In certain circles, there are watch collectors who regard Tudor as little more than window dressing: a watch with a Rolex case that houses a pedestrian movement. That’s probably a bit harsh, but the model at the Rolex sub-brand is changing. With the debut of an in-house movement at this year’s Basel show, Tudor is now firmly standing on its own. Historically speaking, though, it is hard to completely knock the naysayers as models like the Submariner and Day-Date were essentially Rolex lookalikes, including some lovely visual differences, with off-the-shelf movements. Today, though, we’ll comb through the brand’s history to shed light on a popular model with collectors. It certainly followed the formula of using a Rolex-supplied case and an outside movement, but unlike the aforementioned Submariner, today’s piece was quite different than anything offered by the revered parent at the time. Without further ado, the Tudor Big Block 79180 chronograph is on #TBT.
Discovering the Tudor Big Block
I guess it was a few years ago that I started to get the minor itch for vintage chronographs. I didn’t know a whole lot, but I knew that I liked Rolex and this naturally down the path of reading lots and lots about the Daytona. Well, even before reading about them, I knew that these were priced at a level far beyond my immediate means. Nonetheless, I kept reading and my reading naturally brought me to learning about Tudor and their chronographs. Naturally, I was turned on by the early manual-wind Monte Carlos that have influenced today’s Heritage Chronographs, but these were also priced outside of my comfort zone. It was then that I took a look at the Tudor Big Block 79180’s and felt that I had come upon the right mix of aesthetics and price.
It wasn’t long after reading about the Tudor Big Block that I travelled to Tokyo for business. I was fortunate enough to arrive right after the weakening of the Japanese Yen and this provided, if only for a short while, a real buying opportunity. I found today’s piece in Shinjuku amongst 3-4 other Big Blocks and decided to pull the trigger. The deal was great, but it was probably the first time in my watch collecting history that I stopped to think about geographic preferences. You see, Tokyo was flooded, relatively speaking, with used Big Blocks and I also saw a reasonable number for sale online in Europe. In the United States, though, they’re fairly uncommon. It’s kind of an odd thing that you notice in the prevalence of certain vintage watches in certain areas because things like social media and global news really weren’t as pervasive as they are today. Therefore, while regional tastes certainly still exist, I think they were much stronger before. Geographic preferences…the weird things that go through my mind…
Rolex’s first Automatic Chronograph
Aside from being favored in certain regions, the Tudor Big Block is actually a significant watch. It was introduced in 1976 as the 9430 Chrono Time and replaced the aforementioned “Monte Carlos” that were originally released in 1970. These Monte Carlos, along with Rolex’s Daytona, were manual wind chronographs. In 1969, a time when other brands were developing or introducing automatic chronographs, the Rolex company soldiered on until 1976 without. We all know that Rolex, itself, did not introduce an automatic Daytona until 1988, so that makes this Big Block (originally in 9430 guise, along with additional numerical variants, and later the 79180) the first “Rolex” automatic chronograph. Neat, eh?
A boring movement? Tsk tsk…
So, what’s inside the Tudor Big Block? Actually, the answer comes off as rather mundane because the watch uses the commonplace Valjoux 7750. I say mundane because this movement is about as ubiquitous as it gets in the watch world. Since its introduction in 1974, the ETA 7750, nee Valjoux 7750, has been featured in countless watches. It has been used in everything from Hamilton to IWC and is still in wide use today. The 7750 is a cam driven automatic chronograph that, in this application, features a quick-set date. The choice of this movement by the Rolex company may come as somewhat strange, but deeper thinking shows it be a rather obvious choice. If we look at what was happening in the mid-70’s for automatic chronographs, the choices were really still related to what happened in 1969 with the Japanese (Seiko & Citizen – actually 1972), the Heuer/Breitling/Hamilton/Buren contingent, and Zenith. So, Rolex, who had not recently developed any in-house chronograph movements, was left to either wait or potentially approach one of its competitors for use of their movement (this is ironic as they certainly did approach Zenith in later years). So, it seems that Rolex chose to wait and ultimately selected a powerplant from the independent movement maker, Valjoux. It’s interesting that Rolex chose to use Tudor as its experiment for fitting the 7750, but then again, even until now, the company has always been extremely careful about moving too quickly with its flagship namesake. Still, it’s a bit wild to think about a “what if” scenario had Rolex decided to make the Big Block its new Daytona. Actually, as we get into the looks department, that harebrained idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
A Poor-Man’s Daytona or the “should be” Daytona?
The early Tudor Big Block 9430’s followed their wildly colored manual predecessors with similarly themed hues of orange, black and blue. However, when these were replaced, the case remained and the products became thematically similar to the Daytonas of the time. There were several variants of Big Blocks, but the major changes occurred on the bezel front. The 79160’s were available with aluminum inlay tachy bezels, 79170’s were with rotating 12-hourbezels, and the piece I’m discussing (79180) contains a stainless tachy bezel. Note that 94300’s looked nearly identical to the 79180’s and basically were released before Tudor decided to change its model naming scheme to start with a “7”. From a distance, the first thing visible is a reverse panda, triple register layout. Granted, it has the familiar 7750 layout with registers at 6/9/12 versus my preferred Daytona style of 3/6/9, but the functionality is identical. Closer examination of the dial reveals typical Daytona hallmarks like near identical hour markers with small applied lume dots on the 1/5 second track, a matte black dial, an applied Tudor shield, simple chromed hands, an arrow-tipped central chrono hand, concentric circles on the sub registers, and font that apes its far more expensive suite mate. I lined this Big Block up with a 6265 Daytona and the similarities when studying the details are truly there. Hmm…maybe Rolex was thinking of the Big Block as its new Daytona for a period before backing off. Could it have been their “Porsche 928 moment” when the famous car brand almost axed the 911 in favor of the more advanced front-powered unit? We’ll likely never know…
While the similarities are there between the Tudor Big Block and the Rolex Daytona, differences exist as well. I mentioned the addition of the date function. This is consistent with Tudor chronographs of the past, but certainly isn’t consistent with the Daytona. Also, like past Tudors, the 79180 contains crown guards. On a 40mm watch (it looks a good bit bigger due to the overhanging bezel), these crown guards add even more visual heft to the piece.
Other niceties exist on the Tudor Big Block such as screw-down pushers and big, fat Rolex screw-down crown with trip-lock. The pushers are smallish compared to the Daytona and the crown guards make it slightly difficult to grab the threads, but they look good and function well. Also, for you strap addicts, the case of the Big Block contains spring though holes to make for easy swapping of 20mm straps. Also, as was the typical behavior of Tudor in the past, the case back proudly informs us that the case is from Rolex.
Big Block Impressions
One thing I haven’t really mentioned is whether I actually like this watch. Well, look, my tastes have changed from being a dyed in the wool Rolex guy to one who still appreciates them mightily, but has obviously moved onto different pastures. I stay away from automatics for the most part and my chronograph interests tend towards the traditional layouts. So, for that reason, I am no longer in love with the Tudor Big Block. BUT…I respect the hell out of it because it is a really good-looking, toolish watch that represents real significance in the Rolex chronology. Also, because it’s a product of Rolex, sorry haters, the quality is about as good as it gets. Despite its relatively flat and seemingly thin acrylic crystal, the Tudor feels like it could go through a wall and come out the other side looking no worse for wear.
The Tudor Big Block is a nice watch to use and wear. If you’re at all familiar with the 7750 movement, you’ll know that it lacks the smooth operational feel of a traditional column wheel movement like the Valjoux 72. Plus, it can be a little loud and clunky. However, what it may lack in grace, it makes up for with reliability, accuracy and ease of use. The quick set date is a relative luxury for a movement designed over 40 years ago and I find that it keeps excellent time. On the wrist, the watch is bold due its 14mm thick case, but it strangely fits well under a shirt. I credit the always-excellent Rolex Oyster bracelet for such a comfortable, smooth and sturdy look and fit. The bracelet is capped off with a normal single lock Rolex-style clasp, but in this rendition, it carries the Tudor shield. Like most watches from Rolex, I find that it’s extremely versatile and wears well with just about everything. Sure, the size and complications make it a bit more casual, but pairings in the occasional business setting wouldn’t look out of place. After all, there’s a bit of similarity in the layout with monotone IWC’s that find their way into all kinds of work-related events.
How to Rock a Big Block…
When it comes to finding a Tudor Big Block 79180, rest easy because they’re plentiful. The case style, in its many variants, was around for roughly 20 years before being replaced by the slimmer 79280 with sapphire crystal. Plus, because the 7750 is such a popular movement, parts are easily available as well. Prices for 79180’s tend to hover in the $3,500 – 5,000 range depending on condition, location and whether they come with box/papers. This makes them the most competitive of the Big Block variants. Pricing has stayed relatively stable over the past year or two, which is interesting in this booming market. Perhaps it will be a late bloomer once people realize the inherent quality. Some things you need to watch for are case and bezel condition. The Big Block is, well, a big block and, therefore, likes to smack into things. When I searched for my piece, I found several for sale with very skinny lugs due to overzealous watchmakers at the polishing wheel. This does affect pricing and reduces the look of the watch. It can be tough to see this in an online ad, so ensure that you get good pictures from many angles and ask for opinions on forums. Similarly, because the bezel overhangs the case by a decent margin, it picks up a lot of “character” over the years. Mine has a couple good blemishes, but it’s in solid shape. Also, service dials are fairly prevalent as many of these pieces were sold in markets where owners remarkably followed service schedules. Again, consult forums to ensure that you’re getting an original dial with original hands.
Thanks for taking a look at the Tudor Big Block 79180. To reiterate, it’s a significant piece from Rolex’s history and it makes an attractive, formidable, and reliable choice as an everyday vintage chronograph. Sure, the movement is decidedly “everyday”, but it wasn’t when it debuted and actually signified a dramatic departure for the company that often appears to move at a glacial pace in terms of change versus its competitors. Let us know if you own a Big Block and what you think of it compared to other watches. Until next week…