The Heuer Carrera can be summed up in one word: legible. When Jack Heuer, the great-grandson of Heuer’s founder, decided to introduce a new line of chronograph watches in 1963, ease of reading was the foremost design goal. Taking inspiration from the dashboard dials of racing cars, Jack developed what is arguably one of the best-looking chronographs ever made. These were watches designed to be worn on the track, in the cockpit of the world’s fastest cars, and many of the best drivers of the 1960s and 1970s chose Heuers accordingly. This was a time before brand ambassador programs paid celebrities to wear their watches; drivers like Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Clay Regazzoni, Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda, and Jo Siffert wore Heuers just because they liked them.
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Designed for drivers and motorsport fans, the watch needed a name that would embody its automotive spirit. Heuer found the perfect choice in none other than the world’s most dangerous race, the Carrera Panamericana. With a route stretching from the Mexican border with Guatemala to Ciudad Juarez near the U.S. border, the race was a battle between the drivers, cars and a grueling mix of conditions. Though the race, held between 1950 and 1954, incorporated parts of the newly built Pan-American Highway, drivers faced unpaved roads, mountains, deserts, and temperature extremes; ever the marketing man, Jack wanted to capture the tenacity, moxie, and grit of these fearless racers in the new watch. The easy-to-pronounce, internationally recognized Carrera name was the perfect choice.
Although the Carrera was more of an evolution than a radical departure from the chronographs that Heuer had produced in the preceding years, it was different in several key ways — each of which mark the watch as the transition point from the historical to modern chronograph era. When the Carrera line was introduced at the Basel World watch fair in 1963, it was the first time that Heuer had used a single name for a series of watches, a marketing tactic less common then but now universally practiced. Chronographs in the 1940s and 1950s most often had very busy dials with tachymeter and decimeter rings crowding the center, but for the Carrera, Heuer moved these to the outer edge of the dial, giving the watch a remarkably clean and modern look.
Drivers like Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Clay Regazzoni, Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda, and Jo Siffert wore Heuers — just because they liked them.
The first two models of the Carrera line were the 36mm Carrera 12 (reference 2447), which had three registers for hours, minutes and seconds, and the Carrera 45 (reference 3647), which had a 45-minute and a seconds register. The registers were sunken into the dial in a style still used by many brands today, giving the dial a three-dimensional look that hadn’t been seen before. The Carrera 12 housed the venerable Valjoux 72 manual wind movement, the same that powered many of the era’s finer chronographs, including the Rolex Daytona. The Carrera 45 housed the Valjoux 92, an offshoot of the 72 that only counted to 45 minutes and left off the hour register. The Carrera’s success led Heuer to release more variations over the next few years, including the first Carrera with a date function in 1966. Advertised as “a wristwatch, a stopwatch and a calendar all in one!”, the Carrera 45 Dato (reference 3147) managed to add new functionality to the Carrera line without compromising the watch’s legibility.
When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, he wore a Heuer stopwatch strapped to his wrist. While technically not a wristwatch, the reference 2915A became the first Swiss watch in space (sorry, Omega) and the first stopwatch as well. Never one to miss out on a marketing opportunity, TAG Heuer has created a special edition Carrera Calibre 1887 Space X, which pays homage to Glenn’s timepiece, as well as Elon Musk’s current private space venture, Space X, while using TAG’s in-house chronograph movement, the calibre 1887.
The second generation Carrera was a radical departure from the first. As the late 60s rolled in, fashion was changing. The Summer of Love had begun to affect mainstream trends, and watch design did not escape its aesthetic influence. Cases became larger and funkier; dials and hands incorporated brighter colors, and more of them. When the new Carrera design was shown in 1969, the traditional round case with long beveled lugs had been replaced by a new 39mm cushion case — yet what made the new watch truly revolutionary was what lay inside. Heuer was in a race to develop the world’s first automatic winding chronograph movement, and in 1969 (along with their co-developers Breitling, Hamilton and Dubois-Depraz), they released the Caliber 11 Chrono-matic movement for the Carrera, Autavia and Monaco. The history of who came out with an automatic chronograph first is a bit murky, so we’ll chalk it up to a tie between Heuer, Zenith and Seiko, but regardless, the Caliber 11 movement was a trailblazer.
The first Carrera of the second generation introduced in 1969 was the reference 1153, offered with a charcoal gray or silver dial with contrasting chronograph registers and bright orange accents. As Heuer continued to develop their automatic movements, they created the Caliber 15 automatic chronograph, which was billed as an “economy” version of the Caliber 12 (an upgrade of the Caliber 11). It sacrificed the hour register for a running seconds hand, though nothing about the movement was second-quality to any other Heuer caliber. Used in reference 1553, these models have some of the most interesting dials in the Carrera range, incorporating contrasting blocks of color unlike anything seen before. Though Heuer now had an automatic movement for their chronographs, they continued to produce a manually wound version of the Carrera (reference 73653 and 73453) throughout its second generation.
50 Years of Tag Heuer
The Carrera went through several redesigns between the late 70s and 80s, though it is the first two generations that will always be the most iconic of the vintage models. Finally, after more than two decades in production, the line come to an end in 1985, the year in which a Luxembourg-based holding company best known for manufacturing high-tech F1 car parts purchased Heuer. Techniques d’Avant Garde, better as TAG, decided to focus on simpler, more affordable models, and the Carrera line was put to rest.
Thankfully TAG came to their senses and returned to their motorsport roots, embracing the great legacy of the Carrera (and Monaco, plus a few others) when they introduced re-edition models in 1996 that faithfully emulated the first Carreras of the 1960s. Since then, the Carrera has again become one of Heuer’s flagship model lines. The cases have been enlarged to a contemporary size, but the distinctive lugs of the first-generation Carreras are back, and models like the Jack Heuer 80th Birthday limited edition strongly nod to the past. Whether you go vintage or modern, the Carrera is a veritable classic that can hold its own against any vintage chronograph. If it was cool enough for Mick Jagger (yup, he was a Heuer guy, and wore a Carrera 1153 among others), it’s cool enough for you.