The rise of the Heuer Autavia over the past few years has been an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold. What was once an affordable and readily available watch has become dramatically more expensive and sought after by collectors.
For the latest edition of My Watch, we met with Richard Milner, a racing car aficionado who was gifted an Autavia during the 1960s. While we usually draw attention to those watches a collector would never sell, Richard’s stories were so compelling that we decided to flip the concept on its head. The watch is available for purchase online, and is being parted with to fund the further development and improvement of Richard’s beloved GT40.
So tell us how you came to be involved in motor-racing?
Yes, well, in the 1960s I was very friendly with Bernard White, the brother of Gordon White who would eventually become Sir Gordon, then Lord White who together with Lord Hanson were Margaret Thatcher’s favourite businessmen and scourge of The City during the 70’s and 80’s. Bernard ran Hanson Trust’s publishing business, or rather sat in the office while other people ran the business, and we would meet every day for 11 o’clock coffee; how on earth any of us ever made any money is beyond me [laughs]. So, in 1965 his cousin, Vic Wilson, came over from South Africa, and persuaded Bernard to buy a car for him to race, as he had previously raced a Lotus Eleven quite successfully back home.
Did they buy something?
Bernard bought a front engined ex-Formula One Lotus, which wound-up being a complete bag of nails, so that was disposed of shortly after. He then bought a Lotus 30, which was a sports racing car with a big V8 engine in it; a very hairy monster. I remember driving that thing around Pocklington Airfield in a constant slide [laughs]. It was far too dangerous, so that was sold too. The next car was ex-works BRM 261 chassis five, which was a 2 litre version of the previous season’s V8 Formula One cars, which were being replaced in 1966 by a new three litre Formula.
And did you end up racing this one?
Well, it first raced in the non-championship Syracuse Grand Prix in 1966, and Vic was driving. He didn’t really get a handle on the thing and eventually Bernard decided to get professional drivers to pilot the car. He would employ Innes Ireland, David Hobbs and Bob Bondurant; an American who I understand famously referred to us as “a bunch of amateurs”. This was an entirely fair claim to make, we were there to have fun [laughs].
So we went to the Monaco Grand Prix in 1966 with Bob Bondurant behind the wheel. Everything went quite well on the day, which was unusual for us, as there was always something breaking down or going wrong. Bob was placed fourth, though only four cars finished [laughs]. But fourth is fourth and that meant World Championship points.
A respectable result…
We went on to race in Belgium, German, Italy, certainly at Monza, Mexico and the United States Grand Prix. And coincidentally, this was the year that the film-maker John Frankenheimer was making the now famous film, Grand Prix. We ended-up following as part of GP circus, and it was one of the greatest Formula One events of the ‘60s. If you look closely enough, you’ll see a fleeting shot of myself and James Garner, who was the star of the film. In fact, at the British Grand Prix he escorted my wife around Brands Hatch, and I don’t think she had ever been photographed so many times in all her life.
So how did you come to own this Heuer Autavia?
The Monaco Grand Prix was the highlight of the Bernard White Racing calendar, and I remember being at Bernard’s house in East Yorkshire, one miserably damp November night with Innes Ireland, and Bernard suddenly reached into his drawer and pulled out a box. He handed me this box and said, “here we are, you’ve got to remember the Monaco Grand Prix, it was our greatest ever.”
I opened the box, and it’s a Heuer Autavia. I wish I had kept the box, but it went missing over the years.
Wow, that’s a nice gift to receive…
Yes, and that was shortly followed by a bottle of Bernard’s best Claret. I remember Bernard had been loaned a Ford GT40, which we had somehow managed to fit three people into, and Bernard asked Innes to drive back to London to return it to Ford Advanced Vehicles for him. Innes lived in, I believe, Eccleston Mews in Belgravia, and in thick nighttime fog, before the M1 was fully opened and the A1 was primarily a single carriageway, he made it home in three hours.
We didn’t believe him, so we called back to his house to see if he would answer, and he did. He drove 200 odd miles in three hours in a GT40 on wet, foggy roads [laughs]. Unbelievable.
That’s absolutely outrageous. To be expected of a Formula One racer… [laughs]
So how did Bernard come to own the watch?
He had been a collector of all sorts of things, fine wines, predominantly cars, but also watches.
It’s become quite known that many of the team owners were gifting these watches to their teams…
In fact this one became known as the ‘Jochen Rindt’ as he was famously seen wearing it…
Well, the key drivers in those days were Jim Clark, Graham Hill and, of course, Jochen Rindt who I had met on numerous occasions. He was a really charming man and very approachable. He had borrowed a camera from Bernard when we were racing the team’s Ford GT40 and Ferrari 250LM at Zeltweg in Austria. I remember it very distinctly. It was never returned as he was sadly killed at Monza in 1970 becoming the only posthumous World Champion.
An awful tragedy…
Yes, I mean, a lot of these drivers got killed as you you know, Jo Bonnier, Joe Siffert; dangerous business.
Did you wear the watch in those days?
Well, to be honest not very often. Then as now I seldom wore a watch which is probably why it wound up going missing for some 40 years.
So where did it turn up?
I’m very much a hoarder, to my wife’s annoyance, and I would tuck things away in boxes and this like many other things I owned, ended up stored away. I used to even save air travel tickets. I wound up with boxes and boxes of the things. I even kept a dented Air France hip flask which I was given when flying Concorde. I sat down on it on the aircraft loo, but I like to claim flying at 1500 miles an hour caused the dent. I still have the menu from that flight too actually.
Was it a personal watch of Bernard’s?
I don’t remember him wearing anything other than two Piaget watches that he owned. It was a bit like his cars, he would buy some to drive, some to keep. He was a strange character in many ways, but he had a great sense of humour and would light up any room he walked into; he saw the funny side of everything. I remember Vic Wilson having an argument with him about how fast his Ferrari 275 GTB would go, and he broke it up by saying, “right, Richard you drive, let’s take it out and see how fast it will go.”
We took it out, with a belly full of best Claret and started accelerating. He said, as we were approaching 80 that, “…at 90 the bonnet lifts, so keep your foot down, because at 100, it goes back down”. [laughs]. We got the thing up to 185mph.
It was madness. We should have been locked up, but it was a different life back then. The local bobby used to see us tearing up and down in the BRM on a Sunday morning through the village, he would shake his finger back and forth disapprovingly. I mean, can you imagine Lewis Hamilton taking out a Mercedes racing car and tearing up the drag in Monaco [laughs].
Didn’t Hamilton get into some trouble recently for speeding down the motorway after a race, which lead to a very public apology about setting a bad example?
Yeah, I believe so. Then of course, when you think about it, there were far less cars on the road back in the 1960s, car ownership wasn’t very high.
So, on the subject of the Monaco Grand Prix, how did it work, filming the movie at the same time as the race?
The director wanted to make the film as factual and as real as possible. He had arranged with Jim Russell, who had a racing school, to convert a number of Formula Junior cars into what looked like full Grand Prix cars. They basically used every bit of spare time between races and happenings to get everything they needed, in fact, they shot some scenes during practices. On one occasion, at Brands Hatch, the car actually caught fire and James Garner came very close to being very badly burned.
Another time, at the Belgian Grand Prix, I can remember the Director, John Frankenheimer coming to Bernard saying, “Look, Bruce McLaren’s Cooper Maserati, we’ve been shooting it during practice because we want to integrate him into the film, but it’s blown its engine and it’s not going to race. We need a white car in the race, so can we paint your car white?”
Did you guys do it?
Not initially, the first reaction was negative because the car was absolutely immaculate. Frankenheimer then offered $1000 and said that they would return it to its previous colour after. Again, Bernard said no chance. $2000, no. He then offered $4000 and Bernard said, “You can paint it whatever f…..g colour you like” [laughs].
So the car can be seen in the film?
No, it ended up being a complete waste, because the weather was foul and Jackie Stewart ended up in a ditch with petrol pouring all over him, and Graham Hill who had also crashed rushed to get him out of the car, because he was concerned it would catch fire. Bob Bondurant ended up in the opposite ditch also leapt out and helped, so our BRM never even finished that race.
Were you aware of the Heuer racing connections?
Very much so, although I can’t remember Jack Heuer myself, I was aware of the watches. I can remember Jochen Rindt watch and you know, that’s probably why Bernard acquired mine because he would be aware of these things. He had to have whatever was considered the best trinket around. He was an interesting man. I remember, he bought a Rolls Corniche and would pop to the local chippy in it, or we would go to a local hotel for a few drinks, where he was longstanding friend of the owner. One time, a snooty couple came in and looked us up and down as if we had crawled out of the gutter. Bernard deliberately waited until they were leaving to swan out, leapt over the door of the Rolls and sped off down the road past them. To use his words, he really couldn’t give a shit about what anybody made of him. I remember one time, he got a ticket in his Ferrari, he received the ticket from the policeman and proceeded to tear it up and drop it on the floor and drive away. Somehow it was fixed later for him, but… [laughs].
Oh how times have changed. What was Jim Clark like?
I remember him being very approachable in the pits at races, before all of the red tape you run into these days. There was still hero status, because Jim Clark was the most incredible driver imaginable; if he led a race, you’d never catch him, it was as simple as that. I have always been of the opinion that he lost his life, not because of a mistake, but because Colin Chapman at Lotus was well-known for building cars which he would then lighten until just before the point that they would break. It is said drivers refused to drive for him because of this, and of course, sadly something failed on Clark’s car and he was killed.
Do you remember the moment?
Yes, we were at the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, 7 April 1968 when it was announced over the loudspeakers that Jim Clark had been killed in Germany. There was a deathly silence, everyone was in shock. He was a very very approachable and nice man, not possible with today’s drivers. Bernie Ecclestone won’t let you in the paddock, I mean, I can remember when Bernie Eccleston went through a period of actually racing.
Oh, yes, he started racing when he was a car dealer in Warren Street, that’s how he started out, selling motorcycles and then he went into cars and the rest.
Then he got involved with Formula One?
Yeah, he raced and then he managed, now I don’t quite remember who, it wasn’t Jochen I don’t think, but he managed, then bought the Brabham team and got Parmalat, the cheese company, to sponsor them.
It seems like there was much more camaraderie in teams back in those days, is that fair to say?
Yeah, I would say so. It was a band of brothers type spirit in the paddocks. It’s funny to think what all these cars are worth now, because I learned to drive in an Austin-Healey 100S in 1957, and I had the opportunity to buy the very car in 1982 for £15,000, but is now worth about £850,000 or £900,000. If I had all the cars that I’ve had over the years, and I flogged them all at Bonhams tomorrow, I’d be worth billions [laughs].