Going the distance: TAG Heuer's Carrera turns 60
The manufacture is marking the milestone by releasing several grail-watches-in-the-making — and a short film with one of 2023’s leading men, Ryan Gosling.
Translating from Spanish to ‘race’, ‘career’ and ‘thoroughfare’, the word carrera is an emotionally juiced homonym, especially for those whose love of horological folklore intersects with a fondness for motorsport and a penchant for existential philosophy. The twigs on its connotational family tree, after all, range from ‘speed’ to ‘competition’ and ‘adrenalin’ via ‘achievement’, ‘path’, ‘journey’ and ‘narrative’. It’s an apposite choice of moniker, then, for a genre-defining timepiece that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. The Carrera’s story begins the year before its launch, in 1962, thanks to a deal struck by the fourth-generation family member then helming the business.
“That year, Jack Heuer had agreed to provide timing equipment to the Sports Car Club of America,” Nicholas Biebuyck, TAG Heuer’s Heritage Director, tells The Rake. “So he went to the 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida and met the parents of Pedro and Ricardo Rodríguez, the famed Mexican racing drivers. They told him all these wonderful stories about the race and tales of endurance and survival and strength, and that’s how Jack fell in love with this name. It was this connection to motorsport — and also the idea of your path in life, the road, your career, all of these connotations, the universality of the word — which he really enjoyed.”
There was more to this exciting new chronograph than a zinger of a name, though. Exceptional robustness and water resistance (thanks to the new acrylic crystal and tension ring) were in the mix, along with enhanced reliability — and, crucially, legibility. “Jack had studied engineering at ETH Zurich, the celebrated university,” Biebuyck says, “and one of his modules had been around designing the control panel for a nuclear power plant. Within this concept was the importance of making quick decisions, quick calculations. And that came down to conveying the maximum amount of information in as clear and as concise a way as possible. That’s what drew him towards removing the extra text from the dial and moving the scale off the dial [to the tension ring].”
As a certified design geek — this is a man who, as a student, scrimped and saved to purchase a Charles Eames lounge chair for his dilapidated Zurich flat — Jack Heuer would have been delighted at how quickly the resulting piece became as much a fashion statement as it was an item of utilitarian sporting hardware. “In the early 1960s we were moving through this period where, for a lot of people, a watch wasn’t simply a utilitarian object any more,” Biebuyck says.
“There was this transition into it being more of a fashion object, particularly for people with more disposable income.”
Six years after the Carrera’s initial launch — and with prosperous consumers’ fashion-conscious approach to timepieces now going into overdrive — Reference 1153, and with it the revolutionary calibre 11 movement (the first commercially available automatic chronograph), was introduced. But the show-stopper Carrera was still waiting in the wings.
The 18-carat gold Carrera (Reference 1158), launched to celebrate Heuer Leonidas’s listing on the Swiss stock exchange, was a bold move — until then, Carreras had been known for their white on black or black on white designs with subtle colour accents.
But it was also a beautifully executed gambit. An unofficial nickname, the ‘Success Watch’, became particularly resonant when Jack started to gift engraved versions to every new Ferrari driver from 1971 onwards, as well as other superstars: Niki Lauda, Clay Regazzoni, Mario Andretti, Jo Siffert and Ronnie Peterson were all recipients, and a photo of James Hunt wearing a Carrera 2447 NST Reverse Panda, meanwhile, is now woven into brand folklore.
Biebuyck explains that motorsport legends wearing the Carrera helped the name become “indelibly marked on the cultural landscape”. The appeal among prominent public figures was cross-pollinated. “The company started building a reputation for being the brand of choice among the creative classes,” Biebuyck says. “A key moment in the Carrera’s history is Mick Jagger wearing this 1153 alongside John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and also for the famous photoshoot on a boat in which he wears a Hawaiian shirt. Then we see Stanley Kubrick on the set of A Clockwork Orange wearing a Monaco; we see Sammy Davis Jr. wearing the Monaco 1133B while greeting troops in Vietnam; there’s the whole Steve McQueen connection. And the Carrera very much became a cultural and design object that also happened to have this connection to the excitement of motorsport.”
The journey that has cemented the Carrera’s place in the horological hall of fame has three parts. The second begins in 1996, and its relaunch following a 12-year hiatus. Coming in three versions (two steel watches and an 18k solid-gold model), the re-edition that Jack Heuer — having also returned to the fold following a lengthy absence — unveiled to the world with an emotional speech at the Monza racetrack that year was aesthetically identical to its earliest progenitor, even sharing a 36mm case and a hand-wound chronograph movement, albeit with modernised calibre engineering and materials. “It was the very first reissued watch — designed as a carbon copy of the original from 1963,” Biebuyck confirms.
It was meant to be a brief celebratory novelty. Instead it marked the dawn of a new era, with heritage at the heart of future collections. Since that fateful year, the R&D mavens at La Chaux- de-Fonds have come up with some of the boldest timepieces in the brand’s history: the gravity-defying Carrera Mikrogirder, which won the GPHG overall prize (Aiguille d’Or) in 2012; six years later theCarreraTêtedeVipèreChronographTourbillonChronometer; and then, in 2019, the TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer 02T Nanograph, featuring the isograph carbon hairspring.
There have also been game-changing collaborations: the TAG Heuer Carrera x Fragment Design/Hiroshi Fujiwara piece of 2018, and the partnership that read the nuptials for TAG’s Carrera and another luxury icon that shares its name — the Porsche 911 Carrera — first in 2021 and again this year. We’ve also had lab-grown diamond technology bolster the visual splendour of Carreras. “We want to expand the possible palette and designs for diamond watches and diamonds in general, and create a new and breathtaking vision of mastering carbon and diamond design as well as cutting-edge light effects,” Frédéric Arnault, the Chief Executive, said on the release of the 2022 Carrera Plasma watch. Biebuyck agrees. “We’ve had some wonderfully crazy complications — the Mikrograph, Mikrogirder, Mikrotimer, Mikropendulum — coming out in the mid 2000s, but for me, today, the most important recent TAG Heuer innovation is
The TAG Heuer Carrera Chronograph black dial, 42mm, fine-brushed and polished steel case, Calibre Heuer 02 movement and black leather strap.
Plasma, and what we’re able to achieve with it on the Carrera. It’s a huge leap forward for the industry, and it’s something that we’re super- proud to have been able to achieve through our research institute.”
Part three of the Carrera saga began at the start of this year, with the 60th anniversary celebrations, which included a movie short starring the brand ambassador and Barbie star Ryan Gosling (who wears a Carrera Three Hands timepiece in the Netflix film The Gray Man), as well as a host of exciting new releases.
The Glassbox model — its domed, curved crystal paying homage to similarly domed Hesalite crystal designs from the 1970s — is among the major talking points of the releases so far. But the most portentous Wagnerian drum roll is set to come just after this issue of The Rake is published, heralding the re-introduction of a model in 18-carat gold — the horological equivalent of a new DB5 rolling out of the Aston Martin production facility. “All of this is really us trying to explain our history and our DNA by using inspiration from the past,” Biebuyck says, “but with very contemporary elements as well.
“At the end of the day, you can create an exact copy of a watch from the 1960s, but it doesn’t do anyone any service. So instead we’re taking stylistic codes from the past and updating them with the latest movement technologies and improvements and refinements in the manufacturing processes. It’s been a great way for us to continue the story. We’re really installing new foundations we can build upon. And of course, there are many codes we can leverage from the past to create new designs in the Carrera collection for the future. Exciting times ahead!”
Read the full story in Issue 90, available now.