Our favourite watch in the Grand Carrera range is this one- the TAG Heuer Grand Carrera Calibre 36 RS. The Chronograph offers a bespoke dial design that sets the model apart from the rest of the range.
While the majority of the Grand Carrera range tends towards the “elegance” end of the spectrum, the Calibre 36 model is firmly in the sporting category, with its rubber strap and complex sub-dials which combine TAG Heuer’s “RS” (Rotating Disc) system and “LS” (Linear System).
What distinguishes the Grand Carrera Calibre 36 from other watches in the Grand Carrera range is the Caliper system, an ingeniously simple way of allowing the chronograph to display 1/10th second accuracy. The Calibre 36 movement has always been able to achieve 1/10th second precision, but the challenge has always been how to show this fraction of time on the dial.
The Grand Carrera Calibre 36 set new price boundaries for a TAG Heuer watch (RRP at close to USD9,000) and so I was keen to review one to see if the premium is justified and whether the watch lived up to expectations
The TAG Heuer Grand Carrera Range
Work on the Grand Carrera started in 2004 and it was three years before the watch was released in June 2007. Like many contemporary TAG Heuer models, the series was designed by Christoph Behling. At the time of launch, there were three models in the range:
- Grand Carrera Calibre 6RS (40mm case, date at 6 o’clock; ETA 2895/2)
- Grand Carrera 8RS (43mm case, GMT Function, “Grande Date” at 12 o’clock; ETA 2892A2/ Soprod GMT)
- Grand Carrera Chronograph Calibre 17 RS (43mm case, date at 6 o’clock, Chronograph; ETA 2894/2)
The purpose of the Grand Carrera was to introduce a premium line of TAG Heuer watches, one that grew the Carrera line into premium price points. From a first glance you can see that a special effort has gone into the watch- the dials of each model have applied hour-markers and TAG Heuer logo, Cotes de Geneve finishing on metal parts of the dial and a new bracelet design with improved fit and finish. Every model in the range was COSC certified and featured the Rotating Disc system (hence the “RS”) developed by TAG Heuer, which distinguishes the watch from other ETA-powered watches.
We now know that there was much debate within TAG Heuer during its development on what the new watch should be called. The codename during the early days was “Vanquish“, a name that TAG Heuer would use on the limited edition version of the Carrera Calibre 360 in 2006.
Thankfully, enough people- including Jack Heuer– decided that the name didn’t suit the new mode, and so the name “Grand Carrera” was adopted. The rationale for this was that the watch was a premium version of the Carrera- TAG Heuer’s largest selling model. With the benefit of hindsight, I think its a shame that the Grand Carrera name was used, as the watch is special enough to warrant its own name rather than being an off-shoot of an existing model.
Following the successful introduction of the Grand Carrera, TAG Heuer then announced a special Grade-two titanium version of the watch at Basel 2008- The Grand Carrera Calibre 36 Concept Chronograph. The concept watch took the design of the Grand Carrera series further- a much more “industrial” design with an emphasis on extreme sportiness rather than elegance.
Like the rest of the range, the Grand Carrera Calibre 36 RS uses the Rotating Disc system in place of traditional sub-dials. The disc at 3 0’Clock shows elapsed minutes, while the counter at 6 o’clock shows elapsed hours. On the left hand-side of the dial is a narrow window that shows seconds using TAG Heuer’s Linear System (“LS”)- again a rotating disc that rotates every 20 seconds. From 0-40 seconds the disc shows a black line, while from 41-60 the line changes to red. This means that there is no way of distinguishing between say 11 seconds and 31 seconds- perhaps a case of form over function when combined with a narrow window that can be difficult to read.
The highlight of the dial was the metal bridge connecting the two sub-dials with its Cotes de Geneve finish. From a technical perspective, the key development was the Caliper system, which is reviewed in more detail below.
The watch was released in conjunction with a new concept-car from former Pininfarina designer Ken Okuyama (the K.O 7- below) which borrowed elements of the dial design for its dashboard.
Reaction to the concept watch was overwhelmingly positive, with the watch winning the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2008 (Ultimate Sports Inspired Timepiece) award. Only one year later, the production version was ready.
Released at Basel 2009, the Grand Carrera Calibre 36 RS2 Caliper Chronograph Ti2 was almost identical to the concept watch. As well as the PVD-coated Titanium model (CAV5185), there was also a stainless steel model released (CAV5115). The only real difference between the concept watch and the production model was that instead of having three caliper scales, the production watch has just the one. Just like the concept watch, both versions of the watch use TAG Heuer’s Calibre 36 movement, featuring the Rotating Disc System.
Of the two models, it was always the PVD-version that I preferred, with its rubber bracelet and stealth- looks, it’s a real “statement” watch- but I was to find that view changing as I spent more time with both models.
The 43mm case is beautifully finished- as shown in the photo below which shows the horizontal and vertical brushed finish separated by a polished strip as the case nears the lugs. You have to have the stainless steel version to appreciate this work, as the PVD model has a uniform finish over the entire case. The other aspect of the design that I really like is the finish of the second crown at 10 o’clock- again, standing out more in stainless steel than in PVD.
The Bracelet on the stainless steel watch is again a step ahead of other TAG Heuer models, with a combination of brushed and polished links, but done in a more subtle way than other bracelets of this type. But while the bracelet looks good, I far preferred the rubber strap option, which better fits the sporting character of the watch. The deployment clasp on the rubber bracelet is also titanium, although some have mistaken it for plastic given its light weight.
As noted, the Caliper system is the key technical development of this watch. Once you have timed an event, you turn the second crown at 10 o’clock, which moves the internal caliper bezel. The crown is rotated until the red tip of the second-hand lines up with the red 0 on the caliper scale. What you’re looking for then is a match between the markings on the dial and the markings on the caliper scale- in the second photo below the best match is at “8” on the scale, indicating 8/10ths second.
Once you know how to use it, its pretty straight-forward, but I have to confess that it took me over an hour to work out what was going on…maybe that’s more a reflection on me than the watch.
In summary, I have to say that I loved this watch- although not the one that I thought I would- it was the stainless steel version with the black rubber bracelet which is the highlight for me- the contrast of the black strap and stainless steel works very well in my eyes, while the all-black version just didn’t look as special as I though it would.
The PVD version is the more distinctive of the two and does have the benefit of a lighter, titanium case, but that still wouldn’t be enough to get me away from the stainless steel model. I also think that the stainless steel version will age better over time- all-black models tend to come in and out of fashion…at the moment they are certainly “in”.
So is the Calibre 36 Grand Carrera special enough to justify the premium over the other models in the range? I think it is. While most of my collection is made up of vintage Heuer watches, the Grand Carrera Calibre 36 is the ultimate TAG Heuer- many collectors love the re-editions, but those are a celebration of TAG Heuer’s past- this is the sort of watch that they’ll be making a re-edition of in 20 years time..a truly modern (I’m trying to avoid using the words “avant garde”) watch that is unique from others on the market.
Yes, the second window is too small and not that functional. No, I’m not 100% sure that I’ll love the metal “bridge” in five years time. Yes, it should have a more unique series name than “Grand Carrera” and a model name that is doesn’t fill an entire page. But despite these small issues, the only TAG Heuer that I could see topping this one is the Monaco 24, a model that is designed with the same philosophy- an “industrial”, sporty look that takes iconic Heuer designs and names into the next century.
While there have been no new Grand Carrera models added over the last c0uple of years, TAG Heuer has released a Yellow version of the Grand Carrera Calibre 36 Ti (Ref. CAV5186). While the Black and Yellow combination works quite well, I think we’ll stick with the original.