The Heuer Carrera is perhaps the most famous wristwatch made by Heuer- a chronograph that sums up the Heuer brand and stands as the link between the past, present and future of TAG Heuer. This ultimate guide to the classic Carrera steps through the major models- and we don’t leave out a few low-points along the way!
It may surprise you to know that the case that we regard today as the classic Carrera style was only made for six years, from the first model in 1963 through to the birth of the mechanical Carrera chronograph of 1969.
The Heuer Carrera remained in the Heuer catalogue through to 1984, when the direction of the company changed following the arrival of Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG). In the near-20 year run of the Carrera there was a large variety of models, with an array of movements- from the classic manual-wind Valjoux 72 through to the first quartz watches of the 1970s.
The story of the Carrera is a great one and in many ways the fortunes of the Carrera followed those of Heuer itself.
A new type of Chronograph
There were, of course, Heuer Chronographs before the Carrera. The desire to launch a re-designed Chronograph came as a direct result of the return of Jack Heuer to Switzerland from the US in 1962, as the man himself told Calibre 11:
Being at the helm of the company, I felt that we had to review our range of Chronographs. I started out in 1962 with the Autavia (we had withdrawn the Autavia Dashboard 12-hour stopwatch from the market due to the poor legibility of the dial), because the name was now free and this model enjoyed a very good response when we launched it in the fall of 1962.
So we decided in the fall of 1962 to start a new series with the name Carrera, a name that I had just loved and discovered in January 62 and the first Carrera was launched at the Basel Fair in spring 1963 .
The 1960s Carrera
The 1960s was a period of regeneration for Heuer. Inspired by their new CEO, Jack Heuer, the company changed its strategy to focus on Chronographs, leading the launch of three seminal 1960s models- the Autavia (1962), the Camaro (1968) and the Carrera (1963).
First Generation: 1963- 1970
The first generation Carrera introduced the case that today we consider as the classic Carrera style- a 36mm stainless steel case with elegantly shaped lugs. What set the Carrera apart from other watches of the era was the clean design of the dial. By removing extraneous detail, more space was created on the dial allowing the Chronograph to be easily read.
Adding to the dial design was the use of sunken registers, which as the catalogue above says, “gives a revolutionary 3-dimensional dial reading“. The modern design was a break from the style of the day and gave the Carrera a modern look.
Available with either a two (Carrera 45 and 30- with a 45/ 30-minute register) or three register (Carrera 12- with a 12-hour sub-dial Chronograph, the early success of the Carrera led to more models, such as the Landeron-powered Carrera 45 Dato, which added a date function for the first time.
The 1970s Carrera
The 1970s stands as probably the most dynamic and disruptive decade in Heuer’s history. It was a decade that saw the wider roll out of Heuer’s Chronomatic mechanical movement, as well as the decade where electronic watches went from high-tech premium positioning to low-cost commodity. While the walls began to close in on the traditional Swiss watch industry, Heuer responded by launching some of its boldest watches and by forging pioneering relationships with sponsorship in Formula 1.
Heuer’s relationship with Ferrari began in 1971 and led to Heuer’s shield being added to the nose of the Scuderia’s Formula 1 cars. In exchange, Heuer provided timing equipment and gave a Solid Gold Carrera 1158 to each Ferrari driver, with the drivers’ name and blood type engraved on the back.
These watches confirmed the link between the Carrera and motor racing which continues today.
Second Generation- 1969-1978
As the decade drew to a close, so too did production of Heuer’s mechanical movements- victims of the price war with the quartz movements. Heuer was an early pioneer in quartz, offering both battery-powered analogue Carreras and a combination analogue-digital Carrera Twin Time.
Third Generation: 1974- 1978
The third generation Carreras are known as the “Barrel” case Carreras, due to the stout design of the Case. Offered with either a Calibre 12 or Calibre 15 movement, the Blue, Gold and “Fume” versions had a distinctive Cotes de Geneve dial.
The Barrel Carrera is a significant departure from the refined and pretty styling of the original Carrera and could be from no decade other than the 1970s.
Fourth Generation: 1978- 1981
Heuer was a pioneer in electronic watches, with the 1975 Microsplit, and launched a range of quartz-powered Carreras in the late 1970s. While the design of the 4th generation was relatively conservative (borrowing the case of the 2nd Generation models), they were the first Carrera to be a conventional 3-hand watch rather than being a Chronograph.
Heuer did offer a quartz Chronograph, but this was a combination analogue-digital watch.
The 1980s Carrera
The 1980s were a tumultuous time for the entire Swiss watch industry, and Heuer was no different. Jack Heuer was forced to “sell” the company to a consortium of investors (that included Piaget and Nouvelle Lemania) in 1982 and end his family’s direct ownership of Heuer. Jack Heuer left his company and would spend the next 20 years building a career in the electronics industry.
The second major change came in 1985 when Piaget/ Nouvelle Lemania sold Heuer to an Investment house led by Akram Ojjeh called Techniques d’Avant Garde (“TAG”). Ojjeh had built his fortune financing and intermediating trade deals (most notably arms) between France and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. He created TAG to invest in high-tech industries, such as aviation and Formula 1 racing. TAG owned 50% of the McLaren Formula 1 team (and is still a major shareholder today) and financed the World Championship Porsche-designed TAG engines of the 1980s.
But while TAG’s investment was great news for TAG Heuer (as it was now named), it spelled the end of the Carrera. The new strategy of TAG Heuer was to focus on developing low-cost lines, such as the Formula 1 series and dive-watch inspired designs with the “Six Features (for example, the 1000, 2000, 4000 and 6000 series).
Fifth Generation: 1984- 1986
The Lemania Carrera was available in two versions. The stainless steel model (above) has a beautifully finished case, with the sunburst pattern inspired by the Barrel Carreras of the 1970s. As with most Lemania-powered watches of the era, the dial is a flat black with green lume strips with bright Orange detailing.
While an attractive watch in its own right, its challenging to find any elements of this design link back to the rest of the Carrera family.
At the heart of this watch is the famous Lemania 5100 movement, which was used by Heuer during the period when Nouvelle Lemania was a part owner of Heuer- it was a sensible strategy from Lemania, which has separated from SSIH (today part of the Swatch Group) in 1981 and was keen to make sure it had as many customers as possible for their low-cost 5100.
The Lemania Carrera was also available in a matte black PVD finish. While looking wonderful when new, the early efforts at applying a coating via the PVD method tended to crack as the watch aged, meaning that there are few pristine examples today.
End of the Carrera
The new TAG-Heuer initially kept much of the Heuer range, gradually introducing new models such as the Formula 1 and Link. The Carrera seemed a relic from the past, and when you look through the TAG Heuer catalogue of the late 1980s you can see how different the new direction was.
But of course, the Carrera did rise again in the mid 1990s, initially as a retro-novelty. But the story of how and why the Carrera re-appeared in the TAG Heuer range is one for another day.
50 Years of Carrera
This article is a summary of our dedicated Carrera mini-site, which traces the Carrera through its history- both as a Heuer and TAG Heuer Chronograph.
Click on the image below to be taken to the Carrera mini-site and learn more about the Carrera.
Photos Courtesy of TAG Heuer, with the exception of:
– Carrera Catalogue: Chuck Maddox: www.chronomaddox.com
– Carrera montage & Carrera Lemania: Paul Gavin, http://www.heuerworld.com
– Manual Carrera dial: Abel Court