When Techniques d’Avant Garde
acquired Heuer in 1985, the Swiss watch industry was in a sorry state. Nobody wanted mechanical watches, much less the antiquated chronographs that had made Heuer famous. Battery-powered quartz watches, whether those from Japan or the plastic fashion sensations from upstart Swatch, were on everybody’s wrists. So the new TAG Heuer decided to focus its efforts on what it knew would sell: fashionable quartz sports watches, completely dropping the venerable Carrera name, that symbol of the brand’s 1960s chronograph heritage, from the lineup. In retrospect, the strategy was a success. By the early 1990s, TAG Heuer became a household name, with many successful college grads buying one as a first “nice watch”. But then came the revival of the mechanical timepiece.

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When TAG re-launched the Carrera in the mid-1990s with some faithful homages, it was a return to the company’s roots, though many diehard Heuer fans continued to resent the deal with the quartz devil that TAG had made (despite the fact that it may have saved the company). In subsequent years Jack Heuer himself came back to the company, the old watch names kept returning — the Monaco, the Monza, the Silverstone — and TAG Heuer regained respect from the cognoscenti.

And now, here we are in 2013, with the triumphant 50th anniversary of the Carrera name. The limited edition Carrera Monaco Grand Prix ($5,600 on rubber) is one example of the new breed of TAG Heuer Carrera, a chronograph that looks back on its first half-century but is more than ready to face the next one.

Before we begin: the timepiece’s name is a bit confusing, combining two namesakes of TAG Heuer’s most famous references, the Carrera and the Monaco. The watch’s title is actually a tribute to the famous Formula 1 race in the spectacular Mediterranean city-state; TAG Heuer’s history with motorsports is well known (its watches were worn by such racing greats as Jo Siffert, Niki Lauda and Ayrton Senna) and the brand trades on this history liberally. Why TAG didn’t use its iconic square racing watch, the Monaco, as a basis for this tribute piece is a mystery, but the Carrera is a fine timepiece in its own right.

TICK LIST

TAG-Heuer-Carrera-Monaco-Grand-Prix-gear-patrol-sidebar

Movement
Calibre: TAG Heuer Calibre 16 (Valjoux 7750 base)
Frequency: 28,800 vph (4Hz)
Jewels: 25
Reserve Power: 42 hours

Functions
Hours, minutes, small seconds at 9 o’clock
Chronograph hours, minutes counters
Central seconds counter
Day and date

Case
43mm
Polished Stainless steel

Case Back
Screw-in sapphire caseback with special engraving

Crystal
Sapphire, anti-reflective

Water Resistance
Water resistant to 10 ATM, 100 meters

Strap/Bracelet
Rubber “tire” strap
Polished foldover pushbutton clasp

The Carrera case has grown over its 50 years on wrists. While the original of 1963 was a mere 36 millimeters, the Monaco Grand Prix Limited Edition is a full seven millimeters wider. Its 43mm size won’t bother most, but this is a big watch, its height clocking in at a hair over 15mm thanks to its bulky mechanical motor (more on that later), which means you won’t forget you’re wearing it. Despites its modern size, the case retains the familiar aesthetics of the Carrera lineage. The steep, angular, straight lugs, an external tachymeter scale and the pump pushers all exude “Carrera”, even when spotted from a distance.

Those pushers are an example of how TAG gets details right. The start/stop pusher at 2 o’clock is ringed in red, a color carried through from the chronograph hands, to nicely tie the functions with the data and to aid in distinguishing elapsed time reading from the time of day. The only clue to the limited edition nature of this watch is the “Monaco Grand Prix” text printed around the bezel, also in red.

The dial may be the most impressive trait of this Carrera. Rendered in radiating anthracite gray, it appears alternately silver, black or a muted blue depending on how it catches the light. Added to silver rings around the chronograph hour and minute counters and the red hands, the overall effect is nothing short of beautiful. But beauty does have its price. The slender baton hands and stick hour markers lack contrast and are difficult to read at a glance, requiring a combination of tilting the watch and squinting until the light catches the dial right. Perhaps this is fine at the track when the red hands are most important, but day to day, it did get a little tiresome.

Continuing the motorsports theme, the Carrera Monaco Grand Prix comes shod with a thick rubber strap that mimics the tread of a 1960s Dunlop track tire. While this could be cheesy on some watches, the strap proved comfortable and the tread motif subtle, making it a pleasure to wear. The deployant clasp fitted to said tire… er, strap, is a polished and signed two-button affair that is infinitely, and easily, adjustable for a perfect fit, something we appreciated on hot afternoons.

The steep, angular, straight lugs, an external tachymeter scale and the pump pushers all exude “Carrera”, even when spotted from a distance.

Carrera chronographs have been outfitted by a variety of movements over the years, from the handwound Valjoux 72 that was also found in Breitling and Rolex chronographs of the mid ’60s, to the famous Calibre 11, one of the world’s first self-winding chrono motors, to high-beat movements from Zenith and TAG’s own in-house Calibre 1887. But the movement that has probably been found in most Carreras has been the equally vaunted and maligned Valjoux 7750, which TAG decorates and renames the Calibre 16. The 7750 is a proven movement, robust and reliable, albeit somewhat unrefined. Its cam-actuated functions are not as pretty to look at nor as precise as a column wheel movement, but less finicky and more than up to the task.

Those familiar with the 7750 from other chronographs will recognize the noisy winding rotor, 6-9-12 subdial layout and tall case height. Still, the typical stiff start-stop pusher feel is muted in the Carrera Monaco Grand Prix, and satisfying to operate. The watch has a sapphire caseback engraved with the Monaco race logo that allows a view of the decorated movement. TAG has always done a nice job with movement decoration, and this one is no exception. Circular graining on the movement plate, Geneva stripes on the bridges and the industrial TAG Heuer branded winding rotor dress up the workhorse movement nicely.

Throughout its 50 years and various configurations, the Carrera has always been an appealing, masculine watch, perhaps the archetypal motorsports chronograph of the past half century (sorry Daytona). The Monaco Grand Prix Limited Edition continues that legacy in fine form. Even though it’s not our favorite of the modern Carreras (that would be the Calibre 17 Jack Heuer Edition), for those who like the tie-in with the famous race, it would make a great timepiece to strap on, even if the laps you’re timing are around Omaha instead of Monaco.

METHODOLOGY: We timed laps around town with the Carrera Monaco Grand Prix for two weeks, wearing it while driving a variety of vehicles (from a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet to a 10-year old Volvo wagon).