April 28, 2014
Words By Ed Estlow
OK. We’ve surveyed the Speedmaster’s early years and its evolution to Professional status. And we’ve taken a look at how Omega reacted to the quartz crisis and its effect on the Speedmaster line, which was one BIG variation. But on its way to iconic status, the Speedmaster has gone through other variations just as significant as the electronic models.
These included things like straight lugs (which were the original configuration), twisted lugs, the appearance of a crown guard, multiple case shapes, an applied Ω symbol to the dial, a white “panda” dial that was exclusive to the Japanese market, sapphire crystals, different movements (including automatics), display backs, moon phases, and even a very rare Japanese market perpetual calendar.
Another oddity occasionally seen with vintage Speedmasters is the so-called “tropic” dial. “Tropic” refers to a black dial which has turned brown with age, as if it had been out in the sun too long. However, a likely explanation for the color change is a chemical reaction or poor formulation in the dial paint rather than UV radiation.
The Mark Series
The Mark series introduced the first of the Speedmasters to look significantly different than the classic Professional. The MK II (the first in the series) contained the trusty Omega 861/ Lemania 1873 calibre, packaged in a tonneau shaped case with an inset tachymetre bezel and a mineral crystal. This was ref. 145.014.
The MK III came along in 1971. This was the first automatic Speedmaster, with the Omega calibre 1040/ Lemania 1340–a two-register chronograph. Given the reference number of 176.002, the MK III featured a date display and a central chrono minute hand similar to the legendary Lemania 5100. There was a conventional 12-hour chrono totalizer sub-dial at 6 o’clock, and a unique running seconds and 24-hour indication on the sub-dial at 9 o’clock. The case was large, deep, and decidedly “space” looking, with the tachymetre scale on an inner bezel.
1973 saw the introduction of the MK IV, basically an evolution of the MK III. The MK IV, ref. 176.009, had the same calibre 1040 movement as the MK III, but left the futuristic “space case” behind and went back to a tonneau-shaped, somewhat domed case similar to that of the MK II.
In 1974, an interesting blip in the Mark series made an appearance. Nicknamed the Mark 4.5 by aficionados, it contained Omega calibre 1045/ Lemania 5100, and bore reference number 176.00xx (xx = 12, 14, 15, and 16). The .0012 was cased in the MK IV case. The .0014 was cased in a very 1970s looking TV or cushion shape, and the .0015 and .0016 featured fairly flat, and relatively timeless styled tonneau cases. Some have said this is the most beautiful Speedy of them all.
The last of the Marks, the MK V, ref. 376.0806, was released to the German market in 1984. The Mk V also used the famous Omega 1045/ Lemania 5100, which had made its first appearance in Speedmaster trim ten years earlier. The case of ref. 376.0806 was again the tonneau shape, but carried to an extreme, looking almost like a hexagon. A second version of the Mk V, ref. 376.0822, appeared in 1987. It was cased in the familiar–and very popular–moonwatch case. In fact, the late Chuck Maddox called this variant his “grail” and the name stuck. Now, “the Grail Watch” means the 376.0822.
Omega Soars with the Flightmaster
Now, at the same time they were releasing the Marks, Omega was also focusing on other things. Remember, the Speedmaster was originally conceived as a motorsports watch. But by the late 1960s it was gaining fame as a space watch. So in 1969, the same year they introduced the MK II, Omega introduced the Flightmaster, ref.145.013. The Flightmaster featured the Lemania 1873 calibre (Omega 910) with a second independently settable hour hand and a 24-hour display in the sub-dial at 9 o’clock. Omega aimed it squarely at pilots. Auxiliary crowns at 8 o’clock and 10 o’clock controlled the 60-minute inner bezel and the second hour hand, respectively. A second Flightmaster model, ref. 145.036, was released in 1975 with the familiar running seconds sub-dial back in place at 9 o’clock. A side note here is that early test versions of the X-33 were also labeled Flightmasters.
Notably, the 1975 Flightmaster was the personal choice of cosmonaut Major General Alexei Leonov. Gen. Leonov had been the first human to walk in space in 1965, and is well known for his role of co-commander of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.
Sidebar: Many astronauts and cosmonauts are Omega men. Gen. Leonov was seen at the Sochi Winter Olympics paling around with American astronaut Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford. Gen. Stafford was the US co-commander of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz link-up. The two have been good friends ever since. And the pair’s watches at the Winter Games? Leonov sported a solid gold Constellation and General Stafford, a solid gold Speedmaster. Each watch was engraved in honor of its owner.
The Speedmaster Goes Automatic
More automatic Speedmasters began to appear in 1973, beginning with ref. 378.0801 which housed a Lemania 1840/ Omega 2041 in a flattened tonneau shaped case. By 1987, the automatics had taken on the classic Speedmaster shape, slightly non-symmetric, with twisted lugs and incorporating protective guards for the crown & pushers. Most of these contain versions of the Valjoux 7750 and are still in production. The exceptions are those with the Lemania 5100.
All in all, the automatic models are too numerous to cover in a single article. Many of those we discuss below are automatics. And we’ll delve more deeply into current watches in our next article.
The Moon Watch Gets a Moon Phase
There have been several versions of the Speedmaster with a moon phase complication. The first, the ref. 345.0809 produced in 1985, was a fairly conventional looking Speedmaster Professional with the addition of a date and moon phase sub-dial at 12 o’clock. The rare, 50 pc. edition ref. 175.0037 with Omega calibre 1160–an ETA 2892 with perpetual calendar module added–was produced for the Japanese market in 1991. The Pro Moonphase, ref. 3576.50, started production in 2000 and is still available today.
Omega started releasing new models with broad arrow hands, dubbed the Broad Arrow series, in 1999. These watches, ref. 3594.50, 3575.20, and 3551.20, have the broad arrow hour hand reminiscent of the very first Speedmasters from 1957-59.
In 1999, Omega released the limited edition Speedmaster Automatic Chronometer Rattrapante. This watch was COSC certified (one of a handful of Speedys to achieve COSC certification) and water resistant to 100 meters. 5000 total pieces were produced with either a carbon fiber dial (ref. 3840.50) or blue dial (ref. 3840.80).
In the late 1990s and 2000s, Omega took the Speedmaster back to its automotive roots with the Racing series. Several models, including ref. 3552.59 and 3559.32 (with Piguet 1285 movements), have been produced and are still available. Ref. 3840.50 was a split second chronograph, produced from 2000 to 2003.
A whole series of limited edition Racing models have been released based on Omega’s association with brand ambassador and famed Formula 1 driver, Michael Schumacher. The more World Championships Schumacher won, the more commemorative models Omega brought out.
And more recently, Omega has been tapping deeper into its historical catalogue, something that has resulted in watches that are aesthetically closer to models of old. The “First Omega In Space” Speedmaster is one such example, recalling the ref. 2998 made famous by astronaut Walter Schirra, who wore the watch in ’62 on the Mercury Atlas 8 mission.
The bottom line? Over the lifetime of the Speedmaster line, and particularly in the last fifteen years, Omega has been insanely prolific. In our next article we’ll discuss current models, including the latest releases honoring classic Speedmasters of the past.
Author Ed Estlow