‘Which Heuer chronograph is the most popular with drivers?’ ran the rhetorical question posed by a 1968 advertisement. ‘It depends on what kind of drivers you’re talking about’ came the judicious answer. ‘Racing drivers like the Carrera 45. Its stark simplicity allows them to read the stopwatch at a glance while they’re timing a lap.’
Over half a century after that advertisement appeared and nearly 60 years following its launch, it is simplicity that continues to characterise the Carrera, the definitive Heuer chronograph.
Preceded by the Autavia and followed by the square cased Monaco, the Carrera is one of the Heuer Holy Trinity of timepieces that shaped a golden age of dynamism; when, led by energetic young chairman Jack Heuer, the eponymous family stopwatch brand emerged as the maker of the motor racing wristwatch par excellence.
The Heuer Carrera is the horological counterpart to the racing car from which all extraneous ornament and superfluous gadgetry has been removed with the simple objective of wringing every last scrap of performance from the machine. It is this stripped-down purity that has been responsible for the model’s enduring appeal.
The Carrera was the watch that signalled the brand’s total immersion in motor sport. Back in the early 1960s, the name alone was a Pavlovian stimulus that awakened the inner Fangio of all but the meekest of motorists. The Carrera Panamericana had been held from 1950-1954 but in that short span of years, it had formed a legend that will live as long as we race motor vehicles.
Running the length of Mexico from border to border along 2,178 miles of recently completed highway in Mexico it was the most extreme expression of public road racing: lasting five days it was exotic, thrilling, exhausting and, for a number of drivers and spectators, lethal. Central America in the 1950s was not known for its sentimental attachment to human life nor an overly restrictive culture of health and safety but the Carrera simply proved too costly in terms of human life and was brought to an end.
By 1962, when Jack Heuer got to hear about it during the 12 Hours of Sebring, where Heuer was supplier of timing equipment, the name had assumed a magical allure to which he succumbed. ‘It was at Sebring,’ he recalls in his memoirs, ‘that I first heard the Spanish word carrera. I loved not only its sexy sound but also its multiple meanings, which include road, race, course and career. All very much Heuer territory. So as soon as I got back to Switzerland, I rushed to register the name under “Heuer Carrera”’.
But while Jack might have been seduced by the romance of the name with its echoes of death and glory on the endless roads of Central America the design vision was unapologetically practical. ‘During my student years, I had become a great lover of modern design. I loved all the furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Charles Eames. Among architects, I was a great fan of Eero Saarinen and Oscar Niemeyer.’ The Carrera was to provide him with the ‘opportunity to put my own design principles into practice’.
Chronographs of the immediate post-war period had tended to be cluttered with scales and subdials; crammed with registers capable of calibrating everything from long distance telephone calls to pulse rates.
The Carrera was to sweep away all that fussiness and use the latest manufacturing techniques and materials to create a timeless timepiece, its functionality dictating a design that was almost stark in its purity of purpose.
A watch glass manufacturer had recently invented a steel ring that fitted inside the crystal, keeping it under tension against the inner case wall. The tension ring secured the crystal and enhanced the water resistance. But more than just a functional component, Jack Heuer saw a surface capable of displaying information. The scale registering one-fifths of a second was moved off the dial onto this inclined amphitheatrical surface: simultaneously clearing the dial and focussing the wearer’s eye in an instant on the most salient information, making the watch easier to read for the racing driver glancing at his watch for just a fraction of second.
A further sense of space was generated by recessed subdials that created what the brand that the time described as ‘a revolutionary three-dimensional dial reading’. Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Carrera, Jack Heuer described the watch as ‘new and audacious, but at the same time sober, simple and motorsport-driven, stripped of all ornamentation, classic and timeless’.
And when Heuer launched its famous self-winding chronograph movement in 1969, the Carrera was naturally in the very first wave of models to receive this historically important technical upgrade.
By then, the Carrera was well established on the racetrack and its moment of motor-racing apotheosis came in the early 1970s with an 18ct gold automatic Carrera. From 1971, each new driver at Ferrari was presented with a gold automatic Carrera engraved with his name.
A flamboyant statement, especially on its supple gold bracelet, the Carrera recalls a colourful era in motor racing when life was lived all the more intensely because of the suddenness with which it could be forfeited. One of the more poignant examples was personally presented by Jack Heuer to Ronnie Peterson. Known by the nickname SuperSwede, Peterson lost his life following an accident at the Italian Grand Prix of 1978 but still managed a posthumous second place in the drivers’ championship. The inscription reads simply enough
JACK. W. HEUER
Nicholas Foulkes Author, journalist, the editor of Vanity Fair on Time, editor of GQ and to the Financial Times