One of TAG Heuer’s biggest challenges since its formation in 1985 is how it treats its historical models. It’s a tricky thing, being a brand that is avowedly avant-garde, but has such a rich back catalogue. On the one hand, TAG wants to appeal to the average watch enthusiast’s affinity toward old things and familiar names. And on the other, the company has that innate desire to innovate. Its first re-edition watch, the 1996 Heuer Carrera, was as faithful to the original as possible, given the parts available at the time. Subsequent models would try to fine-tune the balance between new and old, an approach best exemplified by the 2016 Monza, which fused the 1976 original’s appearance with the pre-war-inspired shape of the early-2000s Monza. To anyone unfamiliar with the myriad types in Heuer’s history, it can all be a bit confusing.
As controversial as it may be to vintage purists, this new Autavia liberates TAG Heuer’s designers from past pressures and allows them to reinterpret the name in however manner they see fit. It is not a chronograph, unlike every Autavia wristwatch made from 1958 up to the chronograph reissues of 2017. There have been heated debates on watch forums as to whether a non-chronograph can be a “real” Autavia, but it is pointless to relitigate them here. Autavia is no longer just a model, but is now a distinct, standalone collection of models within the TAG Heuer family tree. As such, it would be best to judge this new watch by its own merits, and not those of what came before.
Hold on… Haven’t we been down this road already, and seen this design less than a year ago? The Autavia Isograph was revealed in the spring of 2019, and was even featured on the cover of Calibre’s May issue. But around September, the Isograph started to disappear from store shelves, while any mention on the corporate website had been airbrushed from history. Early adopters reported that TAG dealers had contacted them with offers to buy back their watches. A stealth recall was occurring, and the watch community could only speculate as to what had prompted it. As of this article’s writing, no official explanation has been provided, but there are two leading theories: The first is that there was a naming conflict — specifically, with Rotring, which has manufactured the Isograph technical pen since 1974. The second holds that TAG Heuer’s carbon-composite mainspring, the headline technology behind the Isograph name, was not quite ready for primetime. Whatever the reason, the same Autavia designs re-emerged in December, only this time with dials reading “Automatic Chronometer” instead of “Isograph Chronometer,” and without the exotic hairsprings.
This reintroduction to the Autavia collection is also an opportunity to highlight its two bronze models. These are the first TAG Heuers ever to use this ancient alloy in their cases, and follow a broader industry trend to embrace bronze. On purely rational, utilitarian terms, stainless steel is hard to beat as the ideal material for watches. If lightness is needed, then titanium makes an argument for consideration. So why bronze? Isn’t there a good reason why the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age? There are two main benefits to bronze, both related to its appearance: First, it shifts a watch to a warmer color palette without the expense of gold. Secondly, it allows for personalization to occur naturally. The patination of the metal, tremendously appealing to many collectors, will be different on each watch, depending on the climate, the composition of the wearer’s sweat, and many other factors. Steel watches will also develop a patina, but not so rapidly or visibly. The 42mm case, water-resistant to 100m, is inspired by the first-generation Heuer Autavia (Refs. 2446/3446). Its tapered lugs, gentle curves, and beveled edges form a classic tool watch shape. The bronze cases further distinguish themselves from the steel Autavias with a different pattern of surface polishing and brushing — all the better to highlight the bronze model’s roughness and implied ruggedness. The crown, also in bronze, is extra-large to allow for easy winding with gloved hands.
The Autavia’s dial offers harmonious colors, high legibility, and a balanced layout. It is dominated by numerals that are simple, large, and illuminated, marking every hour except 6 o’clock, which is replaced by a framed date window. Hours are further emphasized by either polished steel or bronze blocks set into a raised ring. Above this is a chapter ring, which gives the Autavia two distinct steps on the way up to the slim dive bezel, whose insert is ceramic, and engraved with 60-minute marks. At its base, the dial is fumé (smoked), meaning that its color grows darker around the edges. The dial’s surface is roughly textured, almost with a spackled effect. Color schemes for the two bronze models have been chosen impeccably: The brown dial is matched with a bronze handset, dark brown ceramic bezel insert and strap. Meanwhile, the green dial gets a rhodium-plated handset, black insert, and dark green strap, yielding a higher-contrast, more military, appearance. Both color options fit naturally with the bronze frame behind it, so there are sure to be difficult decisions to be made at the TAG Heuer Store.
Beating within the Autavia’s bronze shell is TAG Heuer’s Calibre 5, a descendant of the venerable ETA 2824-2, which then evolved into the Sellita SW200. These are common automatic movements, but they have well-established track records for reliability and precision. It ticks 8 times per second, running down a 38-hour power reserve. What sets this Cal.5 apart from its predecessors is hinted at by the “Chronometer” tag on the dial. This is a COSC-certified movement, with +4/-6 second average daily accuracy, and meeting all other standards set by that Swiss timing body. No, there is no carbon-composite hairspring to be found inside, but in exchange for bragging rights for bleeding-edge technology, Autavia owners will get a watch that they can rely on completely. Covering the movement is a circular-brushed titanium caseback bearing an intricately engraved automobile wheel and airplane propeller. This is the new symbol for the Autavia, which (as TAG Heuer marketing is so quick to remind us) is an acronym for Automobile and Aviation — a reminder of its competence on air, sea, or land. One can reasonably assume that the caseback is titanium to avoid any adverse reaction between skin, sweat, and bronze i.e. wrists turning green.
The new Autavia’s straps debut a proprietary TAG Heuer system that prioritizes ease of use. Like some military watches, this Autavia has fixed bars between its lugs, rather than springbars. Straps and bracelets, sold only by TAG Heuer until the aftermarket has a chance to catch up, then clip onto these bars using only thumb pressure and spring-loaded links. No tools are required. This allows for strap or bracelet changes in a matter of seconds, further enhancing the Autavia’s ability to personalize. New enthusiasts will appreciate the quick-change, while experienced collectors fearing limited options can be assured that the Autavia case will also accept traditional springbars. The Autavia Bronze is paired only with a calfskin leather strap, with a matching bronze buckle to secure it. There is no bracelet option, undoubtedly due to the aforementioned adverse chemical reactions. However, steel bracelets are available on other color options. Although the Autavia Bronze has been the focus of this piece, the other models that debuted in 2019 are available again in 2020. These include dials in blue, black, or grey, on leather, steel, or nylon NATO bands. The grey-dialed version further sets itself apart by being the only one with a steel bezel and, consequently, selling at a cheaper price than its ceramic-hooped stablemates.
Many have compared the new Autavia with the best-selling Tudor Black Bay. Both are competitively-priced, vintage-styled, mechanical watches from known brands. Both models boast features not often associated with “beginner sport watches,” like bronze cases, ceramic bezels, and either in-house or chronometer-grade movements. But while the Black Bay follows the classic dive watch template, the Autavia is positioned more as an all-around “adventure” watch. It is a handsome, go-anywhere timepiece that can take a few knocks and, in its bronze form, age together with its owner as his constant companion. If TAG Heuer marketing is on the ball, it should be moving heaven and hell to get an Autavia on Harrison Ford’s wrist for his last outing as Indiana Jones! It’s a shame about the false start and unrealized promise of the Isograph, but there is clearly a silver lining from that episode: The Autavia with its workhorse Calibre 5 retails at a price that is USD 500 lower than it was a year ago, when it sported the Isograph hairspring. In this arena, long abandoned by the likes of Rolex and Omega, competition is sure to be fierce and any cost advantage will be much appreciated by new watch collectors. There has hardly been a better time for a novice enthusiast to take the plunge and buy his first proper tool watch. Ironically, the quality of today’s “first watch” may be good enough to make it the only watch a man needs for the rest of his days.