With for each model :
Where available, each section opens with illustrations from catalogs or advertisements and closes with pictures of real watches.
- Reference number
- How many were made
- Description, comments
1. THREE MODELS MADE IN 1969-1971
Silver dial with black subdials and tachymeter (black parts sometimes show ageing and turn into brown). The case style (‘angular tonneau’) is the most frequently used style among the vintage Primero’s (see also A385, A3817 and A3818).
Khaki dial. It is possible that two slightly different dials were used for this model, with different shades of khaki and with silver or white subdials. There also exist different shades in the colour due to ageing of the dial.
The only stainless steel El Primero with this rounded case style. The thin bezel allows the dial to take up more space, which makes the watch appear bigger. It has a tachymeter as well as a decimal dial ring (dividing a minute in 100 units). Big subdials, overlapping each other, in three different colours : a unique new design. The blue subdial at 3 o’clock may loose its blue colour due to ageing.
As seen in the first catalog illustrations above, the A384 came standard on a ‘ladder’ stainless steel Gay Frères bracelet, whereas the A385 and A386 more often came standard on a plain black leather strap. However as a general rule you could purchase any Zenith with a bracelet for an extra charge. In some countries such as Japan the bracelet may have been standard, as seen in the last catalog illustration above.
The case diameter for all three is 38 mm without crown (the same is true for almost all the vintage Zenith El Primero’s). 38 mm is a handsome big size, suitable for almost everybody. However in recent years the word ‘big’ has taken on a whole new meaning and compared with modern watches the vintage El Primero may look small.
2. TEN MODELS MADE IN 1971-1972
A. Zenith El Primero “Defy” : three models made in 1971
Burgundy (red) dial, silver subdials. Blue central seconds hand (instead of the usual red).
Turquoise (blue) dial, silver subdials.
Silver grey dial with dark blue subdials. Hour markers are slightly different from the previous two models : with a vertical line in the middle. This model also has a tachymeter (whereas A781 and A782 don’t).
The case style and broad applied hour markers are the same unique '70's design as was used for some of the first Zenith Defy 's (introduced ca. 1969-70). An angular steel ring around the crystal and a lock-down crown for extra protection. The case and broad bracelet (tapering from 27 mm where it attaches to the case to 16 mm at the lock) may seem big, but the diameter is a mere 38 mm (without crown) like most vintage Primero’s.
The bracelet was probably standard, but one can also fit a strap in its 22 mm lugs.
The A781-782-783 all have the big, overlapping subdials, in the unique Zenith El Primero style.
These models were advertised as 100 m waterresistant.
B. Zenith Espada : made in 1971
Zenith Espada chronograph automatic with moonphase. Same case, dial style with hour markers and tachymeter as A783, but with smaller subdials. The case is of course adapted to fit the extra complications. It has a small blue hand in the subdial at 6 o'clock above the moonphase. The tachymeter may loose colour due to ageing, showing gold spots (from the base colour). Only 300 were made, making this a rare model, but a few more Espada’s were made later under a new reference : 01.0040.418 (see 1973-75).
C. “Sporty” Zenith El Primero : two models made in 1971-72
White dial (no tachymeter)
Blue dial, silver subdials. With tachymeter/ pulsometer (compare with the A3818, see next).
General remarks : both models have the same case : a lighter, ‘sporty’ case. It is the only stainless steel Zenith EP with a plain snap-on back. Big subdials, slightly overlapping. Both models share the same new lettering on the dial (same as the A3818, see below) : the ‘A’ in automatic is now a pointed A, and the words ‘chronograph automatic’ appear wider and bigger.
D. Zenith El Primero 'cover girl' : 2 models made in 1971
Apart from the A386, this is the only other vintage Zenith El Primero with large, overlapping subdials in three different colours. Here even the small seconds hand is in a different colour (a small blue hand). As with the A386, the blue colour on the subdial may show ageing. This model probably came standard with the ‘ladder’ G.F. bracelet.
This became well known since it was used as cover illustration for the book “Zenith: Swiss Watch Manufacture Since 1865”, Manfred Roessler, ed.). Beautiful blue dial. Notice the different lettering on the dial: the ‘A’ in automatic is now a pointed ‘A’, and the words ‘chronograph automatic’ appear bigger and wider than in previous models (see also A787-788 above). This model probably came standard on a leather strap.
General remarks : these two rare and beautiful models have the same triangular hash marks on the dial indicating the minutes and (1/5) seconds. Both have a tachymeter which also serves as pulsometer (compare A788). Both have the same “angular tonneau” case as A384-385.
E. "Pilot" or "Diver" made in 1972
The first edition of the popular Zenith El Primero “Pilot” or “Diver” : more were made later under ref. 01.0180.415 (see 1973-75). The biggest among the vintage El Primero’s : 44 mm without crown. The first Zenith El Primero with a mineral crystal. Together with the A781, it is the only EP with a blue central second hand. Black dial with big subdials (but not overlapping). There is no logo on the dial. The lettering on the dial is again slightly different : the word ‘chronograph’ appears wider, but the ‘a’ in automatic is not a pointed A. It has a lock down crown. The back case is plain. The bracelet was standard (same style of broad bracelet as for the A781-782-783-7817). Some parts that may be vulnerable to ageing : the turning lunette and/or its plastic insert; the tachymeter; the dial; the hands; the bracelet.
It seems this model was already prepared in 1971, since many casebacks mention the date '71' (on the inside). However it was also well prepared for the future : the absence of the logo and the plain caseback point in that direction.
F. Zenith El Primero with tachymeter lunette, made in 1972
Same “Defy” case style (and bracelet) as the A781-782-783-7817 (see above) but with a fixed tachymeter on the bezel. With only 500 made, this is one of the rarest models. Blue dial with decimal dial ring. The only vintage El Primero to have a serial number and reference number on the back (previous EP’s only had a serial number, later EP’s only have the reference number). This points to the transitional phase in 1972-73, when a few things changed at Zenith. The external tachymeter is of course vulnerable for wear.
01.0140.415 back with ‘old style’ star logo and serial number, and ‘new style’ model code
General remarks :
So far we have seen 13 different models for a total of 18000 stainless steel Zenith El Primero’s made between 1969 and 1972.
Each of these received a different serial number engraved on the back case : a number in the xxxDxxx range for the watches made in 1969-1970 and in the xxxExxx range in 1971-1972.
The back case usually had a star logo (as seen in the last picture above), with some exceptions: the A384-385-386 alternatively had a plain back; the A787-788 and A3822 always had a plain back.
Note that the star logo on the back was a stylized four pointed star.
The logo on the dial was the traditional small five pointed Zenith star.
The logo on the crown was a four pointed star, but many crowns were later replaced during service by crowns with the new Zenith logo.
In the transitional year 1972-73 Zenith introduced a new, square logo, as well as a new system of model codes. Serial numbers on the back were no longer used. From 1973 onwards the casebacks were plain, only engraved with the new style model code (or ‘reference number'), along with the mention ‘surf’ or ‘sub sea’ (which was Zenith code for ‘water resistant’ and ‘super water resistant’).
3. SEVEN MODELS MADE IN 1973-1975
A. The “Espada” and “Pilot” were continued under new references
Same Espada as the A7817 (see 1971), with triple date moonphase complication. The only differences are : the new logo was used on the dial and it now has a plain back (without star) with the model code 01.0040.418 and the mention ‘sub sea’. Together with the 300 under ref. A7817, this means that a total of 800 Espada's were made.
Same Pilot/Diver as ref. A3822 (see : 1972) : Zenith continued to make this popular model with several new references. These are usually all referred to under the ‘main reference’ 01.0180.415.
Variations are : the external lunette is usually divided in 1-11 (hours), but one model had a lunette divided in 5-55 (minutes). The dial may be black or dark grey (the difference between the black and grey dial is not obvious, especially not in pictures). One model had a transparent back (only 50 were made).
An overview of the different references used for the Zenith EP Pilot and the number of watches made for each (information acquired from the first illustration above) : 01.0150.415 : 500 (grey dial); 01.0180.415 : 100 (black dial); 01.0190.415 : 800 (black dial, lunette 5-55); 01.0200.415 : 50 (grey dial, transparent back) (this apparently has the same reference as the “TV” El Primero ??); 01.0230.415 : 50 (black dial); 01.0230.415 : 900 (this reference was apparently used twice);
These add up to a total of 2400. Together with the 800 that were made under ref. A3822 in 1972, this means that a total of at least 3200 “Pilots” were made.
B. “TV” El Primero (with blue or black dial)
An elaborate new design, very much in line with its period : a big, almost square “TV” shape, measuring 40 mm (without crown). Large, integrated bracelet (tapering from 32 mm where it attaches to the case to 18 mm at the lock) adds to the massive look. Two types of bracelet were used (one being a lighter version, made by Novavit SA).
The crystal is a special shape mineral crystal. Beautiful blue dial, surrounded by a black or a blue tachymeter. The subdials reflect the square design. The date ring exists in white or blue. The chronograph pushers are broad, on a balance. The special pushers and crystal are probably the more vulnerable parts of this watch.
An additional 50 “Tv” Primero’s were made with an entirely black dial (ref. 01.0201.415), bringing the total to 5000. These black TV's were the last Zenith El Primero’s of the ‘70s.
01.0200.415 "TV" with blue date ring, black tachymeter
01.0200.415 with blue tachymeter, white date ring and NSA bracelet
ref 01.0201.415 "TV" with black dial (only 50 were made)
C. "C" El Primero in steel or goldplated
The steel version (ref. 01.0210.415) introduces this new, discrete case-style. It is a classic “C” shaped case. Circular brushed finish on the bezel, with a polished ring around the crystal. Fitting grey dial lends the watch a unified colour. The applied silver hour markers have a black inlay, which however often looses its colour.
The same watch in goldplated (20.0210.415) with a fitting gold colour dial : the only goldplated vintage Zenith El Primero. Same circular brushed finish on the bezel, with a polished ring around the crystal. Fitting gold dial. Applied golden hour markers with black inlay : here the black inlay does not seem to loose its colour.
The C in goldplated received a different reference for the watches destined for the US market : ref. 20.0220.416.
However the only difference in the actual watches may be that the Zenith El Primero’s for the US market were usually made with 17 (instead of 31) jewels.
These models have a standard mineral crystal. They came standard on a leather strap (lugsize 19 mm).
However as the old catalogs mention, it was a general rule for Zenith watches that one could get them with an original bracelet for an extra charge.
D. A ‘rare bird’ : the Movado Zenith
100 ?? (exact number not known)
The only vintage Zenith El Primero with a sapphire crystal. Also the only model that was named “Movado Zenith automatic” (instead of “Zenith El Primero”). The style of subdials is perhaps more typical for Movado Datron’s. It has a broad, tapering bracelet, same as the TV (see above).
General remarks and conclusions :
While production continued of the popular Zenith Pilots and the rare Zenith Espada’s, in 1973-75 only five new models were created : the ‘TV’ (with blue or black dial); the ‘C-case’ (in steel or goldplated); and the “Movado Zenith”.
The title ‘chronograph’ is not mentioned any more (only “Zenith El Primero”). The new Zenith logo is used on the dial and the crown. The casebacks are plain, mentioning the model number, ‘surf’ or ‘sub sea’, and ‘stainless steel’ (or ‘stainless steel back goldelectroplated bezel’).
A total of ca. 14000 Zenith El Primero’s were produced in 1973-75. Together with the 18000 EP’s produced in 1969-72, the total then is ca. 32000 vintage Zenith El Primero’s, in 18 different models.
Then (after only 6 years of production of Zenith El Primero’s) in 1975 all the plans and tools to produce the Zenith El Primero movement were stored away.
A lot of the remaining stock of El Primero movements was later (in the eighties) sold to other companies. Important companies such as Ebel used these movements from the early eighties onwards for their own line of automatic chronographs. Then another fairly well-known company placed an order : Rolex was to use the Zenith El Primero movement from the mid eighties until around 2000 for the 'Rolex Daytona'.
Fortunately for Zenith, one man by the name of Charles Vermot had saved all the plans and tools to make the El Primero move. In 1985 Zenith could once again start production of the El Primero movement. At that time a new calibre code was introduced for the movement : in 1985 it was named cal. 40.0 (instead of cal. 3019 PHC), and from 1986 onwards it became cal. 400. The cal. 3019 PHF with moonphase and triple date complication was renamed cal. 41.0 in 1985 and cal. 410 from 1986 onwards.
Since then the Zenith El Primero has received acknowledgements from many watch brands. At least 20 different brands have been known to use the El Primero. After 2000 (when Zenith joined LVMH) the El Primero movement was reserved almost exclusively for brands in the LVMH group : in the first place Zenith, but also Tag Heuer and Louis Vuitton.
According to information from the new CEO of Zenith, Mr. Dufour, Zenith has now made 600000 El Primero movements so far in its history (this was in 2010).
So here we have a watch which is technically the best automatic chronograph ever made, and which is also one of the few movements that is still in production after more than 40 years. On top of that it is rare and beautiful, and it doesn’t cost that much either. Lately the prices have been going up due to the use of new materials and repositioning in the market. But what was the price in the 1970’s ?
There are few Zenith catalogs from the early ‘70s available. From the following Japanese illustration we know that the price in Japan in the early 1970’s was 145.000 JPY for the Zenith El Primero A385-386 (including bracelet) :
Then, for comparison’s sake, one can have a look at the following page :
These automatic Heuer chronographs were priced less than the Zenith El Primero : between 93000 and 110000 JPY (including bracelet). For instance the Heuer Monaco (on a bracelet) was 105000 JPY: the Zenith El Primero at 145000 JPY was then +- 40 % more. Considering that the the US price for the automatic Heuer Monaco was 260 dollars in 1972, this then leads to an estimate that the US price of the Zenith El Primero may have been around 360 dollars (in 1972).
But let’s not break or heads about such mundane matters... Instead, next we should have a look at the Zenith El Primero’s in gold ! In 1969-72 more than 3200 Zenith El Primero’s were made in 18 K gold in 9 different models (that is without counting some rare models). So for every ten Zenith El Primero’s in steel, there was one in gold!
But that is stuff for another article.
I hope you enjoyed this and that it may serve.
PS A warm thank you to Hartmut Richter for reading and comments.
Here are a few threads on the vintage El Primero:
EL PRIMERO HISTOIRE
Zenith "El Primero": la nascita, il salvataggio, la riscoperta
Preliminary Notes on Collecting the Early El Primeros: General Remarks
Preliminary Notes on Collecting the Early El Primeros: Specific Models
vintage zenith el primero 3019 PHC bridge signature question