While most of Heuer’s classic 1960s and 70s chronographs were born with a strong motor racing identity, there were some exceptions, such as the Heuer Kentucky. The Kentucky was one of several models named after North American cities and icons (Daytona, Camaro, Memphis, Manhattan, Pasadena, Montreal) as Heuer focused on increasing volume in its largest market.
The Kentucky also marked the beginning of the end of the Chronomatic era, being the first new mechanical chronograph since 1969 that didn’t use Heuer’s own in-house movement. Instead, the series made use of the latest movement developed by long-time partner Valjoux, called the 7750, today still used by TAG Heuer and now branded as the Calibre 16.
The Kentucky was launched in 1977 and was not only one of the last wave of new mechanical Chronograph models developed under Jack Heuer’s stewardship, but also shared several design cues with the 1976 Heuer Daytona- one of which would prove to be the model’s Achilles heel.
In his autobiography, Jack Heuer recalls the thinking behind the Kentucky design:
“We had designed the case for the “Kentucky” in the form of a horseshoe so the model would appeal to another client segment we were targeting, the horsey set, and its name was obviously chosen to conjure up thoughts of the annual Kentucky Derby. Personally I think this case was one of the nicest models we ever designed for a chronograph.”
On this occasion, I’m not sure that I agree with Mr. Heuer, as it’s certainly an elaborate design, but one that lacks the classic simplicity of other Heuer chronographs.
When you take a close look at the case, you realise that what appears to be a fairly simple horseshoe shape is actually incredibly intricate, as the profile shots below demonstrate. The top part of the case towards the 12 o’clock position shares the same rounded “soft” form as the Daytona, but as you move towards the base of the case the curves disappear into a bluff, angled wedge.
The overall effect gives the case the horseshoe shape to fit with the name, and allowed the Heuer logo to be mounted on the bottom “face” of the case rather than on the dial. The case is finished with two screws on the upper-case, all of which combines to give the Kentucky a unique look.
The quartz dial is relatively conventional, wearing the Heuer shield in the “usual” position and a modern “QUARTZ” script above the date window. The narrow, blocky rectangular hands are typical of those used by Heuer in the late 1970s and are complemented by matching applied hour markers. The quartz dial has double lume dots- one set on the outer-edge of the hour markers, and then another set mounted on the flange/ rehaut.
The chronograph dial has the now-familiar 7750 layout of counters at 12-6-9 and day-date windows at 3 o’clock. There are a single-set of lume dots, which unusually are placed on the inside of the shortened hour-markers and a tachy scale on the flange. Oh, and this is one of the very few occasions that you will see a Heuer model that does not show the Heuer shield on the dial.
The hour and minute hands are the same as the quartz model, but the central chronograph hand shares its design with that offered on the Monaco/ Carrera/ Autavia.
Bad news if you like leather straps- there is only one option with the Kentucky- a 22mm steel bracelet that is integrated with the case. Actually, the bracelet is the same as that used on the Chronosplit and Manhattan and comes with a locking pin and an adjustable, engraved clasp.
The Heuer Kentucky Series
The Kentucky series consists of three broad model types- automatic chronograph, analogue quartz watch or and a digital quartz, with all models sharing the same style case.
The page above is from the 1978 Heuer catalogue and shows the four options in the chronograph range- two stainless steel models (Black or Blue dial) and two Gold plated/ Steel models (Silver dial or Black).
The most common version you’ll find today is the Silver dial bi-metal model, with the Black dial models especially hard to find.
By the time the Kentucky was launched, the impact of quartz watches was being fully felt by the Swiss watch brands, and many of the new watches introduced by Heuer offered quartz variants. The Kentucky was no exception, with both analogue and digital quartz models sold- let’s first look at the three analogue quartz models, which are all steel/ gold-plated.
We’ve featured the digital quartz Kentucky a while ago in a post about Heuer’s digital watches. There are two digital models, a very-hard-to-find model with two screens and a more common model with a single LCD screen. Note that both of these watches carry the marking “Assembled in Switzerland”, as the module for the digital movement was manufactured in the US.
Heuer Kentucky 102.713
Announced in 1973 with watches launched the following year, the Valjoux 7750 is one of the legends of Swiss watchmaking. In fact, we wrote an entire post on the history of the 7750 in Heuer and TAG Heuer watches that you can check out here.
The 7750 was fitted to all the Chronograph models and features the Heuer shield on the rotor.
There are two movements in the digital models, with the more common single-screen Kentucky using Heuer’s own Calibre 105 as shown below. Note the amusing number of Jewels in the Cal. 105 photo below!
The Problem with the Kentucky
As suggested at the start of this article, there was a problem with the Heuer Kentucky- the integrated bracelet has a habit of snapping off, and can’t easily be replaced. Jack Heuer tells this story in his book:
“In 1977, our production was severely disrupted when two of our key suppliers unexpectedly went bankrupt…the other supplier which suddenly went bankrupt was La Centrale, an old established case-maker in Bienne. For years they had been amongst our regular suppliers and we had just given them the order to produce the cases for our new “Kentucky” chronograph…. The bankruptcy court authorised us to retrieve all the semi-finished “Kentucky” cases and I will never forget how one of my managers and I entered La Centrale’s gloomy, boarded-up factory to collect the cases. It was a spooky and very demoralising factory visit. We then took these half-finished cases to another of our case-makers and begged them to finish them. Of course they were not happy to do this, but we insisted and they eventually agreed.
When we finally received the finished cases we discovered a fault that caused the integrated bracelet to break off easily from the case and we had to return quite a few cases. We therefore made just a limited number of chronograph versions of the “Kentucky” and they are now much sought after by collectors. But we also used the same case to house a simple digital quartz movement so we could also have a lower-cost quartz watch in our range.”
This is not to say that all Kentuckys are faulty, but it does highlight the need to be careful. The integrated bracelet on the Heuer Daytona suffers from similar issues, although it appears as though the Kentucky is more fragile.
Collecting the Heuer Kentucky
While the prices of Heuer’s early 1970s models have increased over the last few years, later 1970s models such as the Kentucky are bargains. At the time of writing, USD2,000 should buy you a pristine chronograph, with the quartz watches about half of that. Of course, you can pay less for examples that need a little TLC.
But the outlook for these watches appreciating is also likely to be modest. Despite the interest in the Carrera/ Autavia/ Monaco/ Silverstone models, some of the contemporary models of the Kentucky (Pasadena, Daytona, Cortina) have not seen the same increase in value. But don’t take this as being all bad news, as the lower entry price make these a great way to start an interest in vintage Heuers.
Be careful when buying any of the quartz models, as they need to be cared for correctly- especially the Calibre 105 models. Even the ESA modules, which are significantly more durable, don’t respond well to batteries being left in too long. The 7750 movement is obviously simple to repair, given that TAG Heuer still use the movement today, albeit with some changes.
The Kentucky was discontinued from the Heuer range in 1980, with the last year of sales mainly focused on the analogue quartz models. For those looking to move beyond the “usual’ vintage Heuer models, the Kentucky is certainly worth checking out in more detail.
Design Kentucky horseshoe- Jasper Bitter, Classicheuer.de
Kentucky Black Quartz: principioedonistico
Bracelet Clasp: El Padre
Black Steel & Gold Kentucky- Juwelier Fine ART/ outlet moers-jf
750.705G and image of 7750: Amer Sibai
Black Kentucky chronograph: Tino Valentinitsch
Catalogue pages: Jeff Stein
Champagne Quartz: Skitalets/ WatchUseek
Dual-Screen LCD: LED-forever
Kentucky single LCD: Jan- http://www.chronocentric.com/forums/chronotrader/index.cgi?md=read;id=9809
Calibre 105 module: sportmichael
Damaged Kentucky- Kaplan Auktioner