Reference Points: The Heuer Carrera
Sixty years after its introduction, we give you everything you need to know about the Carrera – and lots you don’t.
Here’s a fact that might surprise you (hell, it surprised me) – as of right now, I own more Carreras (modern and vintage) than I do Daytonas (modern and vintage). So when I saw this particular story come across the line as one we’d be working on, I thought to myself, “wait a minute, I LOVE the Carrera, and I want to write that!” And so here we are. Me just talking about watches I love, like back in the day.
The Heuer Carrera occupies an interesting place in the modern watch-collecting world. It is not often considered among the most desirable contemporary chronographs (with some exceptions, ahem), but stack it next to any of its iconic peers (Speedmaster, Daytona, etc.), and it’ll hold its own. In fact, I’d encourage you to look at the H02 caliber in great detail – it’s really rather impressive. But on the vintage side of things, the Carrera is simply beloved by people whom I respect a ton. I’m talking very serious collectors of vintage watches, and despite the best efforts of marketing departments around the world, the Carrera is the vintage Heuer that I think stands up the best against both vintage Speedmasters and Daytonas.
In this Reference Points, we’ll be looking at all Carreras in what I would describe as the vintage era, which is to say before the acquisition of Heuer by TAG in the mid-1980s, with a few mentions of the special pieces that have come along since, and a few pieces that immediately preceded the actual Carrera family. Let’s get into it.
Understanding Heuer’s History Of Timing & The Chronography Landscape Pre-1955
First things first, it’s important to understand the landscape from which the Carrera (and the pre-Carrera) was born. And to understand that, one must have a full grasp of not only all the relationships between Heuer and motorsport that came before but all the connections between timing and motorsport before 1960.
I’ll state the obvious that really isn’t that obvious to those of us born after a certain period: Motorsport racing goes back to the early 1900s. Digital time-telling does not. Electronic timekeeping did not come about until 1970 or so. That means motorsport racing is approximately 110 years old, but digital timekeeping is only about 50 years old. Get what I’m saying here? More than half of all racing history was timed on mechanical watches and clocks, and of course, that isn’t limited to automobile racing – if we’re talking horse racing or other such foils of the historic ruling class, modern, split-second timekeeping via microprocessors accounts for an even smaller fraction of its era.
To put it another way, mechanical watchmaking and clockmaking are inherently tied to, well, all achievements pre-1960s out of necessity – not like today when nerds like me throw on a mechanical chronograph to time how long it takes to drive from one country cafe to another. But even before the introduction of the pre-Carrera in the mid-1950s, Heuer played a pivotal role in chronographs and competition timekeeping.
To be clear, Heuer did not invent the chronograph – that title belonged to Nicholas Rieussec for ages, until Louis Moinet made a discovery that changed that tale. Though one could argue it was a watchmaker named Adolphe Nicole who really set the stage for all elapsed timekeeping on watches and clocks.
But Heuer was indeed early to the game of chronography. In 1908, Heuer released its Sphygmometer pocket chronograph, patented in 1908, allowing the physician to determine the patient’s pulse rate, after counting heartbeats for only 20 seconds. Shortly thereafter, in 1911, Heuer introduced its “Time of Trip” dash-mounted chronograph for automobiles and airplanes. And by 1914, the Heuer catalog showed its first wrist chronographs, which it described as “unique on the market.” And indeed, not only were wrist chronographs unique in 1914, but the wristwatch itself was barely a thing at that time. Indeed Heuer was not alone in the making of wristwatches in the pre-WWI era, but suffice it to say, few were doing much at scale back then, in particular with wristwatches and chronographs.
In 1916, Heuer began its work in the field of high-precision timing with the Mikrograph, Semikrograph, and Microsplit – able to track 1/5th, 1/50th, and eventually 1/100th of a second, along with the creation of its first split-seconds pocket watches, aimed not only at sport timing but military and industrial use. Incidentally, I have very fond memories of TAG Heuer’s incredible foray into high-frequency timing around ten years ago, culminating in the incredible Mikrotimer (you can see it in action here, dating back to 2011), which I don’t think receives as much mention for its ambition as it should today. It was capable of timing up to 1/1000th of a second! They also created the Micrograph in a few cases (including this unique Monaco execution), and the Mikrotourbillon, which combined this incredible high-speed choreography with – you guessed it – a tourbillon (actually, two tourbillons, one of the timekeeping, one of the 1/100th of a second chronograph). It was a crazy thing. Anyway, another story for another day, literally.
By 1933, Heuer introduced one of its most iconic names, the Autavia, (AUTomotive and AVIAtion), but it was not a wristwatch as it is today. The dash timers could be either in a single timer or a double timer set with one showing the time, the other a stopwatch, and could be mounted anywhere a sportsman liked, in the cockpit of a plane, or the dashboard of a car. Two years later, as it became quite clear the world was headed for war, Heuer’s Flieger, or pilot’s chronograph, was introduced with a black dial, luminescent markers, and large radium hands.
An important change occurred in 1940, when Heuer, for the first time decided to put its brand name on each product. Up until that point, while Heuer manufactured each piece, it was the retailer’s or distributor’s name that would adorn the dial. This was standard in the industry at the time, but it marked a big shift in the history of the brand, and one that certainly paid off because of it.
The ensuing decade saw Heuer produce some pretty neat things outside the space of chronographs but no less dedicated to enthusiasts and professionals. I’m talking about legendary oddballs like the Solunar, which allowed hunters, fishermen, and sailors to derive important information by tracking the phases of the moon, as well as the time of high and low tides and the Mareographe, which coupled the aforementioned Solunar with a three-register chronograph. It was the most water-resistant watch Heuer would make, and of course, it was famously called the Seafarer when retailed by New York retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. Around the same period, Heuer produced the Twin-Time which was an early dual-time wristwatch and – bringing it back to racing – the Auto-Graph, which allowed the wearer to track speed (which is, of course, simply a calculation of distance over time).
And that brings us to 1955, when we start to see what we now call the “Pre-Carreras” enter the catalog. But before we do that, let’s set the stage for what the industry was back then, and what the other guys were up to.
I’ve mentioned that Heuer didn’t invent the chronograph. Nor did Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe, or any other brand we consider in the top tier of recognition today. That doesn’t mean they weren’t present. They most certainly were, in various ways. But before we talk about that, one must understand the effective hierarchy of what watchmakers prized in, say, 1955. It was not, as one would assume today, sports watches or chronographs. Those were tools, created for, and to be used by, professional athletes and tradesmen like actual submariners (pronounced “Sub-mareeners”) and professional, or semi-professional, drivers. As such, these tool watches (always in steel and seldom well-finished) were not particularly expensive.
What were expensive were ultra-slim dress watches. It was around this time period that the first batch of self-winding watches like Patek Philippe’s 2526 arrived. The literal tool watches were marketed almost exclusively to those specific fields, not the average consumer on the street. That is why you see so few chronographs from the likes of Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, and other high-end makers from this period – it just wasn’t what was in demand by those who could afford them. When you do see them, they were often special pieces for those in automobile racing, aviation, or occasionally medicine.
And while there’s a myriad of etceterini brands (to borrow a term from 1950s Italian race cars), it was Heuer, Omega, Rolex, and Breitling that played the largest roles in bringing these types of watches to the forefront. Breitling’s Premier chronograph, and later the Superocean Chronograph and Navitimer, used mostly Venus and later Valjoux calibers, but the aesthetics were dramatically different than those of Heuer. Omega was already using the rightfully vaunted Lemania-based Caliber 321 before the 1957 introduction of the Speedmaster (which was – if you’ve read our Reference Points of that here – designed as a driver’s watch!), and Rolex – well – this is where you have the most similarity to what Heuer was up to at the outset of the Carrera bloodline.
So Heuer wasn’t out there by itself when it committed to the driver’s chronograph with the Carrera, but it was certainly amongst the most dedicated. The proof is in the watches below.
The Pre-Carreras: 1955-1963
Starting around 1955, Heuer began to produce wrist chronographs with three registers, a Valjoux movement, and larger, water-resistant cases. The dials frequently featured luminous markings and scales. Period advertisements would describe those with a tachymeter on them as positioned for “Drivers and Rallyists.” These watches mimic Rolex’s Pre-Daytonas (references 6034, 6234, and eventually 6238) in considerable ways – one of which being that, like these Rolex chronographs, the dials simply read “Heuer” with no mention of “Carrera” anywhere on them, despite clearly being progenitors of the watches in question.
The two key references of the pre-Carrera era are 2444 and 3336, both seen in S (Soleil) and N (Noir) variants. However, you will find the occasional reference 2447, which as you’ll soon see, is the foundational Carrera reference.
“To understand the Carrera’s introduction in 1963, we really need to look at what Heuer was producing in the 1950s,” Nicholas Biebuyk, TAG Heuer’s Heritage Director, said. The first pre-Carrera in this Reference Points is the reference 3336NT. It’s our first look at Heuer’s nomenclature – the “N” for the black (noir) dial, and the “T” for the tachymeter on the outer scale.
Here we have the other pre-Carrera reference 2444T, again with a tachymeter. But here, the tachy scale is rendered in a bold red, something we’ll see in the Carrera too. While the 2444 is a three-register chronograph like the 2447 that’d come soon after, it still has different lugs and other design queues that set it apart as decidedly ’50s.
Here we have a reference 2444 signed Abercrombie & Fitch on the dial. As you may know, Abercrombie used to be an outfitter for serious sportsmen, guys like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. In those days, Abercrombie retailed Heuer watches to its customers, a relationship that began in 1940. The partnership resulted in famous watches like the Seafarer and Solunar, as well as more standard chronographs signed Abercrombie on the dial, like the pre-Carrera above.
Interestingly, the first time the reference 2447 shows up is not in the Carrera. It’s in these pre-Carreras. These ’50s chronographs feature a large case, screw-down caseback, faceted lugs, and typically, utilitarian dial layouts with Arabic numerals and radium lume.
Seeing this pre-Carrera 2447S (and the prior 2447N) on the table next to the first chronographs with “Carrera” on the dial allows you to understand the DNA that laid the groundwork for the Carrera. While they don’t have the refinement of the first Carrera that’d come in 1963, the utilitarian, tool-watch ethos of Heuer’s chronographs is already there.
The First Generation Of Manual-Wind Carreras (1963-64)
Okay, now we’re into the good stuff. These are some of my absolute favorite watches, from any manufacturer, and any time period. And we’ve covered them extensively here on Hodinkee for the better part of two decades at this point. Still, there’s a lot to learn – but let’s start with a small video from ten years ago with the man who literally created the Heuer Carrera: Jack Heuer himself:
As you’ve now heard from Jack, the Carrera was named after the legendary Carrera Panamericana, a grueling thousand-plus mile race from the northern to the southern border of Mexico along a highway of the same name. It ran for only four years before being ultimately canceled for safety concerns.
In 1962, Jack Heuer had just launched the Autavia, and he was at the 12 Hours of Sebring race in Florida. He met the parents of two Mexican drivers, Pedro and Riccardo Rodriguez, who regaled him with the drama of what the Carrera Panamericana was. He was instantly taken with the tales and the name. Carrera translates to “race” in Spanish, but Heuer loved the romance and elegance of the word. Jack drew Heuer’s next watch himself, intending it to be a far more elegant chronograph than the robust Autavia, and he thought the name was simply perfect (so, as many of you know, did Porsche, who nowadays is a partner of TAG Heuer).
The Carrera was 36mm in diameter instead of 37.5mm, and in his mind, it was the perfect watch to wear from the track to a black-tie victory dinner. It had sharp, faceted lugs, and a minimalist, remarkably clean dial, even by today’s standards. His thought was “elegance and legibility above all else.” All hand-wound Carreras of this period feature these traits, but the first series of watches are slightly different and worth calling attention to.
What demarcates these early Carreras versus all those that came later? First, they are all reference 2447. Inside you have a Valjoux 72 three-register chronograph with “Ed Heuer & Co.” on the bridge. You have longer, thinner hour markers than on later watches, an unsigned crown, and very large serial numbers between the lugs at six o’clock. On the dial, there won’t be a “T” for tritium anywhere to be found, and below six o’clock will read only “Swiss.” The majority of the super early watches are black dial (2447N), though you will find some Soleil watches, too. However, these dials won’t be “silver”, but rather more of an eggshell color (which I happen to love). The earliest watches tend to have notch backs on them.
We’ve been covering these watches on the site for years and if you want to go even further down the first series Carrera rabbit hole, here’s a story from Eric Wind on them, on Hodinkee.
But what’s remarkable about the history of the Carrera is its connection to the other racing watch of the period – the at-first-unnamed chronograph that would then go by Le Mans, and then Daytona, from a company called Rolex. Back then, the watch industry cared not for vertical integration, and in fact, the very foundation of watchmaking was collaborative. Even design work was often done externally by a case maker, or a dial maker, and then a brand would tweak what it was presented as it needed to fit its own brand guidelines. Quite famously, we’ve seen books of dials found without well-known names on them that one might expect. And in this period, a fournisseur likely presented options to both Heuer and Rolex (and others) for chronographs and they both ended up choosing similar concepts. The dials were both from Singer, the movements both Valjoux 72s, and both of these watches were launched in 1963.
The two defining traits of the watches (and where they differ the most) is how they handle the tracking of precise time measurements. On the Rolex 6239, or what would become the Daytona, we have a tachymeter scale on the bezel, not on the dial. While Jack Heuer, on the other hand, secured the rights to, and then innovated on, a new creation called the tension ring. This small, angular piece of steel held the crystal in place with added water resistance, while providing greater visual depth to the watch. Jack Heuer thought it the absolute best place to add the Carrera’s 1/5th of a second scale. And the tension ring is now one of the Carrera’s unique identifying traits.
The earliest Heuer 2447N set the stage for the Carrera. As we’ll see, Heuer would go on to produce variations of the Carrera, but many of the most recognizable elements – tension ring, angled lugs, black or silver dial – would carry through the manual-wind Carreras.
Something interesting: the 50th anniversary of the Carrera was actually celebrated in 2014 (not 2013). Soon after that, it was discovered that the Carrera may have actually dated to 1963. This caused Heuer to dig up some old advertisements and other materials, confirming that the Carrera was indeed released in 1963. As Jack admits in his autobiography, he’d simply forgotten when it was introduced; now, the mystery’s been solved, and here we are in 2023 celebrating the Carrera’s 60th anniversary.
Above, we see an early 2447S, where the “Soleil” is actually a matte “eggshell” finish and not the silver sunburst finish that Heuer would soon switch to. This eggshell finish is seen only on early first-generation 2447 examples. These earliest Carreras also feature an unsigned crown and typically, a poly caseback. Later examples would switch to a notched caseback (so called because of the six notches on the caseback that would’ve been used to screw it into the case).
Before long, Heuer started adding various scales to the Carrera to aid in precision timekeeping. Here, we see a 2447NT, with the T representing the tachymeter scale on the outer edge of the dial. While it adds a certain functionality, it makes the dial a bit busier, taking away some of the purity of Jack’s original design.
The Carrera wasn’t just destined for the wrists of drivers and sportsmen. Here, we see a Fisher-signed dial with a beautiful two-tone dial with a decimal scale. Fisher is a supplier of medical and scientific supplies – test tubes, lab equipment, that type of thing – but they also sold Heuer chronographs and stopwatches. This example has a poly caseback, showing it’s a very early Carrera, with the “Swiss” only at six o’clock signifying the radium lume used.
One of the rarest scales to find on a Carrera is a pulsation scale – perhaps a dozen of these 2447Ps are known to the market. Like with other pulsation-scale chronographs of the era, these were often specially ordered by doctors so that their chronograph could more easily help them check the pulse of their patients.
Similar to the Fisher-signed 2447D, the 2447T features a two-tone dial with a tachymeter scale in a bold red color. This style of two-tone dials calls to mind the 1940s and ’50s chronographs from brands like Longines and Omega, illustrating the influences these designs continued to have on early 1960s chronographs. Note again the “Swiss” only to indicate the early nature of the watch.
First-Generation Two-Register Carreras (Ref. 3647)
While three-register Carreras can be found as early as the 53,000 serial number range in 1963, you’ll start to find two-register examples (reference 3647) around 54,000 and later – meaning they were introduced just a short time later. These two-register watches use the Valjoux 92 instead of 72, and weirdly sold for dramatically less than the three registers at retail – a full $20 less! But mind you, retail for the 2447 in the mid-1960s was $89.50 (about $900 in today’s dollars). For the two-register 3647? Yup, $69.50.
The two-register watches remain slightly less desirable than the three-register watches, but there are exceptions. Those would be the very cool double-signed watches, where a logo now sits at six o’clock on the dial instead of the 12-hour totalizer, produced for the US market. We’ve seen them with MG, Cougar, and Sunray DX logos, and the most expensive to date was the unique piece made for James Garner that sold for $176,400 in the summer of 2022 (the auction was won by TAG Heuer for its museum), and we wrote about to a full five years earlier. For this Reference Points, we have examples of the MG and Sunray DX signatures, as well as the once-mysterious Arcola logo.
As Jeff Stein discovered, these dials were double-stamped for Heuer Time Corporation (HTC) in the United States. When Jack joined his family’s company in 1958, his first responsibility had been to establish a North American distributor; the North American market was critical to Heuer and these double-signed dials illustrate its efforts to reach drivers, motorsports enthusiasts, and as one example below shows, even golfers.
Sunday DX was the oil company that sponsored various motorsports, perhaps most notably the Corvettes that raced in endurance races like the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Daytona 24.
For years, one of the great enigmas in Heuer collecting was this Carrera 3647 with a curious “Arcola” logo at six o’clock. Recently, it was discovered that these were stamped for the Arcola Country Club in New Jersey.
The Second Generation of Manual-Wind Carreras (1960s)
The second series, hand-wound Carreras take the DNA of the 1963-1964 watches and add some variety. We start to see different dial configurations, more two-register examples, and contrasting subdials. It should also be noted in 1964, Heuer acquired stopwatch maker Leonidas, further proof of its “doubling down” on the concept of sports timing.
For the second series, Heuer made a handful of tweaks to the Carrera, most with the goal of increasing legibility. A strip of paint was added to the broader hour markers and the hands are similarly inset with black (in addition to the lume), providing more contrast against the dial.
The biggest change, however, to the second-generation Carrera is the addition of a panda and reverse panda dial. Like with the first-generation Carreras, these panda dials can be found with and without scales, though the examples without scales, like the 2447SN and 2447NS seen here, remain the purest and most faithful to the original Carrera design.
The rarest of all these special Carreras is the panda-dial 2447SN – no more than a few dozen are known to the market – it served as inspiration forthe 60th-anniversary limited edition we introduced here.
Of course, if you’re going to make a panda dial, you’ve got to make a reverse panda as well, and that’s what Heuer did with the second-generation 2447NS. While the 2447SN often gets more attention, the NS is equally gorgeous (and rare). The SN and NS were introduced five years after the introduction of the original Carrera.
Similar to the Fisher-signed 2447D above, this second-generation 2447SND features a decimal scale on its outer track. Like those first-generation Carreras, the dial is rendered in two tones, giving the scale contrast to the rest of the panda dial’s sunburst finish.
In the 1960s (today too, if we’re being honest), Volvo wasn’t the sexiest car brand around. But here we have a 2447NST featuring a tachymeter scale, with the Heuer logo swapped at 12 o’clock for the Volvo logo. The Heuer shield has been shrunken and moved to the six o’clock subdial.
The Dato Carreras (1960s)
Around the same period as we see the two-register watches, Heuer introduced a Carrera with a date! It doesn’t seem like much, does it, but trust me when I tell you it was a big deal at the time.
Here we see the reference 3147 come in two dials (N/S, as always), but with two variants of movements and date configurations. The earliest examples have the date at 12 o’clock. These watches, called “Dato 12s” are the earliest (1966 introduction) but were short-lived due to the recognition of a fairly fundamental problem with the design: When the seconds hand was set to zero, it blocked the date window. Shortly after, the Dato 45 showed up. Now, this is one of my absolute favorite executions of any vintage chronograph – with that odd date window at nine o’clock and 45-minute counter at three. These watches came to be around 1968 and had a fairly short run because automatic chronographs were not far off.
This Carrera “Dato 12” reference 3147 from the TAG Heuer Museum has aged to a beautiful tropical color. The chronograph layout is similar to the standard two-register chronograph, with the minute recorder at 3 o’clock and the running seconds at 9 o’clock. With the goal of achieving symmetry, Heuer’s initial inclination was to simply add the date at 12 o’clock.
Reference 3147S – Dato 12 With Indianapolis Motor Speedway Dial
Heuer was, and continues to be, a partner with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosts the Indy 500 every year (“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”). Heuer Carreras signed with the Speedway’s wings and wheels logo are some of the most coveted in vintage Heuer collecting because of their rarity and connection to racing. In addition to the Dato (first and second generation), the logo has also been seen on the Heuer Autavia, and even Heuer stopwatches.
With the obvious design flaw of the Dato 12, Heuer soon introduced the second-generation Dato 45, with the date at – you guessed it – nine o’clock. Jack Heuer’s two design obsessions were legibility and symmetry, and while the Dato 45 seems to fly in the face of the second, it’s become a collector favorite. We liked it so much that it served as the inspiration for our TAG Heuer Dato Limited Edition in 2021.
Like the other Carreras we’ve seen up until this point, the Dato 45 was offered with either a black or silver dial. The black dial tends to get more love from collectors, because black dials always do, and because the contrasting white subdial provides a nice balance to the date window at nine o’clock.
Finally, we include this “Carrera” Triple Calendar Chronograph because Heuer referred to it as a Carrera in the catalog, even though it didn’t have a ton in common with the Carrera. It has a snapback case, different lugs, and it doesn’t even say Carrera on the dial. Still, it’s one of the more complicated watches produced by Heuer from the time and fits nicely with the Dato 12 and 9 because of its calendar function.
Second-Generation Two-Register Carreras (Ref. 7753)
In 1970, Heuer retired the 3647 for the 7753, a similar two-register chronograph powered by the Valjoux 7753, which meant it had a 30-minute chronograph capacity (shorter than the 3647’s 45-minute counter). While examples with solid black or silver dials sell for similar prices as the 3647, Heuer also made the 7753 with a number of panda and reverse panda variations as it did with the second-generation 2447. Because these examples are rarer – and, let’s be honest, the contrasting subdials just look better – prices are higher, in some cases even matching those of a standard 2447S or N.
Nowadays, you might call the 7753SN the “Ford vs. Ferrari” Carrera because Matt Damon can be seen wearing the reference as Carroll Shelby in Ford v. Ferrari. But, like the 2447SN, the 7753SN has long been one of the best two-register Carrera references thanks to its panda dial.
Finally, it is during the late ’60s that we see the holy grail of Heuers arrive. This is the first time when they were considered commercially viable – just before the advent of the self-winding chronograph (not to mention quartz). And it’s a Carrera that isn’t really a Carrera at all. You know we must be talking about the Skipper, or Skipperera as some call it. We’re here to talk about motorsport, and the Skipper deserves its own detailed story (you’re in luck! We wrote that two years ago), but suffice it to say, this highly coveted and rare Heuer chronograph with a Skipper dial in a Carrera case is about as good as it gets.
It’s estimated only a couple hundred of these were made by Heuer – and since they were meant to be used on the water, it’s likely more lie at the bottom of the sea than in collectors’ hands today. It retains all the best qualities of the 1960s Carreras, with a wild back story and amazing dial design that rivals the subject of another Reference Points story. It’s no wonder that when we first collaborated with TAG on a Carrera for Hodinkee, we looked to the original Skipperera.
Three-Register Gold Manual-Wind Chronographs (1960s)
These two watches provide our introduction to gold Carreras. We’ll get to the really good stuff – the automatic gold Carreras – in a minute, but these manual-wind examples provide a nice introduction to the world of gold Carreras and are very rare finds.
Our first gold Carrera is a gold-plated or plaque reference 2448N, with a black dial that features warm gold accents. No, it’s not the most desirable of the Carreras on the table, but the dial has a warm vintage tone and offers a heck of a lot of look for the price.
Meanwhile, this reference 2456S features a solid gold case. It’s emblematic of the direction in which Swiss watchmaking was moving towards the end of the 1960s. While the Carrera began as a stainless steel tool watch, now, it was beginning to be positioned as a true luxury product, with the finish and materials to match.
The Automatic Chronographs With C-Shaped Cases (1969-1971)
In 1969, we see the first full shift in what the Carrera is. Gone are sharp lugs and hand-wound chronograph movements. Now we are entering one of the most interesting and, frankly, challenging times of Swiss watchmaking – and along with it, one of the most exciting. It’s not only the year we land on the moon, but the year that we see one of the biggest advances in time-keeping yet, the self-winding chronograph.
The advance came from three distinct groups – Zenith with its El Primero, a product under development in one way or another since 1962, Seiko, for Japan-only at first, and the combined group called Project 99, which included Heuer, Hamilton, Buren, and Breitling.
If you want to read the history of Project 99, read Jeff Stein’s now 15-year-old story written in a way that only he can, right here.
There are a number of ways to qualify which group came first with its automatic chronograph, but none of that really matters. The Caliber 11, the self-winding caliber in the next generation of the Heuer Carrera, is one of the most iconic movements of all time, if a bit flawed, and it came out in 1969. That’s all you need to know.
These movements were modular, with a Dubois-Depraz chronograph sitting atop a Buren, micro-rotor caliber. That made the need for any case that housed it, no matter from which brand, to be larger and thicker than the previous generation of manually-wound chronographs. Therefore, we can say goodbye to the elegance of the original, first-series Carrera. And that’s okay, because this larger, “c-shaped” case really fits the era that it lived in remarkably well.
The case is tonneau-shaped, with a brushed finish. The pushers are now fluted, with the winding stem on the left-hand side (a tell-tale sign you’re looking at a Caliber 11 or one of its offspring).
The first steel, automatic Carreras to be produced featured the word “Chronomatic” on them, above the Heuer logo. These are considered the rarest of the rare for this series and generally trade at many times a normal production automatic Carrera. The name would eventually be adopted by Jack Heuer’s friendly competitor Willy Breitling for use on its self-winding chronographs of a similar vintage. Later examples instead say “Automatic Chronograph” at 6 o’clock, with the Carrera mark at 12 o’clock above the Heuer shield.
Of the steel, automatic Carreras, these early Chronomatics are the most sought after.
There are a number of steel variants of the self-winding Heuer Carrera 1153. Mick Jagger, below, is seen in a 1153 that nowadays collectors refer to as, of course, the “Mick Jagger.” Jagger’s been spotted wearing several Heuers throughout the 1970s.
This Carrera 1153 “1-through-12” features just a small variation from the above “Mick Jagger” – the hour register has Arabic numerals 1 through 12, and not just the 12-3-6-9 as seen on the Jagger. During this time, brands like Heuer were constantly iterating on their watches with the looming threat of quartz. This is one such variation.
This reference 1153BN is similar to the previous watch, but it features some funky design choices to make it function as a regatta timer (similar to the earlier Skipper above). The orange blocks on the minute counter are designed with sailors in mind.
The reference 1553 swaps the original Caliber 11 for the Caliber 15. This movement is a more economical version of the Heuer’s original automatic chronograph, swapping the hour register for a running seconds at 10 o’clock.
This reference 110.253 from 1978 presents the automatic Carrera with a new aesthetic, featuring a muted grey dial. The reference 110.253 hit the Heuer catalog in 1978 and was produced for just a few years.
This Carrera is similar to the previous example, but features a slightly iridescent blue dial (as indicated by the “B” in the reference number), a colorful change from the typical black and white dials we’ve mostly seen from Heuer to this point. The dial is finished in a spectacular Cotes de Genève pattern, which splits the dial plate into thirds and plays with the light when viewing it from different angles.
The Automatic Chronographs With C-Shaped Cases In Gold (1970s)
Around 1970, or just after the launch of the steel-cased automatic Carreras, we saw the introduction of what I think is absolutely one of the coolest watches ever made by Heuer, or really anyone in the 1970s: the reference 1158. This is the same watch described above, now in 18k yellow gold, with champagne/gold dials, and sometimes black registers and a date window. The 1158s in solid gold, oftentimes seen on varying solid gold bracelets, were absolute bricks of gold, and in fact the most expensive watch Heuer would ever offer in this era (and any era, until post-2010 when we saw Mikrotimers and Tourbillons).
The 1158s, to me, are almost like the Paul Newman Daytonas of the Heuer world. They’ve earned a cult following by those whom I would consider some of the smartest chronograph collectors out there – and they are valued wildly differently than the steel watches (think between three and five times steel examples). Those watches with provenance, and yes, they do exist, can bring multiples on those and belong in some of the absolute best collections on the planet – think the likes of the amazing watch designer Eric Giroud, and the legend that is Mr. TK.
This early 1158 features a rare Chronomatic dial. According to Biebuyck, it was likely a prototype dial that found its way into a very small number of watches. Only four or five of these have ever been seen, and they were never retailed in this configuration because Heuer quickly moved away from the Chronomatic branding.
This 1158S features the more commonly found silver dial. This particular example even features French hallmarks and importation marks on the gold case, indicating the market it was originally sold in.
The 1158CH is similar to the previous 1158S except that it features a champagne dial that more closely matches the tone of the gold case. No doubt, the 1158S and 1158CH are cool watches. But the next watch is where the magic really happens.
The 1158CHN adds contrasting subdials to the champagne dial. It’s a striking look, but what makes the 1158CHN so compelling – beyond the obvious badassness of its appearance which is every bit a John Player Special Daytona – is that this watch, almost more so than any other from Heuer or anyone in this period, is tied to the lives of actual race car drivers. Jack Heuer was the type of CEO who would take things into his own hands – and he was famous for developing personal relationships with some of the most famous drivers in the world. Ostensibly, this was to help secure the lucrative relationships between his company and the many race teams that use its products, but also because he was a die-hard race fan.
Needless to say, one of Jack’s greatest marketing coups was the use of Heuer products in the 1970s film Le Mans starring Steve McQueen (more on that and the Monaco in this Week on the Wrist from over nine years ago), but close behind that was his work with the Ferrari Formula One team – the most influential and successful race team in the world during this time. Heuer was the official timekeeper of the Ferrari team in the 1970s , and beyond having its logo on the team cars, Jack negotiated to have a Heuer patch worn on the uniform of its drivers. In exchange, he would provide timing devices to the drivers. That device? A solid gold automatic Carrera. This means a 1158 was given to:
- Clay Regazzoni (1970 to 1972, then 1974 to 1976)
- Mario Andretti (1971 to 1972)
- Jacky Ickx (1971 to 1973)
- Arturo Merzario (1973)
- Niki Lauda (1974 to 1977)
- Carlos Reutemann (1977 to 1978)
- Gilles Villeneuve (1977 to 1979)
- Jody Scheckter (1978 to 1979)
And friends of the brand:
- Jo Siffert (1971, driver for BRM)
- Ronnie Peterson (1971 to 1972, driver for March)
- Emerson Fittipaldi (1974, driver for McLaren)
- Dennis Hulme (1974, driver for McLaren)
- John Surtees (1974, driver for Pace-Mass)
- Mauro Forghieri (Formula One racing car designer with Scuderia Ferrari)
During this period, Heuer put a focus on electronic sport timing with an entire division dedicated to the matter. It was this team that came up with the incredible Centigraph (Sorry, F.P., you weren’t the first to use the name), and though we won’t talk about it too much here, this was a larger part of the Heuer story in the ’70s than the Carrera was, which brings me to the next collection of Carreras…
This might look like an 1158, but it’s not. It’s actually a gold-plated Carrera, engraved on the back “Heuer Official Timekeeper at the 1980 Olympics.” It’s an oddity produced by Heuer as it’s doing whatever it can to offer commercially viable watches. That transitions us to the next category of Carreras.
The Manual-Wind Chronographs with C-Shaped Cases (1970s)
Of course, the C-shaped case is most closely associated with the automatic-powered 1153 and 1158, and rightly so. But by the early 1970s, Heuer started producing other, more economical watches, doing whatever it could to survive, as we already touched on with the Caliber 15. With that, Heuer started to produce manual-wind chronographs in its C-shaped cases, powered by Valjoux’s 77 series of movements.
For this Reference Points, we have three examples of these manual-wind, C-shaped chronographs: the two-register ref. 7853, the three-register 73653, and the gold-plated 73655. The obvious giveaway that these are manual wind chronographs is that the crown returns to its typical three o’clock position, unlike the automatic Caliber 11, which had moved the crown to nine o’clock.
The Carrera Reference 7853S uses manual-wind caliber 7740, perhaps better known for its use in the Heuer Monaco “Dark Lord.” It’s steel and simple, and obviously still a Carrera.
While this Reference 73653N still bears the “N” in its reference number to indicate a black dial, collectors have come to refer to this particular noir as more of a charcoal grey. This example sits somewhere between a steely blue and grey, with perhaps even a hint of purple in the right light. With its manually-wound movement and tonneau case, it’s perfectly emblematic of the transitional phase for Heuer and the Carrera.
Remember that 2447P with the pulsation scale? Here’s another Heuer Carrera with a pulsation scale, but this time it’s the Reference 73655SP, which uses a gold-plated case. It’s a bit of a funky, perfectly ’70s Carrera.
The Barrel Cases (1970s)
As the ’70s carried on, sales of all mechanical watches started to decline precipitously, and Heuer looked into electronic timekeeping. As such, the quality and consistency of brand and product began to drop with it. The case of the Carrera was now barreled. These self-winding watches were hardly the focus of Jack’s attention – instead, it was saving the company he’d inherited from his father and grandfather and he’d spent his life building.
Jack wrote an incredible autobiography some years ago that I can’t recommend enough. In it, he tells of a time when he discovered that Rolex itself owned half of Heuer’s publicly floated shares (that’s not half of the company, to be clear) and that he received a call from Harry Borer himself (then the head of Rolex Biel), who suggested he come to Geneva to have a chat with his partner, Mr. Heineger of Rolex Geneva (indeed, a fully different company that the one that Borer managed – if you don’t know that, read this next). Heinieger told Heuer he did not believe in the future of electronic timing for Rolex and as such would not be purchasing his company. Jack Heuer gives Heineger credit for having that much vision at the time, though he was certainly regretful the deal did not proceed.
All this to say, this last generation of automatic Carreras produced under Jack’s direction were not the beautifully executed watches we were used to. These barrel-shaped Carreras can be found with both the Caliber 12 (two-register automatic) and the Caliber 15 (running seconds at 10 o’clock). This Reference 110.573F uses the Caliber 12.
This barrel-cased Carrera was made for the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), as evidenced by its engraving on the caseback. “We were selling to any regime we could at this point,” Biebuyck said.
This black-coated barrel Carrera is from the same family as the Heuer Monaco “Dark Lord” and Monza – not yet PVD, but illustrative of Heuer’s early experimentation in black-coated watches.
The Reference 110.515CHN might have some resemblance to the 1158, but it’s gold-plated and powered by the more economical Caliber 12.
“Heuer probably committed to a set number of movements, and they were struggling to sell them,” Biebuyck said. “With the arrive of the Seiko 6139 chronograph and the scaling of quartz watches, these automatic chronographs were just too expensive for the market.” Soon, Heuer too turned to quartz.
The Quartz Carreras (1980s)
It is somewhat fitting that the last Carrera produced by Heuer under family ownership was indeed quartz. By the late ’70s, so many great brands were shells of what they once were – sadly, Heuer included. These quartz Carreras are seldom discussed by any vintage watch lovers, but there is a certain odd charm to them. At this time, Heuer itself was really betting its future on electronic timing, and there were several quartz and electronic watches already in the catalog years before the Carrera introduction. Still, to see a Carrera-dialed quartz watch gives you a clear indication of what the company was facing.
This reference 365.253N was the first three-hand Carrera. While it’s quartz-powered, the thin case maintains the silhouette of the earlier C-shaped automatic Carreras.
This is a gold-plated quartz chronograph, and while it has “Carrera” on the dial, it’s a bit difficult to place this in the same family as the prior generations of Carreras we’ve seen.
The Lemania 5100-Powered Carreras (1980s)
By 1979, the catalog of Heuer was filled with quartz-powered products, and its wristwatch offerings started to lean away from chronographs in favor of dive watches – a precedent that would continue through the 1980s. In 1982, 80 percent of Heuer was purchased by Piaget, and 10 percent Lemania. Because of this common ownership, we see some Carreras with a Lemania 5100 caliber inside. While these watches are called a Carrera, they don’t look anything like what we think of as a vintage Carrera.
Even with these Lemania-powered Carreras, we see Heuer continue to experimenting with black-coated cases.
“These say Carrera on the dial, but they have no real codes connecting them to the Carrera,” Biebuyck said. Still, the Lemania 5100 is a fascinating movement, and provides an interesting final chapter in the history of the vintage Carrera.
The 510.511 is simply a stainless steel case treated with black coating, and here we have the “naked” version. Besides the case treatment, this reference 510.523 is the same as the previous watch.
One final oddball. This Carrera uses an 1158case style in solid gold, but is powered by a Lemania 5100 movement. It’s indicative of where watchmaking was in the early 1980s, with brands throwing together whatever they could just to survive.
The Rest Of The Story
In 1985, Heuer was purchased by TAG (short for Techniques d’Avant Garde), and the rebirth began. The Saudi-based firm invested heavily, and quite frankly saved the brand from extinction. Along came the S/el, the Formula ONe, the 2000 Series, and all the great TAG Heuers I remember from my childhood.
By 1999, TAG’s sales had increased almost ten fold since its acquisition in 1985, and LVMH acquired the brand with the goal of reinvesting in mechanical watchmaking. The ’90s were better for watchmaking than, say the late 1970s and 1980s, but times were still challenging. Still, luxury conglomerates were beginning to see the opportunity for a revival in traditional watchmaking.
Soon, LVMH had invested in TAG Heuer, Zenith, and others – seeing the potential for a rebirth of Swiss watchmaking. Similarly, Richemont began acquiring manufacturers like Lange, Vacheron, and Jaeger-LeCoultre (not in that order), while Swatch brought Blancpain, Omega, and Breguet in-house and thus began the modern watchmaking era. Hodinkee was born, then Instagram and now here we are. Kidding, of course, but what’s most relevant to this story is a 5,000 piece limited edition Carrera that looked a lot like the 1963 original (though it was called the 1964 when launched) that TAG brought out in 1996 featuring a Lemania hand-wound movement. This watch is the bridge between the old Carreras and what we see today
Collecting The Carrera Today
Sixty years since the introduction of the Carrera, the market for them has certainly matured and grown – but is nowhere near where many thought it might be by now. It doesn’t take much to imagine a world where these watches – or many of them – have a following as robust and pricing as strong as a vintage Rolex Daytona or Omega Speedmaster. And at times, it can happen, with Skippers and 1158s trading into the six figures at times, and of course James Garner’s Carrera breaching $170,000.
Further, TAG Heuer has done a masterful job in the last seven years at causing younger eyes to glance towards the past of the Carrera with wonderful limited editions like that with Hiroshi Fujiwara (which is effectively a 2447NT), the new 60th anniversary SN-inspired watch, and of course our Skipper and Dato, and those in green and red, all using the 39mm case that is most reminiscent of the original 2447 case. I think the success of these watches has helped support the Carrera market in a way that we didn’t see in, say, for example the Auatavia market.
But you take a very special Carrera, like, say a three register, hand-wound Carrera from the first generation, and compare it to the earliest generations of Daytona or Speedmaster, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be trading for the same price, but it’s not. And that could be due to the fact that yes, these Carreras are smaller than either a Speedy or a Daytona by a millimeter or two, or the Heuer brand doesn’t have the same cachet today that it did back then. But that presents the greatest opportunities for fun – finding value in places that others might not be looking (or, at least weren’t looking).
I have my own favorites within the Carrera world – the original Skipper, which is undoubtedly the most valuable of vintage Carreras and the 1158CHN which is every bit a gold 6263 for a fraction of the price, but there are watches that might be rarer: the 2447SN was revived this year, and of course all of the special logo dials. But any vintage Carrera is special. And I think the argument could be made – and to be clear, I’ve been making it for over ten years – that the Heuer Carrera in fact has one of the most authentic relationships with vintage motorsports of any chronograph out there. And after today, it is my hope that many more watch lovers will be armed with the information they need to understand them in the way they deserve.
Special Thanks: This (far too long) story would not have been possible without the incredible access and research of so many members of the Heuer community, including Nicholas Biebuyck, Jeff Stein, Eric Wind, John Cote, Allen Lo, our own Tony Traina, and the TAG Heuer Museum. Thank you all.