“On Sunday, 24 October 1971, I turned on the radio to listen to the news and was rooted to the spot”, wrote Jack Heuer in his memoirs. His friend Jo Siffert had suffered a fateful car crash at Brands Hatch – exactly 43 years ago today. Seppi (as he was affectionately known) couldn’t get out of his burning BRM, after the suspension broke and made him crash.
The tragic accident cost the Swiss pilot’s life, but the horror and the drama forced an increase of in-car and on-circuit safety parameters that prevented many other casualties. There were further legacies: a new era in sports endorsement and a cult watch that (unofficially) bears Jo Siffert’s name.
Seppi was the first ambassador enrolled by Jack Heuer (CHF 25.000 a year for a logo on his racing suit!) to promote and sell his chronographs within the Formula 1 community; there was a particular one that became forever tied to his mojo: the Autavia Ref. 1163T, aka Autavia ‘Jo Siffert’ – much like there is a Daytona ‘Paul Newman’ or a Monaco ‘Steve McQueen’. Actually, Seppi was McQueen’s mentor in the preparation of his ‘Le Mans’ character and the reason why the actor wore a Monaco in the legendary movie.
The attachment of a particular watch to a sports legend or a movie icon does capture one’s imagination. Yet, it has to be a cool timepiece to seduce generation after generation and elicit record-breaking sums: the ‘Siffert’ Autavia sold at the Bonham’s Haslinger Auction in 2010 went for $46,800. And it has to be cool enough to inspire a great re-edition. To me, the Autavia ‘Jo Siffert’ rendition from 2002 is the coolest watch I own – and one of the coolest watches I know, along with the original.
“Even better than the real thing”?
Re-editions and reinterpretations have been a major trend in watchmaking lately – yet it was TAG Heuer who launched proceedings as early as 1996 with a faithful Carrera reedition and then in 1998 with a free Monaco rendition. After Jack Heuer came back to the company founded by his ancestor Edouard Heuer as Honorary Chairman, he was behind the three 2002 re-editions of the Autavia – the ‘Jo Siffert’, the ‘Orange Boy’ (both also sold on a commemorative box along an Autavia dashboard chronograph) and a gold version with three subregisters.
The Autavia re-editions weren’t a commercial success. Featuring the crown on the left like the original and a retro metal bracelet, it was a misunderstood timepiece – now it is a sought-after watch in the pre-owned market, even though far from fetching the same sums as the ‘Siffert’ pieces (the Autavia with black/blue hues) from 1969, 1970 and 1971.
I could go as far as state that the ‘Siffert’ reedition’s opalescent dial with contrasting counters, made by TAG Heuer’s subsidiary ArteCad, is the best dial the brand has ever issued; plus, the small lugs are perfect for NATO straps or perforated calf straps. Yes, an ETA+Dubois-Dépraz module combination is not the original Calibre 11/Chronomatic movement – but a contemporary timepiece is more robust and servicing it way less expensive. The larger cushion case anticipated the major trends of the funky 1970s, a decade that seldom featured round watches; those trends have been used in several re-editions in recent years, from Audemars Piguet to Hamilton.
TAG Heuer did not celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Autavia in 2012, nor the 45th anniversary of the Autavia ‘Chronomatic’ (‘Jo Siffert’) this year – the heritage focus has been mainly on the Carrera. Ironically, the case of the completely overhauled Formula 1 collection is quite reminiscent of the 1969 Autavia case. Maybe Seppi would be happy with that, but many aficionados are still waiting for another Autavia homage from TAG Heuer…