There’s nothing quite as distinctive — and, in some cases, as polarizing — in the arena of vintage-style timepieces as a really period-accurate replica pilot’s watch, and Longines — whose century-plus timepiece archives have yielded an expansive and increasingly popular collection of Heritage models — has taken the style to a new level with the Avigation Watch Type A7 1935, a re-edition of a watch that debuted in that model name’s suffix year and which was worn by U.S. Army pilots in the years leading up to World War II.
The watch is not “timeless” in its design, as some other historically inspired models could be described, but truly a product of its time — with its big, retro-font Arabic numerals, railway-track minutes scale, pocketwatch-style stacked subdials, onion crown, and, most notably the “tilted” design of the time display, a remnant of the 1935 model’s adherence to a precise set of criteria set by its customers, the U.S. Army (this was before the Air Force was spun off as its own branch of the military, in 1947). These standards — which any timepiece earning the Type A-7 designation were required to meet — included not only top-notch precision and sturdiness but also ideal legibility in the cockpit on aerial missions, hence the 40-degree angle of the dial to the right, which enabled a pilot, who would customarily wear the watch on the inside of his wrist over thick gloves, to read the time quickly and easily without having to release his aircraft’s control yoke. (“Avigation,” for those curious, is an amalgamation of “aviation” and “navigation.”)
At 41 mm in diameter in gleamingly polished stainless steel, the Type A-7 nestles comfortably against the wrist and under a shirt cuff, with just the onion crown, and its smooth-edged chronograph monopusher in the center, poking out at an idiosyncratic angle. The white lacquered dial, bordered by the railway minutes track, provides a clean stage for the large, vintage-style Arabic hour numerals, which are filled with a honey-colored varnish that imparts to them an appealing faux patina. The same honey-colored varnish is used to fill in the inner sections of the “pear skeleton” hands made of blued steel. The subdials, each ringed by their own tiny railway track, look fairly similar at a glance but display subtle but significant differences up close: the 12 o’clock subdial, which obliterates most of the 12 o’clock numeral and tallies 30 elapsed minutes when the chronograph is switched on, uses a vintage-type serif font for its numerals, similar to the larger font used for the hour numerals. The 6 o’clock running seconds subdial, on the other hand, not only obscures the “6” numeral as its counterpart does the “12;” it also uses a different, light sans-serif font for the numerals along its track but also a sans-serif font (possibly even a different one) for the date numeral in its window.
The hands of the two subdials are also different: leaf-shaped with a curved diamond-shaped counterweight for the chronograph counter and baton-shaped for the small seconds. Between all of these numeral fonts, along with the text used for the “Longines” and “Automatic” indications on the dial, there are a lot of different text styles on this dial. It is to Longines’ credit that, at least in my estimation, it all works harmoniously together and does not detract from either visual harmony or readability.
The legibility issue with this watch, as one might expect, is more about that distinctive off-center time display, a design that, as mentioned above, was made for totally utilitarian reasons back in 1935, as the original watch was meant to be read off an upward-tilted wrist that was holding onto flight controls. Nowadays, the style is more widely called a “driving watch,” i.e., a watch whose time can be read easily by a driver with his hands on a car’s steering wheel. However one wants to describe it, it takes some getting used to if you’re mostly traveling on foot and checking the time normally (as I was during Baselworld 2018 back in March, while I was wearing the watch for review). With the clockwise tilt of the dial (and, of course, of the movement), it is easy at a quick glance, for example, to mistake 10:10 with 11:15. Wearers of this watch will quickly learn to look at the numbers the hands are pointing at rather than just the position of the hands — either that or learn to hold their forearm at a 45-degree angle when they want to do a time check. The good news is, even if you’re misreading the time at first glance, you’re erring on the side of being early rather than late.
What should not get overlooked as we run down the pros and cons of this watch’s defiantly retro design is its functionality: a monopusher chronograph at this watch’s eminently reasonable price point is rare indeed. It should also be noted that Longines’ watchmakers avoided a potential pitfall here with its sturdy design: a monopusher embedded into the crown might have meant an inadvertent activation of the stopwatch function every time the watch was re-set and the crown pressed back into its neutral position against the case. However, starting, stopping and zeroing the chronograph requires firm, deliberate pressure on the pusher, so simply pushing the crown back into place to begin winding the watch presents no problems at all. Speaking of the crown, another bonus that’s not so obvious at first: it only pulls out to one position, for setting the hour and minute, which means there is no separate position for quickly changing the date. However, a small inset pusher in the left side of the case (near the 7 o’clock position, which of course would traditionally be the 8 o’clock position) serves to advance the date, though you’ll need to employ the tip of a pen or a small screwdriver or other tipped tool.
The movement that makes all this functionality possible is the Longines-exclusive Caliber L788.2, which is based on the reliable ETA Valgranges A08.L11, with a column wheel mechanism to drive the chronograph functions, along with a vertical clutch and an oscillating pinion. It is self-winding by means of a unidirectional rotor, storing a power reserve of 54 hours and beating at a balance frequency of 28,800 vph. Its off-center placement inside the case accounts for the dial’s unconventional angle. Its haute horlogerie decorations do, however, remain hidden behind a solid steel caseback, adorned with a suitably aeronautic image of an airplane, its wingspan etched with a Longines logo, surrounded by a radiating sunburst motif. One does miss the view of the movement a bit (at least, this one did), but it’s a very nice-looking caseback, and obviously a solid back is more historically accurate.
On that note, a more rugged strap, perhaps of plain calf leather, would have been more period-appropriate for this historically derived pilots’ watch, but the brown alligator strap (which does feature the white contrast stitching one associates with those old airman’s bracelets) is not only comfortable and attractive, but totally appropriate for the dress watch that this contemporary model indisputably is. If the case were, say, 50 mm and brushed, rather than 42 mm and polished, I might argue that a more utilitarian strap would be preferable, but here the choices made are perfect for the ensemble. Let’s face it: nobody in 2018, even a licensed pilot, is strapping this timepiece on to fly bombing missions. And did I mention that reasonable price point? This latest tribute timepiece to military aviation history from Longines can be had for just $3,500.