The TAG Heuer Monaco -

The TAG Heuer Monaco

There aren’t many of them, but there are a handful of watches you would be able to identify merely by their outline. Panerai’s Luminor is definitely one. Patek’s Nautilus is probably another. Maybe the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso.

However, surely the TAG Heuer Monaco ranks right up there among the most recognizable forms in horology, ever.

Arriving in 1969, it debuted at one of the most exciting, as well as one of the worst times for mechanical watchmaking.

But it is still very much here, and as popular as ever, more than half a century later. What was once groundbreaking and revolutionary is now historically significant, and is still a true icon in every sense of the word.

Read on below to learn all about the TAG Heuer Monaco.

The TAG Heuer Monaco: History

By the time the Monaco made its first appearance, Heuer was already the last word in both chronograph manufacturing and professional sports timing.

The brand, started in 1860 by the 20-year old Edouard Heuer, had scored an early success with the oscillating pinion in 1887, a mechanism which uncoupled the chrono and timekeeping gearing, which was so far ahead of its time that it is still in use today.

That was followed up with the world’s first dashboard chronograph, the Time of Trip, in 1911, suitable for both cars and aircraft; their first chrono wristwatch in 1914; the Mikrograph in 1916 (the first mechanical wristwatch able to measure down to 1/100th second; and they were official timekeepers for every Olympic Games of the 1920s.

Forward to the ‘60s, and Heuer, still in family ownership and headed up by the legendary Jack Heuer, brought us the Autavia and Carrera in quick succession, as well as becoming the first Swiss watch brand in space when John Glenn wore one of their pocket watches on a strap around his wrist aboard Mercury-Atlas 6.

On paper then, Heuer, and the Swiss watch industry, were in fine form. But by the end of the decade, everything had started to come crashing back down to Earth.

The Quartz Crisis And Project 99

In truth, quartz watch movements had existed since 1927, invented by American engineer Warren Marrison. The technology had been seized upon and advanced by a succession of Japanese manufacturers, but nothing workable really existed in the electronic watch world until the late 1950s, when Hamilton released their Hamilton Electric Watch and Bulova unveiled their celebrated Accutron.

That should have been the cue for alarm bells to ring all over Switzerland, but while some brands did try to generate their own quartz watches, many settled back on what they knew and carried on perfecting mechanical timepieces, including the last great endeavor—a self-winding chronograph movement.

Starting in the mid-‘60s, three contenders emerged to take on the challenge. In Japan, Seiko started work on what was to become the 6139. Meanwhile, two rival Swiss consortiums developed; Zenith teamed up with Movado, eventually resulting in the El Primero, and Heuer joined with Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Dépraz to form the Chronomatic Group.

This last concern, in a venture titled Project 99, brought us the Calibre 11.

A modular design, as opposed to the integrated movements from the other two teams, the Calibre 11 became the power plant inside a number of watches from each of the Chronomatic Group’s contributors. For Heuer, it found welcome homes inside Autavia and Carrera models, as well as one other, newly imagined piece, which debuted in 1969.

The Heuer Monaco

Seiko, as well as developing the 6139, had given the Swiss watch industry its worst ever Christmas present with the launch of the inaugural, fully-fledged quartz watch, the Astron, on the 25th December 1969.

Ever the visionary, Jack Heuer knew he needed something out of the ordinary if he was going to fend off the encroaching tsunami of battery-powered models from the East.

He met with Erwin Piquerez, the owner of a major watch case manufacturing plant, who had recently patented the first ever waterproof square case, and negotiated exclusive rights to use it for his newest creation.

The result, the original Heuer Monaco, was presented at the Basel Fair in two versions, the ref. 1133B with a blue dial, and the ref. 1133G with a grey dial (with the ‘11’ referencing the caliber).

Both retailed at the time for around $200, and the earliest examples had the word ‘Chronomatic’ above the brand logo at the 12 o’clock and ‘Monaco’ at the 6. That soon changed when Heuer agreed to give their recent partner, Breitling the rights to the name Chronomatic, and it is one they are still using today. Later models moved ‘Monaco’ above ‘Heuer’ and added ‘Automatic Chronograph’ to the 6 o’clock position.

As for the case itself, at 40mm x 38mm it may not have been perfectly square, but it was close enough, especially with the novelty of a self-winding chrono movement within, cheekily hinted at by the winding crown being moved to the left-hand side—as in, it won’t be needed much.

Function-wise, while there was a handy date function, along with hour and minute chronograph counters, there was no running seconds hand, just a large red chrono hand for the stopwatch, and in place of numerals, the hour markers were simple horizontal bars with beveled edges.

Nevertheless, as a disrupting move from one of the industry’s leading brands, it turned plenty of heads.

The Monaco and the Hollywood Connection

Head turner though it may have been however, with the novelty of quartz still fresh the Monaco wasn’t selling in quite the numbers Heuer was hoping.

What it needed was a leg-up in the marketing department.

Fortunately, there was a living legend just waiting in the wings.

Steve McQueen, celebrated gearhead and the undisputed King of Cool, signed on to make a film named Le Mans in 1971, following the exploits of his character Michael Delaney as he competes in the notorious 24-hour endurance race.

McQueen made no secret of the fact he based his movie persona on Jo Siffert, who drove for the Porsche team between 1966 and 1977, even down to having matching advertising badges on his racing suit. But, where Siffert wore Heuer’s Autavia during his races, McQueen was forced to wear the Monaco as it was the only watch from the brand the props department were able to source three models of; one for close-ups, one for general shots and a backup.

The watch is actually visible for more than 15-minutes of the film’s 106 minute runtime and, along with the large, centrally-placed Heuer badge on McQueen’s jumpsuit, Le Mans became one of the best advertisements any watch brand ever had. All of a sudden, the Monaco was front and center in the minds of buyers looking for something unconventional, all backed up by a priceless association with genuine Hollywood royalty.

The Monaco Now

Unfortunately, even Steve McQueen could only do so much against the forces of the quartz crisis. Heuer released a handful of alternative Monaco references in the next few years, including manually-wound versions (the ref. 73633 and ref. 74033), but to little effect.

The global market was against them and Heuer was forced to discontinue the watch in 1975, with only around 4,000-4,500 pieces seeing the light of day.

All was not lost, however. In 1985, Heuer became TAG Heuer, when Saudi business group Techniques d’Avant Garde bought out the manufacture wholesale.

Eventually, with the trend for vintage-inspired watches taking hold, TAG decided to bring back the Monaco as part of their ‘Re-Edition’ range in 1998.

The first reissue was the ref. CS2110, a black dialed variant produced as a limited edition of 5,000. It had just one chrono counter, a 30-minute sub dial at the nine o’clock, with a running seconds at the three. The winding crown was moved back to the right-hand side even though it was an automatic, powered by the ETA2984.

In 1999, TAG Heuer was again taken over, this time by the LVMH Group. With their huge financial clout, and the warm reception the Monaco ref. CS2110 (and its follow-up, the ref. CS2111) had received, it provided the impetus for the new owners to open the floodgates on a slew of new Monaco models.

Below, we have picked out some of the best.

The TAG Heuer Monaco ref. CAW211A: There have been a number of Monacos styled directly on McQueen’s ref. 1133B from Le Mans. This one, from 2009, was created to celebrate 40-years of the legendary original. All the most important details are faithfully executed here, with the dial especially being a virtual carbon copy, and the modern interpretation of the Calibre 11 moving the crown back to the left as it should be.

The TAG Heuer Monaco V4: Following five years of development after the concept prototype was shown at Baselworld, 2009 also saw the unveiling of the Monaco V4. An extraordinary, platinum-cased oddity inspired by an automobile engine and designed with the help of Philippe Dufour, it was released as a limited edition of 150. The first watch ever made with belt drives, linear mass and ball bearings instead of wheels and pinions, it reconfirmed TAG as an industry pioneer on the occasion of the brand’s 150th anniversary.

The TAG Heuer Monaco Gulf ‘Vintage’ ref. CW2118: Inspired by the colors of Steve McQueen’s race suit in Le Mans, the ref. CW2118 came out in 2005 as a special edition of 4,000, with a white dial featuring red and blue vertical stripes. It was the first of the so-called ‘Gulf’ Monacos, and has been followed up with a series of others with differing dial designs.

The contemporary version, the ref. CAW211R.FC6401, has adopted the distinctive blue and orange livery of the Porsche 917 McQueen drove in the movie, and TAG released it in 2019 as another birthday present to itself, commemorating a 50-year alliance between the watchmaker and the former oil giant.

The TAG Heuer Monaco Calibre Heuer 02 ref. CBL2111.FC6453: And finally, the most up-to-date interpretation of this iconic classic. The Monaco Calibre Heuer 02 is the first example in its history to be powered by an entirely TAG Heuer-derived movement, the eponymous Calibre 02.

The mechanism was actually introduced in 2017, but the Monaco’s shape meant the case needed to be reengineered to house the movement. As a result, the watch itself was unveiled in 2019.

It now powers five models in the current collection, two with black dials, a special edition green-faced model and, of course, two McQueen-esque blue dial pieces based on the 1969 originator.

A fitting evolution for the all-time great racer’s watch.

— Featured Photo: Ferengi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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