Vintage sport watches are extremely hot right now for a variety of reasons. I believe it can be summed up with the quest for mechanical authenticity in a digital world and the desire to invest in hard assets, as traditional investment vehicles, such as real estate and the stock market appear to be shaky. 2015 gave rise to the million dollar Rolex Daytona and in the recent Christie’s Speedmaster auction, some of the rarer references surged over the hundred thousand dollar mark. Watches that nobody cared about a scant five years ago, such as the Zenith El Primero A386 and the Universal Geneve ‘Nina Rindt’ are well over the $20,000 mark. As a lover of watches and a value buyer, I always wonder what watch will be the next one to ascend into this rarefied territory. I would (and have) put my money on the Heuer Autavia 2446C.
The 2446C is the second generation manual-wind Autavia. It’s a handsome tool chronograph with a simple and rugged look. It has a beefy 40mm case with attractive beveled lugs and a bidirectional rotating bezel. It takes a 20mm strap. These dimensions put it in the sweet spot of watches that look contemporary, but aren’t too big to fit under your cuff.
When Heuer wanted to update the original Autavia around 1967, they went to E. Piquerez SA (EPSA) for a case design. EPSA created the compressor design back in 1961. One of the distinguishing features of a compressor is that the back tightens more as the watch is subjected to water pressure. The C designation on the 2446C stands for compressor. Autavia’s compressor is slightly different. It uses a snap back that is held in place with a big c-clip that is held into the mid case in a deep channel. Water sealing is done with a big rubber o-ring. This is a perfectly acceptable design, but with any snap-back watch, previous owners and watchmakers can gall them up. The back should have the word “Autavia” engraved on the back. Heavy wear can completely obscure this.
The movement is the Valjoux 72, which is one of the most celebrated manual-wind chronograph movements ever created. It has a visually perfect tricompax subdial layout and ticks along at a leisurely and refreshingly mechanical 18,000bph. Thanks to it’s column wheel, the chronograph operates beautifully, with a smooth, positive feel to the pushers that doesn’t take excessive pressure to engage, as many of the newer chrono movements do. The Valjoux 72 was produced for years and parts are still available.
There were three bezel options for the Autavia 2446C, giving credence to the fact that this watch was produced for sports racing enthusiasts as well as pilots. The most common bezel is the minute-hour. This bezel has two scales. The minute scale is useful for timing events, while the hour bezel is used as a second time zone. Less common is the rotating tachy bezel, which is used to measure average speed for racing or the hour time zone bezel, which is primarily for pilots. When buying one of these watches, look for one with a good bezel, as there is no aftermarket replacement.
At the risk of being too picky, I would advise you to take a good look at the acrylic crystal. It should be flat with beveled edges. It is difficult to source a replacement and many of these watches have to make do with a domed crystal. In my opinion, this hurts the look.
The dial is purposeful simplicity itself. A flat black field with chromed baton markers, slightly sunken white guilloche subdials in the 3-6-9 layout, finished off with lumed stick hands, a white chrono seconds hand and very thin black subdial hands. When you see it, there’s a stark, businesslike charm that is shared with the first-generation Carrera, but was lost with the more colorful automatic chonographs that Heuer would start producing a few years later.
And this brings up another great point. While the original screw-back Autavia was produced for about seven years and the Cal 11 and 12 models were made for an impressive 16 years, the 2446C was only in the catalogs from 1968 to 1971. The word ‘transitional’ is thrown around a lot in the vintage watch market, but it is earned here.
The manual-wind compressor case Autavia was also made as a GMT. This model has an extra red arrow-tipped hand that rotates once every 24 hours, the dial markers are lumed, rather than chrome batons and there is a red hash mark at every hour in the outer track. The bezel is a Pepsi design, labeled in 1-24 hour segments. The 2446C GMT is actually worth slightly less than the standard model and represents a great long term buy.
The Autavia 2446C was sold on a Corfam strap with a Heuer buckle or on the superb beads of rice bracelet made by Gay Freres. The end links should be marked HLB. These bracelets are extremely rare and difficult to find. Consider yourself lucky if you can source one.
I have owned my 2446C for about a year and have seen the prices increase dramatically. While they are more expensive than they used to be, they are still a terrific bargain in the vintage watch market. More importantly, the Heuer Autavia 2446C is a purposefully designed sport watch with a great name and an excellent movement. If you can find one, it is very satisfying to own. You may even make money on it.