Vintage Breitling Duo - Part II ¶
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The same week that we received the Navitimer 806, we also had a trade in of another iconic but seldom seen vintage Breitling. The Co-Pilot ref. 7651 Chrono-Matic is an exceptional watch in several respects – it uses the world’s first automatic chronograph movement (if we ignore Zenith’s claims to the contrary), and it has a massive 48mm case. It is imposing, eye catching, and a bit ridiculous. It’s a vintage watch for the extrovert.
The 7651 was one of a series of models introduced by Breitling in 1969 that featured the Calibre 11 (sometimes called the Calibre 12 family, which refers to a later revision of the design), the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. Of course Zenith likes to claim that the El Primero was the first, and some would say it was the Seiko 6139. Truth is all three were unveiled in 1969 around the same time, with development starting a few years prior, so arguing who precisely was the first is splitting hairs. Officially Breitling unveiled the Calibre 11 after the El Primero prototypes were shown, but the Calibre 11 was the first design to hit the market in the form of production models. It was based on a Buren base calibre, and developed as a modular chronograph in partnership with noted atelier Dubois Depraz.
In the Breitling lineup watches featuring the Calibre 11 had the same basic layout – bicompax registers for the minute and hour counters with a date window at 6 o’clock, and no running seconds. Open the caseback and you’ll be surprised to see that this supposedly automatic movement doesn’t have a rotor… Because it isn’t a traditional automatic with a full width rotor riding on a centre pinion, it uses a micro-rotor that is hidden inside the middle of the movement. At first glance it looks like any other manual wind chronograph movement of the 1960s-70s, aside from the odd placement of the crown on the opposite side of the pushers (a feature shared with the Heuer Monaco, the most collectible of these early automatic chronos). In design it is a Buren micro-rotor base calibre with a Dubois Depraz chronograph module added onto the back side. When you look at a schematic you can clearly see the two separate modules, with a near-standalone base movement on the dial side and the chrono module built onto the back.
The Co-Pilot is similar to the Navitimer Chrono-Matic of the same era, but features a unique dial with a simpler bezel, without the slide rule of the Navitimer. The bezel is graduated in minutes and hours, allowing elapsed time calculations, and rotates via an indirect mechanism. Rotate the PVD coated outer ring and the inner bezel turns via a series of hidden gears, a clever design that was intended to make the watch more water resistant (Navitimers rotate the glass, ring, and inner bezel as a single piece, requiring a large gasket between the assembly and the case).
The case is an enormous 48mm design that fits right in among current sport watches, and is surprisingly big for a watch of this vintage. Actually, it is impossibly big for this era. Aside from a few odd 42-44mm sport watches there really wasn’t anything in this size range during the 60s and 70s, a time when 40mm was considered large. For a watch this size the case has a fairly slender profile. The Calibre 11 is not much thicker than a manual wind chronograph, and quite a bit slimmer than a Valjoux or Valgranges chronograph, so the case it kept relatively thin. Lugs are short and thick, which makes it a lot easier to wear than the 48 mm size would suggest. This example is in very well preserved condition. The case is sharp and not over-polished - I hesitate to say “unpolished” because I don’t know for sure, and the caseback does show signs of polishing. So-called unpolished watches are the latest rage in vintage collector’s circles, with the vast majority being misrepresented by ignorant or unscrupulous sellers. The PVD treated bezel has some moderate wear around the edges but retains most of the black finish. The only flaw is a chipped blanking plug between the pushers – as the crown is on the other side, there is a plastic plug blocks an empty hole where the crown normally would be. Why they drilled the redundant hole at all is a mystery, maybe the case was supposed to be shared with another watch with a conventional crown placement.
Functionally the Calibre 11s can be a little unusual compared to what we are used to with modern ETA movements. Aside from the weird crown placement, you also have no running seconds. Unless the chronograph is running you can’t tell if the watch is running. The minute counter only goes up to 15 minutes, and jumps in 30 second intervals. The hour register is 6 hours, instead of the usual 12, and is graduated in 15-minute intervals so you can count how many periods have elapsed on the minute register. Date is non-quickset and doesn’t go backwards so you have to use the old fashioned method of going past midnight, then going back a few hours, then forward again to quickly advance the date.
The pusher action is remarkably light with this movement. When you are used to the firm click of a Valjoux it is surprising to encounter a chrono that has such a delicate feel, and it is surprising considering the Calibre 11 uses a lever and cam system that would normally have a firm action. I like it, though it probably isn’t as secure – it would be much easier to accidentally push one of the buttons than on other chronos.
The dial is beautiful, very functional and legible with a nice clean appearance. It has a grained matte texture with printed luminescent markers, with lume points on the minute subdial as well – very unusual. The hands are oversized and painted bright white and orange-red for easy legibility. The date window is perfectly placed as well, at 6 and raised slightly so it balances out the position of the subdials. The dial and hands on this example are perfectly preserved with a nice beige patina to the tritium that compliments the original, lightly worn condition of the watch.
The Co-Pilot is one of the most distinctive and eye catching vintage watches I’ve handled in a long time, and it has a design that looks remarkably modern for something that was made over 40 years ago. Normally I’m not a big fan of oversized sport watches, but there is something appealing about the Co-Pilot, and I must say it is a shame that it wasn’t more popular at the time. As it stands it is a rare curiosity, an uncommon watch that offers a lot of exclusivity to someone who wants an interesting vintage Breitling that isn’t a typical Navitimer, Chronomat, Superocean, or Cosmonaute. It might also appeal to someone who wants a distinctive vintage watch with modern, oversized proportions. In any case it is a standout piece that will surely attract attention on the wrist. While values are relatively strong for Co-Pilots when they (very rarely) come up for sale, they are a relative bargain considering how scarce they are. Add to that some genuine history in the form of the “world’s first” automatic chronograph movement, a well-preserved case and dial, and a first-year production run (the serial number suggests 1968, but actual production should be around 1969-1970), and you’ve got a winner.