was there – yes it was which made me smile as the jabbering of the salesman turned into the “teacher’s voice from Charlie Brown” I decided I needed to have the watch back in possession.
So after five minutes of chatting and with a “ching” of the cash register, I walked out of the shop into the bright London day safe in the thought that my Autavia that had travelled so far across the mighty Atlantic from where it had been loved, then to me where it was restored, loved again then stolen then reacquired and loved again.
I know that many watches have interesting stories and if you know of a watch you own with an interesting story please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and if we can fit it in we will post it in The Vintage Corner under “A Watch Less Travelled”.