By now you may have read that TAG Heuer has called its newest in-house chronograph movement the Calibre 1969. We’ve told you that 1969 was a pivotal year in the history of TAG Heuer, but who better than Mark Moss to bring you in detail a look back at the year that everything changed- 1969.
Yes. We have covered the 1960s already in our occasional history series. But 1969 is a particularly significant year, so we thought it worthwhile to highlight it individually with its own article. There were significant world events in 1969. Your author was born. And mankind landed on the morning or something too, which seemed to garner much more coverage in the press. Presumably because it happened first I suppose…
We’d left Heuer in pretty rude health in our ‘60s article. The Autavia and Carrera were going great guns and the Camaro had just been introduced to round out the range, offering a Heuer chronograph for those who wanted a cushion case. Jack Heuer (below) was a confident hand at the tiller and, while electronics were making inroads into timing (including those made by Heuer), the threat of the quartz crisis was still distant.And yet there was soon another battle to be fought, both at home and abroad. But this wasn’t another of Heuer’s last ditch defensive fights, it was an attempt to break some new ground in horology. We have perhaps become accustomed to this now with a series of innovative haute horlogerie watches from TAG Heuer, but here we’re talking about a period where Heuer knew what they were doing with the mechanical chronographs and stopwatches, and did it very well but where the real invention and innovation was happening more with HTEC on the electronic side. This battlefield was one where Heuer, as one of the major Swiss makers of chronographs, knew it would have to take to the field. It did, and it brought some allies.
Automatic watches had been around for a while. We saw Heuer dip its toes into that market in the ‘50s and, though it later withdrew from time-only watches, they still sold for the less specialist watch houses. The early “bumper” automatics were refined to make movements with rotors that were subtler in their approach, and smoother in operation. Some offered so-called “microrotors”, to allow for a smaller, slimmer movement overall. Automatics were being offered by traditional movement manufactures, rather than just through automatic specialists.
Some time around the mid-1960s, various entities in the watch industry started to think seriously about how to put an automatic movement in a wrist chronograph. And those thoughts all started to culminate in 1969.
On one front was Zenith, a true manufacturer of its own movements, although not one traditionally known for chronographs. On another was Seiko, which had produced Japan’s first automatic, and was keen to get its products seen by the wider world. And in the final corner, a 4-way partnership of Heuer, Breitling, Büren and Dubois-Depraz.
The former two are well known of course. Büren was a movement manufacture of some standing, with a line of notably thin automatics. Dubois-Depraz made modular complications that could be added to movements to offer additional functionality, including chronographs. The slimness of the Büren micro-rotor movements made it possible to overcome an inherent drawback of the modular automatic chronograph, its height, a tricky problem even to this day.
Even though Dubois-Depraz had confirmed it would be possible, Heuer was not able to fund the development alone and Jack Heuer called in Willy Breitling to share costs across the two watch houses. Büren joined the programme and the Chronomatic “team” was now complete. Although the team had a somewhat unexpected substitute join the bench when Hamilton acquired Büren.
Below are two images showing the final movement- the Calibre 11. The first photo shows the components that made up the base Büren movement…
…while the second image shows the Dubois-Depraz chronograph module that was mounted on the Büren base.
Zenith showed a handful of working prototypes in January 1969 (having initially wanted to launch an automatic chronograph much earlier), mindful that the Chronomatic group were planning to show a number of watches at Basel in April. To mark this, the movement ended up being called the “el Primero”. Pressing ahead, and already having had a larger number of prototypes than Zenith had shown, the Chronomatic group showed off a number of them at events in Geneva and New York in March.
They again showed many different models containing the Chronomatic movement the next month in Basel. One of the visitors to the stand was the President of Seiko, who congratulated the group on the first automatic chronograph. Before Seiko themselves shortly made examples to the public! Perhaps at this remove, it is fairest to call the race an honourable draw.
So what did Heuer show to the public? New versions of the Autavia and Carrera, in thicker cases without the prominent lugs of earlier models. The real eye opener though was arguably the first showing of the Monaco, the world’s first waterproof square-cased watch. Albeit this was more an achievement of the case supplier Piquerez than Heuer themselves, but Jack Heuer was able to see the potential of this development and saw it as a good match for the forthcoming Calibre 11 movement, as he told David a couple of years ago:
We were working for 3-4 years on this Calibre 11 movement, the world’s first automatic chronograph, and we knew that would be a major event. Our Swiss chronograph exports starting tumbling, because in the late 1950s the automatic watch became the call of the day. Knowing this, we prepared in 1967-8 the line that we would be launching in 1969 for the Basel fair.
So we decided to make a Carrera, because the Carrera was already a very good model in non-automatic. We made it in self-winding, but this movement [Calibre 11] was quite a bit thicker, so we had to change the shape a little bit. And then we decided that we need something for our Automotive-Aviation market, so we made the Autavia and we said now we have covered our key markets, why don’t we do something a little more “out-of-the-box”?
In those years it was the case makers, such as Piquerez who were the creative people. They would have a designer who would make dummies in brass, in a softer material to see how we liked it. So, one day he comes with a square, waterproof case. And he said, “look I have a patent on this waterproof square case,” which had a new system.
Chronographs when they took water, it was a terrible drama because everything rusted and it cost a fortune to get clean. Once they had invented the water resistant push-buttons, we never made any non-water-tight chronographs any more and therefore would couldn’t play with the shapes, because square watches weren’t really water resistant. He had a very clever system, so I negotiated with him an exclusivity- that was my point. I had the exclusive rights in the chronograph market for the square case, as I wanted something that Breitling or somebody like that couldn’t take suddenly.
So, he gave me this exclusivity and then we launched the product [the Monaco]…and it was basically a failure!
– Jack Heuer
The Chronomatic Heuers
These first publicly available versions of the Calibre 11 watches feature the name “Chronomatic” at the top of the dial above the Heuer shield, with the series name now relegated to the bottom of the dial. Interestingly, some of the early press materials seem to show that the prototypes had just the Heuer shield at the top of the dial, with the Chronomatic wording at the bottom. None seem to have been generally released in this form.
Willy Breitling wanted to use the Chronomatic name on his Breitling watches (albeit rendered as Chrono-Matic) and so reached a gentleman’s agreement with Jack Heuer that the Heuer watches would feature instead the wording “Automatic Chronograph”. As a result, the Heuers with Chronomatic on the dial attract a considerable premium over the much more readily available later versions.
Below is the press release that Heuer Time Corporation in the USA sent out to announce the new Chronomatic models.
Heuer announces The Carrera Chronomatic
The Autavia Chronomatic and The Monaco Chronomatic.
Heuer Time Corporation is adding three Chronomatics to its line of stopwatches, chronographs and electronic timers. The Chronomatic is the world’s first automatic Chronograph. It was developed through the Combined efforts of three Swiss watchmakìng firms. Heuer-Leonidas (The parent company of Heuer Time Corporation), Hamilton-Buren (a subsidiary of Hamilton Watch Company) and Breitling (The parent company of Breitling Watch Corporation of America.) The Heuer line of Chronomatics is virtually identical from a functional point of view with differences concentrated about the dial and case configurations.
The Carrera Chronomatic is a fifth-of-a-second recorder with a 30 minute register, a 12 hour register and a calendar. It is available with a Tachymeter dial which is calibrated to give the speed of a vehicle over a measured mile. Calibrations are for speeds from 60 to 300 mph. The Autavia Chronomatic is also a fifth-of-a-second recorder with a 30 minute, a 12 hour register and a calendar. It comes with an external bezel which allows for telling time in two zones, or for setting estimated times of arrival.
The Monaco Chronomatic is also a fifth-of-a-second recorder with 30 minute and 12 hour registers and a Calendar. It is the style leader of the new models. The Monaco is unlike the Carrera and the Autavia Chronomatics in that its case and dial are the currently voguish square configuration.
All these Chronomatics feature two pushbuttons on the right side with winding crown on the left. All three are shockproof, anti-magnetic and water resistant (as long as crystal , crown and pushpieces are intact.)
The Chronomatics are made of stainless steel and come with our soft Corfam straps. They are also available with stainless steel bands.
The Carrera Chronomatic will sell for about $150.00. The Autavia Chronomatic will sell for about $175.00. The Monaco Chronomatic will sell for about $200.00. Shipments of the new Chronomatics to the United States are expected to begin in late Summer of early Fall 1969.
Initially, there were four Chronomatic models available.
Heuer Monaco 1133B
A blue-dialled Monaco, 1133 B, with a propensity for the blue paint to fail over time and be replaced by various coppers and bronzes.
Heuer Carrera 1153N
A charcoal-dialled Carrera, 1153 N, which seems to be considerably rarer than the Monacos and Autavias.
Several silver Carrera Chronomatic dials with gold dial furniture have turned up, so there looks to either have been prototype 1158 S Chronomatics or an extremely limited release. Some of the release materials also mention a silver-dialled Carrera, so there may also have been an 1153 S, although this has not been seen by the Heuer community to date.
A black-dialled Autavia, 1163 MH.
Heuer Autavia 1163T
And finally, a white-dialled Autavia, 1163 T.
This latter Autavia has become synonymous with its most famous wearer, the Swiss Formula 1 driver Jo Siffert. We have written more on Jo in an earlier article.
His eagerness to sell Heuers to his fellow F1 drivers (and make a profit in the process!) helped spread awareness of the marque and was rewarded with a contract from Heuer themselves. Unfortunately, that was cut short by his untimely death two years later and Heuer sponsorship became much more obvious on the Ferrari cars and drivers, but “Smokin’” Jo had taken some of those first steps with Heuer earlier.
Next, the roller-coaster ride of the 1970s!
The History of Heuer
Catch up on the history of TAG Heuer by reading each of the previous four chapters below.
- History of Heuer I: Foundation- 1920s
- History of Heuer II: 1930s and 1940s
- History of Heuer III: 1950s
- History of Heuer IV: 1960s
Read more about the history of the Calibre 11 at On the Dash
A big thanks to Richard Crosthwaite and Paul Gavin for their permission to use their great Chronomatic photographs- the Monaco 1133B, the Carrera Chronomatic and the Autavia 1163MH.
You can see more of Paul’s photos here.
While Rich’s work can be found here.