Blast from the Past: When Automatic Chronographs Were The Latest Technology

 The Three Automatic Chronographs—l.r. The Breitling Navitimer, the Seiko and the Heuer.

The Three Automatic Chronographs—l.r. The Breitling Navitimer, the Seiko and the Heuer.

Whilst looking for vintage adverts late one night, I came across a copy of a Motor Sport magazine article, dated August, 1970. The article was reviewing some of the first automatic chronographs ever produced; the Breitling Navitimer Chronomatic Ref. 1806, the Seiko Speedtimer Ref. 6139 and the Heuer Autavia Ref. 11630T. Reading this article was fascinating and it was an opportunity to look back 47 years to a time when automatically winding chronographs were cutting edge technology.  

So many things have changed, yet so many things have remained the same.

Even in 1970, Breitlings were considered 'both large and heavy' and that after wearing the Navitimer for a while, 'the arm has been strengthened to carry the extra weight' (The watch was 47mm and weighed 3 1/2 oz). What did surprise me is that the slide rule on the Navitimer was actually used to convert currency (The glory days of the British pound which could buy $2.39) and distances! 

I've included a scan of the article below (which you can download by clicking here) and have typed up the article in full to make it easier to read which includes some modern photos of the watches mentioned. 

(A quick guide for my Non-British readers and those too young to remember a time before the decimalization of British currency (In all honesty, I had to email my Dad to ask what some of the currency abbreviations meant): In 1970, there were 12 pennies (abbreviated to d.) to a shilling (s.) and 20 shillings to the pound. When there were no pence in the price, od was written.)

AUTOMATIC BREAKTHROUGH, MOTOR SPORT, AUGUST, 1970

It has not been many years since the first reliable wrist stop-watch was launched on those of us who are time-conscious, and, as with all new things, immediately it was out there were those who said "jolly good, but wouldn't it be nice if it was automatic".

For some years the world's leading watch makers have been designing and lightening to reasonable dimensions an automatic wrist stop-watch which has added a new word to the English vocabulary - Chronomatic. The first three Chronomatic out early this year were from Breitling, Heuer and the Japanese Company of Seiko, and one of each have been on our wrist testing for four months. 

 The Breitling Navtimer Ref. 1806.

The Breitling Navtimer Ref. 1806.

Breitling Navitimer

The first impression of this watch is its size, for, by normal standards, it is both large and heavy. However, the size and weight seem to reduce as time passes and the many uses of the Navitimer pass from gimmicks to everyday use. In the four months during which the watch has been tested, its time-keeping has been almost perfect, adjustments needing to be made only every two weeks and then only to move it back one minute. In months when there are less than 31 days, the action must be turned on 24 hours to keep the calendar correct. The accuracy of the stop-watch is reasonable and times taken at race-circuits are always very close to the official times. The 30-minute and 12-hour recorders are useful on long runs, but what sets this watch in a class of its own is the very clear circular slide rule round the outside edge.

All the usual calculations necessary for flying are worked out quickly and easily but, as a motoring magazine, this is of secondary importance. The other calculations which can be done in seconds are kilometers to miles, fuel consumption average speeds, miles covered in a portion of an hour, lap times to m.p.h and so on. As the watch has been taken abroad a lot, it was found convenient to keep it set for the foreign exchange rate, i.e. $2.39, and then a quick glance at the "time" and $77 can be instantly converted into £32 5s. od. The applications are endless and now the arm has been strengthened to carry the extra weight (3 1/2 oz.) a Navitimer Chronomatic will stay on it.—M.J.T.

 The Heuer Autavia Ref. 11630T. Photo courtesy of analog/shift.

The Heuer Autavia Ref. 11630T. Photo courtesy of analog/shift.

HEUER-AUTAVIA

My first impressions of the Heuer-Autavia watch were that is wears large and bulky, but comfortable to wear with an easy to read dial, the luminous face being very clear in the dark.

The seconds' hand, operated by two buttons on the side of the watch, is accurate to about 1/4 second in 15 minutes, which is quite satisfactory. On the watch face there also features a seperate hour dial and a minute dial which runs concurrently with the second hand. The watch is shock-proof to a high degree. Some months ago I had occasion to drive my car off the road at speed and hit a lone concrete post in a field. The impact caused me to pitch forward and strike the laminated windscreen with the watch. The windscreen broke — the watch is still going.

I have worn it whilst swimming, motor-racing, sailing and diving, and still it looks as good as new works. At least this was so until a month ago. The hand on the minute dial dropped off. It was replaced, but dropped off again. The watch was replaced by another of the same type and, so far, this one has proved to be just as rugged and even more accurate, gaining one minute a fortnight. The tachy-meter on the side of the watch I have never used, but I am sure some people will find it useful. —I.R.T. 

 Seiko Speedtimer Ref. 6139. Photo courtesy of 10:25 Vintage

Seiko Speedtimer Ref. 6139. Photo courtesy of 10:25 Vintage

Seiko

I liked this watch. The face is uncomplicated, the hands easy to see. For this reason the stop-watch is eminently usable, whereas with more elaborate watches this is not necessarily the case. The time-keeping, checked against Big Ben as I circled Parliament Square en route for the office, was exemplary and the self-wind functioned so that you could forget it, except in a 30-day month, when it was necessary to press in the winder to re-set the day-of-the-week mechanism, otherwise the watch emulated H.G. Wells' time-machine. The metal strap provided was easy to secure and quite reasonably reliable, although if it did unlock the watch would be all too easy to lose as it slipped off the wrist unnoticed. —W.B.

A WATCH FOR EVERY MOMENT

When we required a watch for accurate timing in flying in place of the "Mickey Mouse" watches usually fitted to light aeroplanes, a glance through the Chronosport catalogue turned up the two facia clocks illustrated and as these were to be used in different hired aircraft they were bolted to the map board. Both clocks are extremely accurate and do their required jobs very effectively. The IFR timer can be stopped, zero'd, and started in one flowing movement, losing about a quarter of a second. All watches from Chronosport carry a discount on the Manufacturer's recommended rates, and credit facilities are available on all watches costing more than £20.

The three Chronomatics cost: Breitling Navitimer £93 (£83 19s 6d.), Heuer-Autavia Chronomatic £77 10s. od. (£69 15s. 0d.), and the Seiko Chronomatic £39 19s. 6. (£35 19s. 6.). The range of sporting watches is incredibly and the Chronosport catalogue makes interesting and mouthwatering reading.