SAVOIR FAIRE Is This the Most Famous Watch in the World?

8 min

How one very special Heuer Monaco went from mere technological wonder… to an icon of Hollywood history.

Steve McQueen, 24 Hours of Le Mans, Le Mans, 14 June 1970. Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

In 1970, as the film Le Mans was in production, Steve McQueen made a choice that would go down in history. An actor devoted to his craft, McQueen was known for valuing authenticity above all else; he even refused to allow any stuntman to take the wheel in his place, and did all his own driving. In preparation for the role of pro racer Michael Delaney, McQueen looked to the best drivers of the time – most of whom wore the Heuer uniform first introduced to the track by Jo Siffert, with whom McQueen became fast friends during shooting. 

As a result, McQueen chose the same suit for the film as his good friend Siffert wore on the track – along with the Heuer Chronograph logo. “I’m driving the same car as Jo Siffert, and I also want to wear the same suit as him,” said the actor. When asked to select the watch best suited to his character, McQueen went straight to the avant-garde design of the Heuer Monaco, with its unusual square face and blue dial.  While he had the option to choose from many celebrated watchmakers of the day, for McQueen it had to be Heuer – to match the logos on his race suit, yes – but also to evoke the winning spirit he so clearly admired in his friend. 

First released in Geneva on March 3rd, 1969, the Heuer Monaco was the very first water-resistant square-faced automatic chronograph. An extraordinary watch with an extraordinary story, it not only evoked the thrilling world of motor racing (especially the Monaco Grand Prix), but broke barriers in terms of technical expertise as well. The signature Heuer Calibre 11 movement contained within this innovative timepiece was a groundbreaking development in its own right.

Departing dramatically from the traditional watchmaking aesthetic of the time, which favoured round watches with simple white dials, the Monaco introduced a truly avant-garde style with its square face, metallic blue dial and red second-hand. Its glass was domed, giving the watch an almost futuristic touch, and its left-positioned crown, meant the watch did not need to be wound. The Heuer Monaco rapidly became a press sensation, and was widely regarded as a ‘revolutionary innovation’. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that McQueen chose the Monaco to accompany his character in Le Mans.

The story goes that on the last day of filming, after driving down the Mulsanne straight (a notorious stretch of the Le Mans course) at around 200 mph, McQueen pulled up in his 917K for the last time on set. As he emerged from the car, Monaco on his wrist, McQueen’s wife and children ran up to congratulate him – while chief mechanic Haig Altounian began to tend to the engine of the 917. Having greeted his family, McQueen walked over to the Altounian, removed the watch, and handed it to the mechanic. His famed words were, “I want to thank you for keeping me alive all these months”. By all accounts a bit embarrassed, Haig tried to refuse the gift, saying it was too generous a gesture. But McQueen shook his head, and said “It’s too late, it’s got your name on it.”

On December 12th, 2020, Phillips Watches will be auctioning off one of the six Heuer Monacos Steve McQueen wore during the iconic 1971 film, Le Mans.

And so it was that for several years, Haig Altounian wore Steve McQueen’s Heuer Monaco, inscribed with the words “To Haig Le Mans 1970”. But it wasn’t long before the mechanic decided that it might be wise to protect such a priceless possession for posterity – and placed it in a safety deposit box, where it has remained untouched for nearly half a century.

If ever a watch told a story, it’s this one; the passing of a timepiece from parent to child, from friend to friend, has always been a heavily symbolic gesture. But with this very special Heuer Monaco, Steve McQueen connected the dots between an extraordinary piece of technical watchmaking history, a tale of true love for the racing spirit in the form of his friendship with Siffert, an act of incredible generosity, and the making of a cultural touchstone. Where will this remarkable watch go next – and on whose wrist will it travel?

Possibly the most influential Heuer watch of all time.

On December 12th, 2020, Phillips Watches will be auctioning off one of the six Heuer Monacos Steve McQueen wore during the iconic 1971 film, Le Mans.