Very little is truly new in the world of Swiss watches. Take the Calibre S movement introduced in 2007, which combined the reliability of a quartz movement with a mechanical chronograph module of an automatic Calibre. Innovative? Sure, but we’ve been here before, as TH itself had a similar movement in the Calibre 185 used in the 1980s. The titanium case of today’s watches? Again, a technology first used almost 30 years ago.
I was reminded of this recently when I was looking at the first Formula 1 series from 1986. Here was an entry-price TH watch made of low-cost materials (Fibreglass case, rubber strap) and launched with innovative packaging (a cardboard and plastic sleeve replacing the traditional watch box) to offer a watch at a lower price than traditional TAG Heuer and Heuer watches.
The Formula 1 series has been a huge hit (more than 3 million were made between 1986 and 2000), but the company had used the same basic recipe before with the Easy-Rider in 1971.
Unlike the Formula 1, the Easy-Rider was not a great success- yes, the watch was far less expensive than other Heuer models of the day, but sometimes small cost = big problems. And the Easy-Rider did create big problems, not only for owners, but ultimately also for Heuer-Leonidas.
The Easy-Rider Series
The Easy-Rider was launched in 1971 and stayed in the Heuer range until 1974/5. The watch was developed as a low-cost model to fight off the growing wave of Japanese quartz watches. To give you some idea of the relative prices, the watch sold for around $50 in 1973, while a Monaco would set you back $190.
So how did they sell a watch for this price? Mainly through the use of low-cost materials. The case was a Fibreglass resin (Chromium plated on some models), while the movement was a manual-wind Pin-Pallet movement from Ebauches Bettlach.
There were two distinct models in the series- the Leonidas Easy-Rider and the Jacky Ickx Easy-Rider, which was the top of the range.
The Ickx model had a Chromium-plated case and featured Jacky’s name at 9 ‘clock and his signature at 3 o’clock, with the “Easy-Rider” name sitting at 6 o’clock. There is no Heuer logo or name on the watch.
The standard watch was available in four bright case colours, with the option of Tropic Rubber strap or a metal bracelet. Again, there is no Heuer logo or name on the watch, instead using the Leonidas brand.
These models are not Chromium plated and have the Leonidas name as 9 o’clock and “Easy-Rider” at 3 o’clock.
There was a second variant of the Leonidas Easy-Rider line- the Yacht-themed Skipper model, which you see above in bright blue. As well as having the Yacht timing sub-dial, the Leonidas logo moves to the right-hand side of the dial on the Skipper.
So, who is Leonidas? Leonidas was a well-known Swiss watch company that was bought by Heuer in the 1960s to create Heuer-Leonidas S.A. I guess that Heuer recognised that offering an entry-level watch was a risk to the Heuer brand, and so decided to Leonidas instead.
As you can see on the photo above (one of Paul Gavin’s beautiful photos), the Easy-Rider had a one-piece Fibreglass case that could only be opened from the front of the watch (you had to remove the crystal and dial to get to the movement).
Heuer would later use the same principle on the Temporada model, which had the same basic case construction.
The case design itself could only come from the 1970s, with its unusual ovoid shape that was very similar to the Omega Dynamic of 1969.
The Leonidas version of the watch was sold in a plastic sleeve that wore the Heuer logo- the only sign to the uninitiated that Heuer was involved- while the Jacky Ickx version was sold with a replica Ickx helmet.
Overall, I think the design is great- if you like the 1970s. It looks perfectly “of the era” and there are enough design links with other watches in the Heuer range (e.g. the hands and dial design) to make this feel like a proper Heuer. No, the problem with the Easy-Rider wasn’t the look, it was what was inside.
A Pin-Lever, or Pin-Pallet, movement is more typically found in alarm clocks or kitchen timers. Instead of using a lever escapement, as most Chronographs do today, the system uses the vertical metal pins that you see above. This type of movement is much simpler- and cheaper- to make, but the metal pins have much higher friction and wear out faster.
The result of this was that the watch suffered from poor reliability, especially from customers who were more accustomed to the reliability of the Chronomatic Heuer movements.
The problem was partly down to expectations. You’ll read many quotes on the internet from watchmakers who “won’t touch” these movements and complain that they’re too difficult to repair. This may be true, but the reality is that these movements were never designed to be repaired, and Bettlach didn’t make spare parts. The idea was that the movement was simply thrown out if it broke or needed to be serviced and a new one put in.
Whether that was a good idea is another matter, because Quartz watches may not have had the romance of mechanical movements, but they were reasonably reliable. The reality is that in 1971 the Swiss watch making industry was still getting its head around what to do about Quartz, and so a cheap mechanical movement was seen as a way of fighting back. Giving customers throw-away movements that only lasted a couple of years wasn’t a great long-term decision.
So, who was Jacky Ickx, the man who lends his name to the Chrome Easy Rider? Ickx entered Formula 1 in 1967 and finished second in the World Championship in both 1969 and 1970. By 1971 he was the number 1 Ferrari driver- which was also the first year that Heuer started to sponsor the Ferrari team.
Despite starting the 1971 season as favourite, it was ultimately a frustrating season for Ickx, as was 1972. Jacky left Ferrari in 1973 for a procession of other teams, and never quite got back to the top of Formula 1. But today, Jacky Ickx is best known for his results in a category other than Formula 1: Jacky Ickx was the King of Le Mans.
Ickx won the Le Mans 24 hour race 6 times (a record which was only broken by Tom Kristensen in 2008), the last of which was in the famous Rothmans Porsche 956 in 1982.
Heuer was not the only watch-brand to have a partnership with Ickx. At the same time as Heuer launched its Easy Rider, another Swiss watch company- Sorna- launched its Jacky Ickx Easy Rider, both companies having licenced the right to Jacky’s name.
I’m not sure how both watches ended up with the same name, or the link between the two watches- both use the same movement.
Leonidas Hobie Cat
There are at least three other versions of the Easy-Rider that were made, including this version, which was sold by Hobie Cat, the company that makes the small sailing Catamaran of the same name.
The Hobie Cat version is essentially the same as the Leonidas-badged watch, but with Hobie Cat’s name and logo on the dial
This next version is more of a mystery. The script on the dial says “Mathey Prevot” (although it does look more like “Mathey Brevot”). I’ve searched for other Mathey Prevot watches, but turned up nothing. I wonder if the watch is linked to “Mathey-Tissot”, which to add to the confusion has nothing to do with Tissot of Swatch. Any information welcome!
Finally, Heuer also made this version for the US Department store Sears- essentially a Jacky Ickx watch with a slightly different dial.
Looking Back on the Easy-Rider
It’s hard to talk about the Easy-Rider and not focus on the quality problems. Yes, the Chrome plating can wear off quite quickly, but most complaints focus on the movement.
You’ll read in some places that the watch wasn’t “a true Heuer”, which is wishful thinking! It was a Heuer, but one made down to a cost, and the implications of meeting that cost was that the quality was poorer than customers expected.
It’s quite common to see NOS versions of the watch for sale, and if you buy one with the expectation that this is a cool slice of 1970s nostalgia to be enjoyed for a couple of years, then you’ll have something quirky and interesting. Those expecting to use the watch regularly and pass it down to your Children, are likely to be disappointed.
So, while TAG Heuer may have picked up on the basic idea of the watch when it introduced the Formula 1 in 1986, the execution was far better, and you see plenty of 25-year old Formula 1 watches today, still ticking along. So, think of the Easy-Rider as a good idea, but one that shows that if you’re going to make a low-cost watch, you’re better off with a quartz movement.
– Leonidas Easy Rider- Paul Gavin: http://www.heuerworld.com/
– Sorna Bullhead: http://www.theretroworld.com/jacky-ickx-bullhead-watch-by-sorna/
– Ickx Ferrari: http://70swatchesgallery.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/sorna-chrono-5-crowns-siderule/
– Bettlach movement: http://70swatchesgallery.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/sorna-chrono-5-crowns-siderule/
– Mathey Prevot: Bikemaster: http://uhrforum.de/heuer-chrono-handaufzug-t57566
– Sears Chronopgraph: Mika Ruottinen-http://sometimeagofinland.com/watches/MR%20Sears%20chrono/index.html
– Omega Dynamic: AJ Brown- http://forums.watchuseek.com/f74/what-ugliest-watch-you-like-287428.html
– Heuer Catalogs- onthedash.com
– Leonidas Hobie Cat: Mark/ 1mustang1967