There has been a continuing and passionate debate as to which manufacturer developed world’s first self-winding chronograph, amongst the consortium of Heuer, Buren-Hamilton, Breitling, Dubois-Depraz and Seiko. Much of the argument has subsided in recent years, thanks to almost a decade’s tireless documentation by the original sports-chronograph collectors, such as Jeff Stein, founder of On The Dash
, and author of Project 99 - The Race to Develop the World's First Automatic Chronograph
According to the latter, Zenith was the first to announce the innovation. Having begun research and development as early as 1962, it debuted a working prototype at a pre-emptive press conference in Switzerland in early 1969. Rivals entered global production in August of 1969, while Zenith made the 3019 PHC publicly available in October the same year. Zenith proudly claims the “El Primero” to be the first-ever automatic chronograph, emphasizing its full integration and completeness - with a column-wheel and central rotor on ball bearings - as opposed to a being a modular addition. The name “El Primero” by no coincidence translates to “the first”.
The debate may never truly be extinguished, but the “El Primero” movement will forever keep its claim as a first. It certainly had a huge impact on horological development. Other than being the first fully-integrated, automatic chronograph, the movement was also a pioneer of high-frequency. Beating at a rate of 36,000 A/h, vs. at 19,800 A/h of its ‘Calibre 11’ competitors, the 5hz beat rate allows measurement up to 1/10th of a second, in comparison to just one-fifth of a second (at a rate of 2.5hz) of its contemporaries.
In 1985, Zenith resurrected the “El Primero” line, reissuing the calibre 3019PHC (as the calibre 40.0), and it is still in production today under the designation “calibre 400”. One of the most widely respected Rolex Daytona references, the 16500, used the base calibre 400 in its re-designed flagship sports watch in 1988.
This stunning example of the Zenith El Primero Ref. A386 is from circa 1970 (With serial number 706DXXX). According to Manfred Rössler, in his important work on the history of the brand
, only around 2,500 examples of the reference A386 were produced, exclusively between 1969 and ’71.
While this piece is undeniably attractive, it is the condition that stands out. Vintage sports watches typically have tell-tale signs of being over-worn. However this A386 has been remarkably well preserved. The angular, MKII stainless steel case measures 38 mm in diameter (13 mm thick) and has large chronograph pushers and its original, signed, fluted crown, each retaining their definition. Both the case and the straight-line lugs are sharp and thick, with contrasting grained and polished surfaces. The bevels on the lugs are polished, as is the outer-edge of the flat, screw-down case-back, further accentuated by the use of graining at the center. The unique reference number is also visible. Overall, the exceptional finishing of the Zenith El Primero A386 is noteworthy, both for its design and execution.
Similarly to the case, the tri-colour dial is in excellent condition, with hash markers indicating the minutes and (1/5) seconds, along with applied, faceted index markers for the hours. The tritium lume on the matchstick handset and index hour markers have aged to a dark, off-yellow, complementing the the sub-registers. The sub-dials on the A386 display white indices, with uniformly white hands throughout. Further to this, the watch also features a red paddle chronograph hand, displayed on many Zenith El Primero examples of the era, whilst the white portion of the dial is surrounded by a tachymeter scale. The watch carries the above-mentioned, self-winding 3019 PHC calibre, considered by many as one of the most famous column-wheel operated chronographs of all time. The movement features 31 jewels and a bi-directional central rotor, beating at 36,000 A/h, with a power-reserve of 50-hours.
Together with its Zenith-stamped, original Gay Fréres ladder bracelet in steel, and matching ZJ end-links, this piece makes a showcase of what a classic vintage sports watch should be like. Rarer than most highly-collectable, sports chronographs of the period, this is due to both low production and the fact that many examples have been badly restored and replaced with later parts. This example on the other hand, has to be admired for its excellent unrestored condition.
This Zenith A386 El Primero watch is accompanied by its original, red Zenith box and period-appropriate, black leather Zenith strap and buckle.
Viewings can be arranged in Central London by appointment.