SAVOIR FAIRE Neo-Vintage: How the TAG Heuer Carrera re-edition changed everything

5 min

David Chalmers Editor and Founder of Calibre 11

When TAG Heuer re-released the Carrera 25 years ago, it was as a short run novelty to celebrate TAG Heuer’s history. The success of the watch not only inspired a new generation of vintage Heuer collectors, but also changed TAG Heuer’s product focus to bring heritage to the centre of future collections.

Few of the VIP guests gathered near the Ferrari garage at Monza back in the late summer of 1996 would have realised the significance of the watch launch that they were attending. Monza is always a highlight of the Formula 1 season, with its sense of history, its high-speed track and of course the throngs of passionate Ferrari tifosi, but that evening’s proceedings were taken over by TAG Heuer, which had invited a number of legendary drivers to attend. Heuer had sponsored the Ferrari F1 team during the 1970s, and so the location made sense, but one can still image the sense of discomfort that TAG Heuer director and McLaren F1 team boss Ron Dennis felt being deep in “enemy” territory.

But despite a guest list that included Clay Regazzoni and Jackie Stewart, the most intriguing name on the list was the horological star of the show, Jack Heuer. Since leaving Heuer SA in 1982, Jack had kept his distance from the company that bore his family’s name, but here he was attending his first watch launch since the Heuer 2000 in 1982. And the watch that he was launching, or more accurately relaunching, could not have been more out of place with the TAG Heuer range of the day, which at that time was dominated by quartz-powered steel sports watches- the 2000, 4000, 6000 and S/el series. Jack was there to relaunch a 1960s Carrera featuring a hand-wound mechanical movement. It was a watch from another era, one that would also offer a glimpse of TAG Heuer’s future.

Given the prominence of the TAG Heuer Carrera, Monaco and Autavia in today’s TAG Heuer range, it’s hard to imagine that back in 1996, all three of these series were a distant memory. The TAG Heuer Monaco disappeared first back in 1975, with the Carrera and Autavia soldiered on during the quartz crisis of the 1970s, before being quietly discontinued in the early 1980s. TAG Heuer had offered a heritage themed “Golden Hours” collection in the mid-1980s, but these were niche watches that were a long way from the glory days of the innovative chronographs of the 1960s and 70s.

Philippe Champion (Marketing Director of TAG Heuer at that time) and Jack Heuer (Honorary Chairman of TAG Heuer) at Monza in 1996 ©TAGHeuer

Yet here it was: a new Carrera, albeit one that was almost a perfect copy of the 1960s original, but with modern engineering and materials. There were three models in the 1996 Carrera Re-edition line-up: two steel watches (white and black dial) and a spectacular 18k solid gold model with a silver dial. Each was based on the original 1963 Carrera Chronograph and not only shared the same 36mm case diameter, but also a hand-wound chronograph movement, the modern calibre being supplied by Lemania. At a glance, the only way that you can easily tell the 96 re-editions from the original is the dial, because the new watches did not carry the “Carrera” name on the dial, only the famous Heuer shield. At the time, there was uncertainty over TAG Heuer’s rights to use the Carrera name given Porsche’s ownership in the automotive space, and so it was decided to remove the name from the dial, although this was quickly cleared up and the name would reappear on dials a few years later. The watch was to be made in limited numbers, and was seen as a “one off”, with no plans to bring the Carrera series back into mainstream production-after all, TAG Heuer was a modern brand that offered the avant garde– not a nostalgic look at the past.

So what motivated TAG Heuer management to think again about its history? Part of the answer lay in a realization of the importance of heritage to a luxury brand, especially a luxury brand that was seeking external investors, having been owned by Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) since 1986. There were plans to list TAG Heuer’s shares on the Stock Exchanges of New York and Zurich, and explaining the rich history of TAG Heuer was an important part of investors fully understanding the company.

The project to bring back the Carrera was part of this broader exploration of Heuer’s heritage. In 1995, then-CEO Christian Viros commissioned Gisbert Brunner to write a detailed history of Heuer and TAG Heuer, the famous Mastering Time book. It was during this period that Brunner played an important role in convincing TAG Heuer’s management to also relaunch the Carrera as a limited run model, as a nice addition to the book project. Viros was no fan of retro-watches, but was eventually convinced.

The unexpected success set in place a chain of events that changed TAG Heuer’s future product plans, with the heritage-themed watches gaining a permanent place in the range.

During the 1980s and 90s, TAG Heuer’s design was centered around the “six features” that were shared by all its watches: water resistance to 200m; A screw-in crown; double safety clasp; unidirectional bezel; sapphire crystal; and luminous markings. The benefit of this approach was that that TAG Heuer watches had a strong visual identity. The downside was noted by former TAG Heuer CEO Jean-Christophe Babin:

An observation from looking at the windows in the stores was there were apparently several different series, but they were all looking very much alike. Therefore, one of my first questions to the team when I joined was if we have many series, what exactly is the role? They said, “it’s price because we have the 1000, 1500, 2000, 4000 and 6000 and each is more expensive than the previous one”, and you say OK, but as a consumer what is the difference, because they have all the “six features”?”

The success of the Carrera gave TAG Heuer the confidence to keep the six features as key design points for the Aquaracer and Formula 1 ranges, but to start a second family branch- the branch inspired by the past. Following the success of the 1996 Re-edition series, TAG Heuer re-launched the Monaco in 1998, followed by a second Carrera re-edition series in 2000. Also in 2000 came the Monza re-edition, the name coming from a 1975 Ferrari/ Niki Lauda tribute version of the Carrera, but the design being based on a 1940s Heuer Chronograph. But so far, each of these was a niche model, carrying the Heuer logo, but not really being part of the mainstream TAG Heuer collection.

This all changed in 2005 when TAG Heuer launched the first new TAG Heuer Carrera, a contemporary, modern Carrera that was not a single watch, but a fully developed range, including Chronographs, Twin-Time models and 3-hand watches. The Carrera had gone from retro curiosity to centre position in the TAG Heuer range in a decade. And since its reintroduction in 2005, the Carrera has maintained its position as TAG Heuer’s leading collection.

TAG Heuer Carrera, 1996

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of that first TAG Heuer Carrera re-edition. When Jack Heuer rose to speak at Monza, it was to explain the origins of the Carrera, the iconic watch that he created back in 1963. Looking around the room filled with famous F1 names from the past, it would have been easy to look back on that event as one based on celebrating the good old days. While no-one knew it at the time, in addition to celebrating the past, they were also getting a glimpse into TAG Heuer’s future, a future that we now know would not have been the same without the 1996 TAG Heuer Carrera Re-edition.

Discover the latest TAG Heuer Carrera collection.

David Chalmers Editor and Founder of Calibre 11