Feature: 3 Vintage Heuers
It’s had its ups and downs, TAG Heuer—and perhaps more recently, the ups have been outnumbered by the downs. There’s a positive future on the horizon thanks to the efforts of brand fixer-upper Jean-Claude Biver, but a look to the future isn’t always enough to give us hope—we need to look to the past as well.
Heuer Carrera 1153
If your memory of TAG Heuer only spans ten years, you’d be forgiven for turning your nose up at the idea of words like ‘innovative’, ‘trailblazer’ and ‘icon’ being used with regards to the brand. Yes, there have been a number of ultra-exclusive concept pieces like the nutty 1/2,000 of a second Mikrogider and the even nuttier belt-driven Monaco V4, but these never really reflected the core output of the brand in much the same way that no one is fooled into thinking Renault’s road cars share anything with its F1 racer.
It’s not that anyone thinks TAG Heuer is bad, not at all. In fact, quite the opposite; TAG Heuer has offered beautiful quality for an entry-level price for a long while. What’s a shame is that this attitude falls short of what the brand was really about. In a time when there were quite literally hundreds of watch brands in Switzerland, TAG Heuer made its mark in a prominent and lasting fashion—unfortunately, that mark has drifted wide of the company itself.
Perhaps it would help to call it by the name it was known by back then: ‘Heuer’. In all the ruckus of the quartz crisis, Heuer was bought out by holding company Techniques d’Avant Garde—hence the ‘TAG’ part—but before that it was just the family name gracing the dial. And this was a family obsessed with motorsport. You may think this Carrera borrows its name from the legendary Porsche, but the truth is that both watch and car took the name in homage to a Mexican cross country road race at the same time.
Speed was in the blood of then-CEO Jack Heuer; his friends were racing drivers and his business was motorsport. Heuer’s clocks had found fame gracing the dashboards of rally cars and not the mantelpieces of family homes, and the Carrera intended to keep that tradition very much alive. Jack Heuer even enlisted F1 driver Jo Siffert to sell his watches to other drivers in the paddock.
But the peak of the Carrera came in 1969, when Jack Heuer gave his racing chronograph a beating heart that could also sustain itself. ‘Project 99’, the Chronomatic, was that heart, the first chronograph with automatic winding, which Heuer jointly produced with Breitling, Dubois Dépraz and Büren. This twin-layer movement, micro-rotor automatic on bottom and chronograph module on top, was such a challenge to engineer thin enough that it came twenty-four years after the first automatic movement—and so proud was Heuer that it switched the crown from the right to the left as a reminder that it didn’t have to be hand wound.
Heuer Bundeswehr 1550 SG
But not all of Heuer’s watches were for drivers. Some served operatives who were a little more airborne than that. And so the 1550 SG came to be, a contracted project for the Bundeswehr—the German armed forces. Established in 1955, the Bundeswehr was founded on new principles of defence, naturally demonstrating a clear gulf between itself and its predecessor as Europe’s primary defence during the Cold War.
Of course, the Bundeswehr has soldiers to equip and needs tools to equip them with; this is where the military contractor comes in, a supplier who constructs equipment to armed forces specification and delivers en masse for issue to troops. In the case of a watch for pilots of the Bundeswehr, that contractor was Heuer.
Being that military equipment is governed by a public spend, it must appease the following requirements: it must be cheap, it must be fit for purpose and it must be supplied on time. In the case of Heuer, it meant none of the usual flourishes—or indeed any flourishes at all—working to a spec laid out very clearly by the Bundeswehr and already set by watchmaker Leonidas—purchased by Heuer in the sixties—for the Esercito Italiano, the Italian Army.
The 1550 SG needed to be clear, usable and sturdy, and so that’s what the Bundeswehr got. More specifically, the watch needed to be a flyback—that is, the reset button can be used while the chronograph is running to immediately reset and restart it. It’s a Valjoux calibre doing the work here instead of Heuer’s own non-flyback Chronomatic, a cost-saving exercise.
Heuer also complied with the need for the watch to be usable with gloves on, and so it measures at a chunky 42mm, crown and pushers clear of the case and each other enough to use cleanly. The decoration of the dial and bezel is plain but functional, offering high contrast with the benefit of night-time legibility from the tritium luminous paint for the numbers and on the hands.
Being a military issue watch, Heuer was also required to denote the use of radioactive tritium paint in two ways: the first with the red ‘3H’, an indication of the use of the radioactive isotope of hydrogen hydrogen-3, plus, for whatever reason, the inclusion of a tiny ‘T’ just above the six o’clock marker.
Heuer Monaco 1133G
The Monaco is and will continue to be one of the most famous watches TAG Heuer makes, but just seeing the big, square watch in a jeweller’s window, undoubtedly accompanied by a picture of Steve McQueen—you know the one I mean—does its story a bit of an injustice.
I won’t go so far as to say the Steve McQueen thing is a myth, but it was for a film based on Heuer ambassador and racing driver Jo Siffert, and Jack Heuer was keen to push his new line of Chronomatic-equipped watches. Whether it was the Monaco that caught the eye of the property master, whether it was the model Jack Heuer wanted to push most or whether McQueen picked it himself, it’s just a movie. Given that McQueen wore identical racing overalls to Siffert, the watch should have been an Autavia, really.
What’s more interesting here is the journey that got Heuer onto the movie set in the first place, to culminate in the cult status of this big, square watch. As you know, the Heuer family was invested in motorsport from the very beginning, but there’s a big difference between making dashboard clocks for rally cars and providing costume for Steve McQueen.
Unlike today, an F1 driver in the sixties wasn’t necessarily a jet-set playboy millionaire by default—Jack Heuer’s F1 driver friend Jo Siffert, for example—as well as smoking cigarettes to stave his hunger when he didn’t have enough money for food—had a side business as a Porsche dealer, hassling Jack into buying a 911 in exchange for representation on the Formula 1 grid. Siffert was so good at pushing Jack’s watches that soon every driver on the grid was wearing one.
What happened next would change the face of Formula 1 forever: Jack arranged a deal with Jo to have the Heuer name on his racing overalls, and then his car, a first for motorsport sponsorship outside of motorsport brands. This opened the floodgates for marketing in Formula 1, leading to some of the greatest racing liveries the world has ever seen.
So, when director Lee Katzin decided he wanted an altogether authentic look for his 1971 film, ‘Le Mans’, it was to none other than 1966 and ‘67 Le Mans winner Jo Siffert that he turned to. Siffert’s charm and style had earned him a reputation, one that was music to Katzin’s—and McQueen’s—ears. He was the perfect hero, and with him came Heuer. The result was a perfect storm of iconography: Steve McQueen, the Gulf-liveried Porsche 917 and, of course, the Heuer Monaco.
Three watches, three snapshots of history from a watchmaker that’s somewhat lost its spotlight in recent years. From the domination of the racetrack to the conquest of the skies, Heuer watches may have gained an acronym since the glory days, but that can never erase what came before it. Here’s hoping that what comes after can live up to the name.
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