Chronography 9: Valjoux 72–The Driver’s Engine

Back when the Valjoux 72 was conceived, watchies didn’t fret on forums about the superiority of in-house over ébauche movements. After all, most watch companies were only just starting to think about building their own chronograph engines. Chronographs were the exotic preserve of people who might actually need a stopwatch; important people like racing drivers, pilots, engineers and playboys.

And, back then, a ‘database’ meant ‘that card index system down in the workshop – if we can find it.’ That means talking about the Valjoux 72 very quickly lands you in a frighteningly dense horological forest where you can’t see the column wheels for the numbers. Trying to make sense of the movement’s evolution, functions and applications is like trying to keep track of Lucrezia Borgia’s paramours.

Valjoux 23 (photo via Classic Heuers)

The movement evolved from the 18,000bph Valjoux 22 and 23 and the resemblance is pretty obvious. But then the family tree starts getting a little complex. The movement was in production from 1938 to 1974, so it’s not surprising there’s confusion.

Starting at the top, there’s the Valjoux 72; easy enough. But add a GMT complication and you have the 724. An 88 ditches the GMT complication but gets you a moonphase. The 721 (if you can find one) will give you tide times too.  Flyback? You’ll want the Valjoux 720, sir. Then there are the numerous re-named variants that found their way into watches by other makers–some very famous ones indeed as we’ll see later.

Valjoux 721 Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer (via HeuerWorld and OnTheDash)

Keeping up?  Good.

Over time, the movement changed from the 18,000bph 72 to become the Valjoux 730; still a column-wheel manual-wind chronograph, but with a glucydur balance regulated with a Triovis micro-regulator and beating at an uprated 21,600 bph.

The basic plot–the 72–is a classical, manual winding, column wheel, lateral clutch chrono. Today, watchies get all excited about column wheels and vertical clutches, but there’s very little wrong with a lateral clutch. In fact, it’s rather simpler to service. A lot of vertical clutches don’t ever get taken apart so, like 1970s Fords, simply die of old age and neglect.

A vertical clutch gets rid of the stutter when you first press the ‘start’ pusher that some people think spoils movements with lateral clutches. But the difference in practical accuracy is probably only around 1/10 of a second. Getting sniffy about a tenth is a little like one of those bicyclists who boasts about their new pedals being 50 grammes lighter as they tuck into the second slice of cake.

Photo via Analog Shift

On the dial side, you’ll find a 30 minute chronograph register at 3 o’clock, a 12 hour chronograph register at 6 and running seconds at 9. As the adman said: ‘everything you need, nothing you don’t.’

The Valjoux 72 keeps turning up in iconic watches, rather like Bristol’s 2,216cc engine from the 406 hiding under the bonnet of a whole slew of classic racing specials. Yes, it’ll be in different states of tune, have different gearboxes and vary in power output, but it’s the same engine.

Pre-Daytona Chronograph with a Valjoux 72

The 72’s most famous outing was as the engine that powered the Rolex Daytona for nearly 30 years. People often think the Daytona ran either Zenith or Rolex movements, depending on the age of the watch. In fact, the manual 72–first renamed the Rolex 722-1, then the Rolex 727–powered the Daytona from 1961 and the ref. 6239 right the way through to 1988 and the ref. 16520. That’s when it gave way to the automatic 4030 (a Zenith 400 in a Rolex party frock). So that $1.1m Paul Newman you’re lusting after? It’s a humble Val. 72 inside. Admittedly it’s been tweaked a bit with a Breguet hairspring and a Microstella balance, but it’s a Val at heart.

1955_AOPA Navitimer_Val72
1955 Breitling AOPA Navitimer

If you prefer aviation to motoring, there are always the 72’s airborne incarnations. The 72 powered Breitling’s early 806 Navitimers from 1954 to ’56. The watch had originally been driven by a Venus 178, but Breitling made the switch when those became hard to find. So if you’re looking at an AOPA (Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association) Navitimer, it’ll quite possibly be running a Valjoux 72.

Jack Heuer was a staunch 72 fan, using the movement in the early Carrera as well as the Autavia and the Camaro. The Valjoux 72C (the gorgeous triple calendar movement with the date indicated from a thin, elegant half-moon tipped hand driven from the centre pinion) turns up in Heuer’s Triple Calendar Chronograph, ref. 2543. Just like that Bristol engine; so many racing connections.

There’s another slightly more tenuous automotive link, too, with watchmaker extraordinaire Peter Roberts. Peter’s love of vintage Italian cars is pretty well-chronicled. What’s less well-known is the movement that powered the prototype of his remarkable watch, the Concentrique. Peter’s first Concentrique–one of the very few watches with five hands running coaxially from the dial’s centre–is based on the Valjoux 72.

Left: Original; Right: Reissue (Grand Complication 5)

Finally, and perhaps fittingly, the Val. 72 has been at the heart of one of watchmaking and racing’s longest running controversies; what watch did Jim Clark wear? Clark, the man who, when he hit a tree in the woods at Hockenheim in 1968, had won more Grands Prix than any other driver.

For years, watchies who loved their racing debated which watch was on driving-god Jim Clark’s wrist in old photos. Was it a Breitling Top Time? He certainly wore one and even appeared in ads for the watchmaker. Maybe an early Carrera? It was incredibly difficult to tell from most pictures. But it seems that Clark, a watch enthusiast himself, favoured the work of two less well-known makers–the Gallet MultiChron 12 and the Enicar Sherpa Graph. He wore a Gallet MultiChron 12 to the Indianapolis 500 when he won in 1965. By now, you’ll have guessed what was ticking behind the case back of both.

So it’s probably fair to say that the Valjoux 72 timed more races–and more winning drivers–in the 1950s and 60s than any other movement. Now there’s a claim to fame.

A little oddly, you can find a Gallet or an Enicar like Clark’s for anywhere between £1,700 and £3,000 at the moment (although you might want to hurry–they’re heading up). Yet that Newman Daytona with the same movement?  Best talk to your financial advisor. What an arbitrary place Watchworld can be.

Featured image via Analog Shift.

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Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
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