7 minutes

1960s Chronographs: Always in Demand

By Sebastian Swart

Wristwatches with a chronograph function have been around for roughly a century now. Many of the models from the early 20th century from brands like Longines, Breitling, and Universal Genève were actually converted pocket watches, and most were put to use in the cockpits of aircraft. But mechanical chronographs also found a niche in the world of racing. At rallies up until the 1960s, it was customary for the co-driver to keep track of the time using the car’s dashboard clock and document it during the race.

The 1960s marked the most intensive phase of development for chronographs. This resulted in new calibers, case shapes, and dial designs, many of which can still be found nearly unchanged on modern timepieces to this day. Chronographs from the 1960s have long been sought-after collector’s items. The variety here is enormous, and prices range from a few hundred dollars to literally millions. In addition to the design and quality of the watches, the history of certain models makes them particularly desirable.

Rolex daytona Paul Newman

In the first installment of this series, I’ll present three of the most important chronographs from the 1960s and look at where they are today. Stay tuned for more models to come.

Heuer Autavia: From Cockpit to Wrist

Jack Heuer, born in 1932, wasn’t just a pioneer of modern watchmaking, he was also a keen amateur race car driver. Popular models like the Autavia, Carrera, and Monaco can be traced back to him, but he wasn’t just responsible for the looks of these icons. No, under his direction, Heuer teamed up with Breitling, Büren, and Dubois-Dépraz to develop one of the very first automatic chronograph calibers. Known under several different monikers, including the Caliber 11 or Chrono-Matic, this movement found its way into a number of Heuer models, as well as watches from other manufacturers from 1969 onwards.

The origin story of the Autavia (AUTomobile and AVIAtion) is perhaps one of the more interesting of the bunch, as it was born as a solution to a rather straightforward problem. In the late 1950s, Jack Heuer participated in a rally as a co-driver. However, during the race, he struggled to read the car’s dashboard clock correctly (incidentally also called the Autavia). As a result, his car failed to reach the finish line in time and placed worse than expected. In response, Jack Heuer created the first Autavia wristwatch under the reference number 2446.

The reverse panda dial with subdials at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock is characteristic of the ref. 2446. The wearer can determine both speed and distance using the tachymeter scale on the bezel. Heuer introduced numerous variants of the Autavia up until the 1980s. The model was worn by several notable race car drivers, and corresponding versions are now known by the drivers’ names. While Jochen Rindt is associated with the ref. 2446, Mario Andretti is linked to the ref. 3646. Jo Siffert, on the other hand, wore an Autavia 1163T, a model that was also a favorite of Hollywood star and amateur racing driver Steve McQueen. Thus, the Autavia developed a reputation as a watch for those who were daredevils at heart.

Prior to the introduction of the automatic Caliber 11, Heuer equipped all of their Autavia models with hand-winding Valjoux movements. Watches powered by the Valjoux 72 (three subdials) and Valjoux 92 (two subdials) are particularly sought-after today and are thus on the pricier side. Heuer outfitted GMT variants with the Valjoux 724.

Vintage Autavia models had a relatively small diameter of 39 mm, and were exclusively made of stainless steel. Popular editions still demand healthy prices in 2023. Expect to pay around $17,500 for a “Jochen Rindt” in good condition (ref. 2446 with a Valjoux 72), and around $12,000 for a “Jo Siffert” with a white dial (ref. 1163T with a Caliber 11). A “Mario Andretti” (ref. 3646 with a Valjoux 92), on the other hand, will set you back some $13,500.

Heuer Autavia Ref. 2446 „Jochen Rindt“ mit Tachymeterskala
Heuer Autavia ref. 2446 “Jochen Rindt” with a tachymeter scale.

The New Heuer Autavia Circa 2017

Under the direction of Jean-Claude Biver, Heuer presented two new Autavia models in 2017. At first glance, the watches appear strikingly similar to the cult models from the 1960s, but a lot has changed both in terms of technology and size. The references CBE2110 and CBE2111 each measure 42 mm across and are powered by the automatic, in-house caliber Heuer 02 (tricompax layout). The watch also stands much taller than vintage versions of the model due to the movement construction.

If you have the wrist to support it, you can look forward to relatively modest prices for these newer references. You can expect to spend some $4,500 on a CBE2110 with a black dial and $5,700 for the limited “Jack Heuer” edition with a silver dial and black subdials.

Neuauflage der Autavia „Jochen Rindt“ mit 12-Stunden-Lünette
New edition of the Autavia “Jochen Rindt” with a 12-hour bezel.

Learn more about the Heuer Autavia in our Autavia buyer’s guide.

Zenith El Primero: The First Automatic Chronograph in the World

At the same time Heuer, Breitling, Büren, and Dubois-Dépraz were busy developing their own automatic chronograph movement, Swiss manufacturer Zenith was also hard at work.

In fact, the watchmaker succeeded in introducing its “El Primero” (Spanish for “the first”) a few months ahead of the Heuer Caliber 11. One particularly special feature of this movement is its high balance frequency. The high-speed movement beats at 36,000 vph. For comparison, Heuer’s Caliber 11 only runs at 19,800 vph. The El Primero’s higher frequency gave it a leg up as it could time tenths of seconds as early as 1969.

Vintage Zenith watches with the first generation El Primero can be found under the reference numbers A384, A385, and A386. The latter reference features a dial design that was quite novel for the late 1960s. Each of the watch’s three subdials has a different color: blue for the 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock, dark gray for the 12-hour counter at 6, and light gray for the small seconds at 9. To top things off, there is the colorful addition of a red chronograph hand. The A386 measures 38 mm across, which is very much in keeping with the zeitgeist of the time.

The references A384 and A385, in turn, have a tonneau-shaped case, but the dials are much more discreet. The former has a green-beige dial with white subdials, while the A385 has more traditional panda styling. The three references all share the placement of their date display at 4:30, where it remains to this day.

Vom vintage Original kaum zu unterscheiden: Zenith A384 Re-Edition
Hard to distinguish from the original: the Zenith A384 Re-Edition

With prices upwards of $20,000, a well-maintained El Primero A386 costs significantly more than an A384 or A385, which you can find for closer to $5,200 and 9,000, respectively.

Vintage-Variante der Zenith El Primero A386
Vintage Zenith El Primero A386

Modern Watches With the El Primero

Zenith has relaunched the El Primero A386 under the name Chronomaster Original (ref. 03.3200.3600/34.C869). Like its ancestor, the watch features multicolored subdials and a more moderate diameter of 38 mm. In terms of price, the Chronomaster Original comes in at around $8,500. Zenith also honored the A384 in their Chronomaster Revival collection. The dimensions and aesthetics of the ref. 03.A384.400/21 are a near replica of the original from 1969. The caliber El Primero 400 is the beating heart of the watch, which likewise comes very close to the original from the 1960s. Expect to see prices around the $7,500 mark for this watch.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona: In a League of Its Own

The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona: Hearing this name will send a chill down many a chronograph lover’s spine. Alongside the Omega Speedmaster, the Daytona is probably the most well-known and coveted chronograph in the world. The watch is a style icon today, but it actually got off to a pretty rough start back in the day. The Genevan watchmaker officially debuted the first variant (the ref. 6238) in 1963 under the name “Cosmograph.” This reference is known as the “Pre-Daytona” to collectors nowadays. The Daytona name didn’t join the collection until between 1964 and 1965. It’s hard to believe that this watch was collecting dust in shop windows in its early years; Rolex even considered discontinuing the line completely!

Rolex Cosmograph „Pre-Daytona“ Ref. 6238
Rolex Cosmograph “Pre-Daytona” ref. 6238

One of the reasons for the slow start may have been that the Daytona actually entered the market quite late for a racing chronograph. The Omega Speedmaster, for instance, had already been on the market for six years by the time 1963 rolled around; same with the Heuer Autavia. Another reason could have been the fact that Rolex didn’t actually have its own chronograph caliber at the time. The manufacturer had to rely on the Valjoux 72 to power the early 1960s versions of its Daytona. While the movement was of a high caliber, it was lacking the exclusivity of an in-house Rolex movement. Rolex equipped later versions of the Daytona with the Zenith El Primero. It wasn’t until 2000 that Rolex finally started using their in-house 4030 in the line.

While the ref. 6238 featured a monochrome black or silver dial, its successor, the ref. 6239 became the first to feature contrasting subdials. The options were either black subdials on a silver background or white on black (reverse panda). Moreover, the tachymeter scale migrated from the dial edge to the bezel. This was the start of the characteristic look that has come to define the Daytona today.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6239

The Daytona still wasn’t exactly a bestseller, but Hollywood star Paul Newman was about to change that. Newman owned a number of Daytonas, but his Daytona ref. 6239 with its striking exotic panda dial became a style icon. The reference has since been known as the Paul Newman Daytona. Again, it’s hard to believe today, but watches with exotic dials weren’t in demand to begin with. There are relatively few examples available now, making them among the most sought-after vintage watches out there. They’ve been known to fetch dizzying prices at auctions, with some examples selling for up to $300,000. But I guess that’s actually a bargain when you consider that Paul Newman’s actual watch sold for a whopping $17.8 million in 2017. Thanks, Paul!

Dank Paul Newman eine der begehrtesten Uhren weltweit – Rolex Daytona 6239 mit Exotic Dial
One of the most coveted watches in the world: the Rolex Daytona 6239 with an exotic dial

Daytonas for (Almost) Any Budget

Unlike the Heuer Autavia and Zenith El Primero models described above, the Daytona never left Rolex’s lineup. There are numerous variants in the current catalog, including some made of precious metals and/or set with gemstones. Updates to the model have always been very subtle, meaning every Daytona is almost immediately recognizable as such. One of the most popular models on Chrono24 is the stainless steel ref. 116520, which costs some $25,000 pre-owned. On the other end of the price spectrum is the gold Daytona Rainbow ref. 116595RBOW, which is priced at around $1 million. As you can see, there is a Daytona out there for just about every budget.

Beliebt und vergleichsweise günstig – Rolex Daytona Ref. 116520
Popular and comparatively affordable: the Rolex Daytona ref. 116520

Check out: The Top 10 Most Popular Rolex Daytona References by Jorg Weppelink

About the Author

Sebastian Swart

I've been using Chrono24 for years to buy and sell watches, as well as for research purposes. I've had an infatuation with watches for as long as I can remember. As a …

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