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60 Years of the Carrera: A History of Tag Heuer’s Iconic Sports Chronograph

La Carrera PanAmericana

La Carrera PanAmericana, the famous race that inspired Jack Heuer’s Carrera.

Spanish speakers will know that the word ‘carrera’ translates into English as ‘race’ – and most readers of this magazine will know that it’s the nameplate belonging to one of the most successful driver’s chronographs in horological history. The existence of the TAG Heuer Carrera can be traced back to 1962 when Jack Heuer, the great grandson of Heuer founder Edouard, was attending the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance event at which the legendary Rodriguez brothers, Ricardo and Pedro, were driving for Ferrari.

The pair were idolised as Mexico’s most famous racing drivers, and present on the day were their parents, with whom Heuer struck up a conversation in the pits. Soon, talk turned to their country’s most famous race – La Carrera PanAmericana – and Heuer immediately became enthralled both by the idea of the event (which had been scrapped eight years earlier) and by the evocative sound of ‘carrera’. Having recently taken the reins of the Heuer business, he quickly determined to make his mark by registering the Carrera name to avoid any other watch brand using it and, by December 1963, the new Heuer Carrera driver’s chronograph was ready for launch.

Tag Heuer Carrera Chronograph 1963

Tag Heuer Carrera Chronograph 1963

It featured a 36mm steel case, a Valjoux 72 manual- wind movement and the reference number 2447D. The base model was known as the ‘Carrera-12’ – due to its 12-hour totaliser at six o’clock – and it retailed in the U.S. at $98.45. The Carrera quickly became the default choice of both professional drivers and enthusiastic amateurs alike, and its success led to several variations on the theme aimed not only at sportsmen, but engineers and scientists, too.

There was the Carrera Tachy (with an inner tachymeter scale); the Carrera 45 (which had a 45-minute register and a jumping minute hand for timing sports events); the Carrera Deci (with one-fifth of a second and one 100th of a minute graduations for decimal timing) and the Carrera Black (with black dial for enhanced legibility). But, as Jack Heuer had initially envisioned, it was as a driver’s watch that the Carrera really caught on, gaining increased recognition after 1969 when the original Valjoux movement was replaced with the Heuer-developed Calibre 11 – one of the original self- winding chronograph mechanisms and identifiable by a left-hand winding crown.

Ronnie Peterson's Tag Heuer Carrera 1158 CHN

Ronnie Peterson’s Tag Heuer Carrera 1158 CHN

As the years passed multiple different designs of Carrera were made and, across two decades of continuous production, Carreras of one sort or another were seen on the wrists of the world’s leading racers, including Bruce McLaren, Jo Siffert, Ayrton Senna, Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni to name but a few.

Indeed, among the most sought-after of all Carreras is the Reference 1158 CHN, the 18-carat gold Carrera that was gifted to Ferrari F1 drivers during Heuer’s sponsorship of the team between 1971 and 1979. Lauda, Mario Andretti, Jacky Ickx, and Ronnie Peterson were among those who wore the 1158 CHN – with the latter’s being bought back by TAG Heuer at Sotheby’s in 2016 for a record $230,000.

Tag Heuer Carrera Classics Collection 1996 CS3111
Tag Heuer Carrera Classics Collection 1996 CS3140

Tag Heuer Carrera ‘Classics’, 1996

By the early 1980s, however, the accuracy and affordability of quartz movements was both taking its financial toll on the traditional watch industry and making clockwork seem anachronistic. In fact, Heuer’s own, quartz powered Chronosplit had already become the cool watch to be seen with in the pits, not the Carrera…As a result, the Carrera line was dropped in 1984, shortly before the company was sold-off to Akram and Mansour Ojeh of tech investment company Techniques Avant Garde (hence the inclusion of ‘TAG’ in TAG Heuer).

The motor sport connection was only made stronger, however, by the fact that TAG partnered with Porsche to build the TAG Turbo engines that powered McLaren to a trio of F1 championship wins between 1984 and 1987. The link undoubtedly helped promote a call from watch and motor racing fans from around the world for the return of the Carrera, which was re-introduced in 1998 with a ‘Classics’ series based on the 1960s originals and carrying only the Heuer name.

Philippe Champion Jack Heuer at Monza 1996

Philippe Champion & Jack Heuer at Monza, 1996.

After LVMH acquired the TAG Heuer brand the following year, it too launched a similar, slightly larger vintage look Carrera (the 39mm CV2110-0 with Calibre 17 movement) – and then set about using the name on what became a truly bewildering array of watches ranging from skeletonised versions to tourbillons, concept pieces, time-only models, others with mother-of-pearl dials, others with gold cases. The list goes on. And on. And on.

The model’s 50th anniversary in 2013 – the year in which Jack Heuer retired – was marked with yet another new design in which the Carrera name was applied to a 45mm ‘bull’s head’ chronograph that had little to do with the beautifully nuanced original of ’63. For this year’s 60th birthday, however, TAG Heuer’s young-but-wise CEO Frederic Arnault sensibly opted to restore the Carrera’s vintage vibe in what is proving to be a 12-month conveyer belt of Carrera ‘moments.’

Tag Heuer Carrera 60th Anniversary Panda

Tag Heuer Carrera 60th Anniversary Panda

After launching a 600-piece ‘panda dial’ edition which closely resembles the original ‘63 model in January, March saw the unveiling of a whole slew of new Carreras at Geneva’s Watches & Wonders show. And the star among them is the ‘Glass Box’ chronograph which decorates the cover of Oracle Time issue 95 from this month – and which TAG Heuer hopes will bring new, younger buyers to a sexagenarian watch with an oft-told history.

Glass box crystals (ie those that are shaped and shouldered rather than being set flat into the case) are synonymous with the vintage look, but there’s more to it than that with this new Carrera. When Jack Heuer designed the original, his main aim was to make it a truly functional driver’s watch – and functionality is even more of a feature of the new one, which combines that prominent crystal with a thoughtfully curved dial to put the tachymeter scale and indexes on an angle. The result: an easy-to-read display contained within a suitably retro case of just 39mm in diameter.

Tag Heuer Carrera Glassbox

The glass box also allows the watch to be comfortably slim and, behind the choice of black or blue dials, you’ll find an up-graded version of the HEUER02 movement, the TH20-00, with an all-new oscillating weight and bi-directional winding. The same crystal appears on the Carrera Chronograph tourbillon powered by the in-house TH20-09 chronometer-certified movement, but that watch measures 43mm and showcases its tourbillon at six o’clock through an aperture in its own, curved dial.

Watches and Wonders also saw the wraps pulled-off three other new Carreras – two with conventional crystals, HEUER02 movements and blue or black dials with orange detailing; the third a three-hand date model in the same, 36mm case as the 1963 watch. Which sort of takes us back to the beginning…. although we haven’t mentioned the Carrera’s recent re-appearance as a sailing watch. But that’s a whole other chapter in what must surely be the longest-running and most convoluted story in the history of the chronograph.

TAG Heuer Carrera the Race Never Stops

TAG Heuer Carrera the Race Never Stops Book

And if you want to learn about it in full, October will see the publication of TAG Heuer’s official book about the watch, TAG Heuer Carrera – the Race Never Stops, which includes a definitive explanation of the Carrera’s genesis, evolution and importance by the brand’s heritage director and vintage timepiece expert Nicholas Biebuyck. If you want to know everything there is to know about the archetypal racing watch, you’ll need it.

More details at Tag Heuer.

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About the author

Simon de Burton

A freelance journalist whose articles on cars, motorcycles, boats and watches appear in publications around the world, he has been riding motorcycles since the age of six and currently has a stable of 15 machines to ensure all bases are covered. The author of ‘Classic Cars – a Century of Masterpieces’, he is currently completing a companion volume about motorcycles.

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