The operator of a leading online guide to Heuer chronographs and timepieces, Jeff Stein discusses the history of the chronograph and its popularity among drivers and crew members during the golden age of auto racing in the 1960s and ’70s. Stein can be reached via his website, onthedash.com, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I got into watches because of my interest in vintage racing and vintage rally cars. I was going to local vintage races in Georgia, and some out in California. At a vintage race in 1998, a dealer was displaying some Heuer chronographs and dash-mounted timepieces. I started winding and playing with the dashboard timers. The way they were built was amazing. They were fantastic. A short time later, I bought my first Heuer dashboard timer.
Within a few years, my interest evolved from collecting dashboard timers to collecting chronographs, mainly through eBay. Once I really got going with the Heuer chronographs I continued to collect the dashboard timers for a while, but over time my interest shifted more to the chronographs, so I sold or traded away a fair number of the dashboard timers.
The first dashboard timer I bought was a Heuer Super Autavia; the first Heuer chronograph I bought didn’t have a model name. Most of the Heuer watches from the 1960s and later have names—Carrera, Autavia, Monaco, Daytona—but mine was just a late ’60s chronograph, two registers.
Today I probably have about 80 watches and 40 or so dashboard timers in my collection.
Collectors Weekly: Do you wear the wristwatches you collect?
Stein: Some people like to collect the “new old stock” or mint condition, and they often put them away in a safe. My general rule is that I wear everything I own. If I find myself not willing to wear one of my watches, then I’ll usually sell it or trade it for something else.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us about a few of your favorite watches?
Stein: I have about 50 Heuers and probably 30 that are other brands. If I were to name five of my favorites, I’d start with a very early Heuer Autavia black dial with three white registers. Next would be an early Carrera, white on white; a black PVD Heuer Monaco from 1978; a Rolex Explorer, reference 6610 (that’s not a chronograph, but a time-of-day-only watch chronometer); and a Sinn EZM1, which I wear almost every day for running or sports.
Collectors Weekly: What led you to specialize in Heuer?
Stein: I was interested in the history of vintage racing. Looking at the old cars and learning about the old racers and races, I learned that these Heuers were the timepieces they actually used. The dashboard timepieces were often in the cars themselves. The chronographs were the ones the racers wanted to wear. The teams were using Heuer stopwatches to time their cars, and Heuer timing equipment was being used to time a lot of rallies and races.
Heuer was everywhere in the golden age of racing—the 1960s to the early ’70s. It was the brand most bound up with the sport. I also just liked the way they looked.
Collectors Weekly: What exactly is a chronograph?
Stein: A chronograph is the combination of a normal three-handed watch (hours, minutes, and seconds) with a stopwatch built into it. You can add a lot of other complications, too—calendar, moon phase, split second. In the watch-making world, features like this are called complications.
The first chronographs offered for sale, as opposed to the first prototypes or one-off specials, were produced in the mid-1800s. These were pocket chronographs because there were no wristwatches in the mid-1800s.
Collectors Weekly: Which came first, the dashboard chronograph or the wrist version?
Stein: They were really introduced at about the same time. Heuer began making dashboard chronographs around 1911 or so, but they were for a very specialized audience. The average guy wouldn’t put a chronograph on the dashboard of the family car, but he might wear a chronograph instead of a normal wristwatch.
Collectors Weekly: What was the appeal of a dash-mounted chronograph?
Stein: It was the perfect solution for the rally car driver, the racecar driver, and the navigator. Instead of having to look at your wrist or deal with something that was on a clipboard, it was right there on the dashboard. In a typical 1960s rally, the driver drove while the navigator did the calculations—measuring distances, checking the route, and giving the driver signals. Putting a timepiece on the dashboard really freed up hands of both the driver and the navigator.
I’ve seen these dash-mounted pieces in cars, motorboats, sailboats, military aircraft, and private aircraft. Some of the early zeppelins were equipped with Heuer timepieces. One of the most interesting historic Heuer dashboard timers wasn’t on a dashboard at all, but in the control tower of the Geneva Airport. That set is in my collection. It was supposedly used in the control tower of the Geneva Airport from the 1930s through the ’50s.
Collectors Weekly: What can you tell us about the earliest wrist chronographs?
Stein: I don’t really follow the ones before about 1935. A lot of the very early chronographs had no names on the dials. Collectors can identify some of them by their marks, the movements, and things like that. Of the brands that were marked, many are the same as the leading brands today—Omega, Heuer, Zenith. The early ones are hard to find, identify, and repair. It gets a lot easier around 1935.
“John Glenn rigged up a Heuer stopwatch and strapped it onto his spacesuit, making Heuer the first Swiss timepiece in space.”
Heuer began making a pilot’s chronograph in ’35. These were used by Air Force pilots primarily, a lot of them in the German Air Force. For most Heuer collectors, these pilot chronographs from around 1935 are the first real survivors that regularly can be found in the market today. In 1933 Heuer had introduced a new version of its dashboard timer, which it called the Autavia. That dashboard timer was paired with a watch called the Hervue, which became the basis for Heuer’s rally watches of the ’50s, which were used in numerous racecars.
For today’s collectors, the heyday for Heuer really began in the mid-1930s. I think that’s also probably true for many other brands. I’m sure people have great collections of Rolexes and Omegas from the teens and ’20s, but chronographs are so much easier to find when you get into the ’30s and ’40s.
Collectors Weekly: Were any of the early chronographs made for women?
Stein: I’m not sure, but many of the early chronographs were very small, so they might have been suitable for women. Wristwatches in general were much smaller in the ’30s and ’40s. For example, the Rolex Bubblebacks made through the ’40s into the ’50s were very small. So a lot of these vintage wristwatches are great for women today, which is probably why a lot of women collect them. There were also so-called boy-size chronographs, but I’ve never heard of chronographs from that period specifically made for women.
Collectors Weekly: What were the earlier chronographs used for?
Stein: Anything that needed to be timed, really. For example, a lot of the early chronograph dials have markings for telemeter, which was used to time incoming shells and enemy fire. If you saw the flash of a mortar shell go off, and heard the sound a certain number of seconds later, you knew the enemy was however-many miles away based on the relative speed of the light and sound. In fact, a lot of the early uses were military.
Chronographs were convenient because you could wear a single instrument on your wrist that told time and functioned as a stopwatch. The early ones were used for military applications, aircraft flights and navigation, auto races, and horse races. As I mentioned earlier, some of the early zeppelins, like the Graf Zeppelin, had Heuer chronographs mounted in their cabins.
Collectors Weekly: Did American chronograph designs differ from European ones?
Stein: There were very few American chronograph movements. There were some great American manufacturers, but I think they were known for a lot of railroad watches and pocket watches more than chronographs. There were very few early or pioneering American chronograph manufacturers. From the ’20s through the ’40s, almost all chronographs were manufactured in Switzerland, where Heuer is still based.
Collectors Weekly: Did Heuer make the entire watch?
Stein: That’s a great question with a pretty complicated answer. Cooperatives or individual movement manufacturers produced most of the movements used by brands like Heuer, Breitling, and Omega. Most of the Heuers in the 1950s and ’60s had Valjoux movements. Most of the Breitlings had Venus movements. Lemania was another movement brand. A manufacturer like Heuer would receive these blank movements, and then various components were added, finished, and detailed. A lot of different brands used the very same movements as their competitors.
One thing that makes the hobby somewhat challenging is that you might have the same basic movement in a $30,000 Rolex chronograph as in a $500, no-name chronograph from the same period. The fraudsters mix and match cases, dials, and movements, so you have to be very careful not to buy something that’s been put together by somebody working from a parts bin. That’s a problem a lot of other collectibles don’t have.
Collectors Weekly: How do you determine whether all the parts in a chronograph or any other kind of wristwatch are original?
Stein: The dream is to buy a watch from the original owner, who says he bought the watch in 1968, had it serviced every 10 years, and has all the paperwork and receipts. It’s rare that you get that opportunity.
A couple of months ago, I bought three watches in the original boxes from somebody who had bought them in 1973. He had them in the boxes in a drawer untouched, unworn. He’d bought a fourth watch that he said he ended up wearing, so these three were “time-capsule” watches.
Assuming that you’re not buying from the original owner, then you just have to inspect the watch very closely and know what you’re looking for. For example, you have to know which hands belonged in which case, with which dial and movement. It takes detective work. Sometimes you can send photos to experts to help authenticate a watch.
Collectors Weekly: How did manufacturers ensure the reliability of their chronographs?
Stein: Well, good quality chronographs were unbelievably reliable. Most of the brands I’ve mentioned—Heuer, Breitling, Omega, Rolex, Longine, Bulova—will pretty much last forever. That’s true of any good quality Swiss chronograph from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, unless it’s gotten wet and rusty or has otherwise been abused. You often don’t even need spare parts if the watch has been well maintained.
Collectors Weekly: As far as the cases go, did manufacturers follow cultural and artistic trends like Art Nouveau and Art Deco?
Stein: Absolutely, but I think most collectors would say the great years for chronographs were from 1960 on. That’s after the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras, but clearly the watches from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s followed fashion trends of their respective decades.
With each line of chronographs, you’ll see that most of the manufacturers had three or four different looks. Heuer had the Carrera, which was a very simple design with no extra ornamentation or moving parts. They had the Autavia with a rotating bezel, which was useful for timing things like diving or a second time zone. A third Heuer was the Monaco, which had a chunky, cutting-edge ’70s style.
Similarly, brands like Breitling and Zenith tended to offer a range of styles, from a clean, simple design with a utilitarian look to something with a much “busier” appearance. That’s why some would call the chronograph a tool watch.
Collectors Weekly: How often did Heuer come out with new lines?
Stein: They introduced the Autavia and Carrera in the early ’60s, followed by some “no-name” models later in the decade. The next big wave really came in the early ’70s, when they introduced automatic chronographs. There was a race to produce the world’s first automatic chronograph. When Heuer introduced its automatic line in 1969, it launched a whole new era for the major manufacturers.
Starting in 1969, you had the Monaco, followed by the Montreal, the Daytona, the Silverstone, and the Calculator. Most of them were big, ’70s-looking watches. Later in the ’70s they introduced the black PVD-coated watches. You’d see black PVD versions of some of these watches, plus some new models like the Monza that were only made in black PVD.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us about Heuer history in stopwatches?
Stein: From the early 1900s through the 1960s, Heuer was dominant in stopwatches. They were making them for all kinds of applications, from rowing to filmmaking to football and boxing. Heuer made stopwatches that were purpose-built for anything that needed specialized timing functions.
John Glenn essentially rigged up a Heuer stopwatch and strapped it onto the wrist of his spacesuit, making Heuer the first Swiss timepiece in space, in 1962. I have some papers from the John Glenn Library at Ohio State University showing that he looked at two or three other brands, but selected Heuer. Heuer had a reputation for reliability.
A few years later, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, its descent was timed back at the control center in Houston on a Heuer stopwatch. Heuer was manufacturing many top-quality stopwatches throughout this period.
Jack Heuer came to the U.S. around 1960—I think he’s the fourth generation of Heuer to run the company—to sell stopwatches. He realized the way to do it was to hang out with the car racers and the car guys. If you got lucky, you could sell some of the higher-priced chronographs while you were selling the stopwatches. That connection to racing really put Heuer on the map in the U.S.
Collectors Weekly: What were some of their most prominent stopwatch models?
Stein: Most Heuer stopwatch models didn’t have names, but a few did. The Micrograph came out around 1910. You can see some examples on my website. It timed to 1/100th of a second, which was revolutionary for that era. There was the Semikrograph. That did 1/50th of a second with a split-second function. Skipping ahead to the ’50s, they had the Game Master, which was on a wrist strap and could be used by a referee to time a football game, or things like that.
The Ring Master was basically a 60-minute stopwatch. You could change the different rings or bezels around the edge to time different types of sporting events. They also made timers for chess matches. Heuer would produce a stopwatch for anything scientific, industrial, medical, or sports related, anything that needed a specialized stopwatch.
Collectors Weekly: What about the Heuers that were sold under other brand names?
Stein: During the ’60s and ’70s, Heuer produced watches for several other companies. Heuer made a line for Sears Roebuck that they marketed under the Tradition brand. Today these are known as the poor man’s Heuers. Heuer also made a line for Abercrombie & Fitch for adventurers, explorers, and people like that. Heuer, Breitling, and Omega were good watches, but they were really targeting Main Street. A normal Heuer watch might have sold for $200, so they weren’t generally considered luxury items.
In fact, back in the days when there were hundreds of Swiss watch brands, second-tier brands like Zodiac wanted to have their own line of chronographs to put in their catalog to go along with their regular watches. Instead of making them, they paid Heuer to do the manufacturing.
As a result, today you can find a Zodiac that will be almost identical to the Heuer that came off the same assembly line and used the exact same components. Of course, instead of saying Heuer on the dial it will say Zodiac. In similar condition, that watch would now sell for 30 percent of the price of a Heuer. By the same token, a certain Heuer-made Dugena might cost $500 today while the same watch branded as a Heuer would cost $3,500.
Collectors Weekly: What other companies did Heuer work with?
Stein: The jewelry chain Zales sold watches under the brand name Baylor. Heuer manufactured a lot of watches and chronographs for them. Heuer also produced watches for Hamilton. In Europe, too, retailers put their names on watches even though Heuer had made them—you’d see the name Heuer and a particular retail brand name alongside it.
Collectors Weekly: Are the “poor man’s” models in demand today?
Stein: Some people only want the Heuer. They’ll spend $4,000 for the Heuer triple-calendar chronograph. Other people are thrilled to find the identical Zodiac or Clebar for $1,200.
Collectors Weekly: What types of materials did Heuer use on its cases?
Stein: There were three primary materials used in 90 percent of Heuer’s cases. At the lower end, you’d have a chrome-plated brass case. The chrome routinely wore through, so you’d end up seeing the brass under it. Most ’60s and ’70s Heuers were solid stainless steel, which was the “default” for most high-quality chronographs. The high-end watchcases were made out of gold or were gold plated.
Of the 1950s,’60s, and ’70s chronographs, serious collectors are mostly interested in the stainless steel ones. In general, people love gold watches, but a lot of collectors think gold isn’t right for chronographs because they’re really tool watches. Gold watches sometimes seem too delicate or dressy.
Collectors Weekly: How did World War II and the 1950s affect Heuer?
Stein: I believe that most production was halted during the war, but I don’t know exactly what the company was up to during the war years. But a lot of Heuers came out in the late ’40s—the triple-calendar moon-phase chronographs, for example—so there was clearly a resurgence of production, and some great designs, after the war.
Many of the legendary chronographs were introduced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Omega introduced the Speedmaster in 1957, Rolex put the word Daytona on a watch in 1961, Breitling had the Navitimers, and Heuer launched the Carrera in 1964. Each of these chronographs had a distinctive look.
The shift from no-name chronographs to ones with model names really boosted the popularity of these watches. It was tough to get people excited about the Reference 2543, but it was easy to get them interested in something called Daytona, Carrera, or Monaco.
Rolex was doing the same thing, and not just with the Daytona. Reference numbers had been used to identify different Bubblebacks, but when the words Explorer, Submariner, and Sea Dweller were put on the dials, it had a very positive effect.
Collectors Weekly: Why were the 1960s such a good time for chronographs?
Stein: Well, I think the introduction of the model names helped, but the key factor would have to be the sporty, action-oriented designs. By that time, they also got the waterproofing right. The shock proofing and construction was good. These were all features that helped them take off in the ’60s.
Collectors Weekly: What was the appeal of the triple-calendar chronograph?
Stein: The triple-calendar chronograph came out in about the mid-’40s. I’m not sure who invented it, but Valjoux came out with one of the leading movements. It was called the Valjoux 72C. Once that movement was available, several manufacturers made watches using it.
A lot of people simply wanted all that information in a single instrument. It told the time like a normal watch, but you could also time things with the chronograph function. It had the day, date, and month, and it was decorative in a technically sophisticated way. People just like a sophisticated technology and good looks. There were watches with even fancier complications, but for the mainstream consumer or collector, the triple-calendar chronograph was the highest form of the instrument—the ultimate watch, but within reason, you might say.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most sought-after Heuer pieces?
Stein: Anything with the name “Chronomatic” on the dial tops the list. Those were the very first automatic chronographs Heuer produced in 1969. They’re very rare and sought after. I only know of about 20 of them within the collecting community. The Chronomatics could be Autavias, Carreras, or Monacos, but having the word Chronomatic on the dial makes it very rare.
An 18-karat gold automatic Carrera is Jack Heuer’s favorite watch. During the years Heuer sponsored the Ferrari racing team, Jack Heuer presented an 18-karat gold Carrera to each Ferrari Formula One driver. That tradition has added mystique and collectability to this particular watch.
Another sought after Heuer is the Monaco in black PVD material. Those are very scarce. We could probably make a list of about 15 of those in collector’s hands right now. Next on the list would be the manual-wind Carreras with contrasting registers, black on white or white on black. That’s a beautiful, simple design. Also in demand is any “new old stock” watch. There’s probably a 30 to 50 percent premium on an vintage Heuer that’s never been worn.
Collectors Weekly: Are all new chronographs automatic?
Stein: Most of the popular chronographs currently in production are automatic (meaning self-winding). Just about any chronograph that you would buy in a store today would be an automatic watch.
Collectors Weekly: Does that make the manual-wind watches more collectible?
Stein: It depends. If someone is into the ’50s and ’60s, those chronographs are going to be manual winding. If somebody’s into the ’70s and ’80s, then they might have a choice. Certain models were available in both versions. You could buy a Heuer Monaco in either automatic or manual winding. You could also get it with or without a date, with three registers or two registers. There were a lot of variations. You could get a leather strap or a steel bracelet. Heuer was trying to produce chronographs that addressed a variety of customer preferences.
Collectors Weekly: How has the Internet affected chronograph collecting?
Stein: It helps people do research, find watches, and authenticate them. Before the Internet, I guess if a person wanted to buy or sell a watch, they’d have to go to a watch show or maybe subscribe to a monthly specialist magazine.
Today, collectors can go online every day to look at watches on eBay and other sites. They can learn new things and try to find watches that other collectors may have missed. If a collector buys a watch and later decides he doesn’t like it, he can easily sell it instead of having to go to a watch dealer or a watch show. There’s a lot of instant information sharing going on, and that kind of passion tends to get everyone more enthusiastic about the hobby. People will receive a new watch during the day and share photos of it on a discussion forum later that evening.
Collectors Weekly: Is the hobby growing?
Stein: Some people worry that young people don’t wear watches because they just look at their cell phones, but the last 10 years have been absolutely phenomenal for mechanical chronographs, regardless of economic cycles and issues with other investments. It’s been a great 10-year run.
Most collectors today find their watches online through dealers. The dealers all still go to the shows, so a lot of the activity is just dealer-to-dealer—people switching out their inventory or trading. I’ve been doing this for 10 or 12 years, and I’ve only been to maybe three watch shows. All of them were disappointing. I could find much better stuff in a couple of hours on the Internet.
Collectors Weekly: Can you recommend some resources and offer words of advice to people who are new to the hobby?
Stein: If they’re interested in vintage Heuers, then they should go to my site, OnTheDash.com. There are sites for vintage Rolexes, Breitlings, and Omegas, as well as general discussion forums such as TimeZone.com and Watchuseek.com. It’s pretty specialized right now.
If you are new to chronograph collecting, rule number one is to do your research before you buy, not after. It’s unfortunate when somebody is excited about their new chronograph and posts a picture on a discussion forum, only to have five people tell him it’s a fake.
Second piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to sell. It takes a lot more effort to sell than to buy. It’s much more difficult and time-consuming, but I think selling is very healthy because it gives you money to buy new watches and also lets you control your addiction. Finally, get involved with one of these online communities. You’ll get a lot of fantastic information and support.
Collectors Weekly: What about care and service tips?
Stein: Store your collection in a safe, dark, dry place. I wear all of my watches from time to time so they get a little bit of exercise. Vintage chronographs should be serviced every 5 to 10 years. You might pick one up that hasn’t been touched or serviced for 20 or 30 years and it’ll appear to be running fine, but if it’s been sitting idle and the oil has coagulated, then it needs to be serviced.
Most of the major brands service their watches, but there are also a lot of private watchmakers who can service vintage chronographs. They get parts from each other. A watchmaker in Atlanta will get on the phone or email a watchmaker in Kansas City and ask if he has a certain part. They know who to go to for the parts. So a lot of collectors use private watchmakers and repair facilities rather than sending their watches to the factory.
(All images in this article courtesy of Jeff Stein of www.onthedash.com)