This is the story of a very special 1960s Carrera, a watch that belonged to a Hollywood legend who not only starred in one of the most famous motor racing films of all time, but was also the owner of a racing team that competed at Le Mans and Daytona. This is the story of James Garner’s treasured Heuer Carrera.
For years it has been known that Garner wore a Carrera in The Rockford Files, but what confused collectors was the mysterious text on the dial. Much speculation has been tossed around about the watch on various watch forums, because the blurred photos and screen caps made it impossible to clearly read the inscription.
But the answer is a simple one- printed on the dial is the actor’s name, just below the two sub-dials.
Garner was from the golden age of Hollywood, starring in countless movies (Grand Prix, The Great Escape, Murphy’s Romance and- for younger readers- The Notebook) and television series such as Maverick and The Rockford Files. Good looking, down-to-earth, Garner was one of Hollywood’s most loved leading men. He was also close friends with fellow petrol-heads Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, with the trio encouraging each others fascination with cars and speed.
Pulling together the threads of this story has drawn on the global community of Heuer collectors and enthusiasts, from the initial discussions that Jonathan Scatchard of Vintage Heuer in England had with James’s daughter Gigi, through to these great photos taken by Carlo Stepanians in Hollywood and the expert eye of Mark Moss who helped identify the likely source of the printed dial.
Grand Prix and AIR
Before Le Mans, there was Grand Prix, the 1966 movie directed by John Frankenheimer that tells a fictional story of the rivalry among four racing drivers vying for the Formula 1 World Championship, including American racer Pete Aron played by James Garner. The film broke new grounds in cinematography, with footage recorded from actual Formula 1 races, as well as roles and cameos by drivers including Formula One World Champions Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt and Jack Brabham. Other drivers who appeared in the film include Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Joakim Bonnier, Bruce McLaren and Jo Siffert.
Filming commenced in 1965 at the most famous European circuits, with the finished film released in late 1966 becoming one of the top-10 grossing films of the year, in the process winning three academy awards and rescuing an ailing studio.
During the filming, Garner did much of his own stunts and driving, training with Shelby Cobra driver Bob Bondurant and impressing those around him with his natural ability behind the wheel.
As a result of Grand Prix, Garner’s interest in motor racing increased, inspiring him to found the “American International Racers” (AIR) racing team from 1967- 1969, with his cars racing at Daytona, Le Mans and Sebring.
And it’s during this period of James Garner’s life that he began to wear a watch also synonymous with motor racing- a Heuer Carrera 3647N.
Garner’s Carrera 3647
It seems likely that James Garner’s Carrera dates from around 1966, the main clue being around the engraved Heuer Stopwatch in the photo below, a birthday gift from “a friend of the bank president”. Whether the Carrera was given to Garner at the same time, we don’t know, but the time frame seems to fit, given that this is not a first generation Carrera from 1963-4 given its dial markings and broader hands.
The stopwatch itself was used by Garner to time his race cars, with his daughter recalling her father using the stopwatch at the races in Riverside and Ontario.The watch itself is in amazing condition. This was no museum piece- it was James Garner’s favourite watch and he wore it most days, both on-screen and off-screen. But despite almost 50 years of regular use, the watch’s beauty still shines.
This is a reference 3647N Carrera, meaning a two-register dial with a 45-minute counter at 3 o’clock. It’s a beautifully balanced dial with its solid black dial and white highlights, including the hands and the inner flange.
Inside the watch is the hand-wound Valjoux 92 movement, which remains in pristine condition. Despite not having been worn for a few years, it only took a few turns of the crown for the movement to leap back to life. Hand-wound movements are one of the true joys of watchmaking, in the same way that manual transmissions offer drivers something quite distinct to the more common automatic movements we see today. And if you need a reason to appreciate manual movements, just take a look at the beauty of the Valjoux 92, with no rotor hiding the gears and wheels.
The James Garner Text
While the mystery of what the text says is now solved, the question of who added Garner’s name is still unclear, but there are clues in another watch from the same era- The Heuer Carrera with the MG logo printed on the dial. The story of these custom dials is recounted at OnTheDash:
The “MG” logo and, in some instances, the name of a dealer’s salesman or other employee, was added to a normal Carrera dial by a company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The dial was removed from a stock Carrera, send to the company in Lancaster, and then returned to Heuer, for delivery upon the instruction of MG
If this theory is correct, then it would have been commissioned, or at least arranged, by Heuer North America, which would surely have jumped at the chance to have one of its chronographs being worn by Hollywood royalty.
The Garner Carrera On Screen
It turns out that James Garner ended up with four Heuers, including the stopwatch and Carrera shown in the article and a second Carrera with a white dial worn by Garner below. There is a story that we haven’t been able to verify that Garner had to sell the white-dial Carrera to get out of Mexico during one trip.
So that makes three Heuers..and the fourth? Well, that’s a story for another day.
The Significance of the James Garner Carrera
I was lucky enough to first see this special Carrera back in January, when Gigi Garner and I met for a coffee in Los Angeles. We talked through a few of her father’s watches that she’d brought along before Gig produced a small black bag that contained the watch that I was really there to see- her Dad’s Carrera.
What I love the most about the watch is that it was obviously worn and loved, rather than being a trinket that spent its time in a box. The scuffs on the dial, the small nicks and dents in the case and the replacement strap almost worn through in places make the watch more perfect than an unused example. A real watch worn by a man who lived an amazing life both on-screen and off-screen, and whose genuine love of motorsport made him the perfect ambassador for the Carrera before such a concept even existed. The Carrera was born during the golden age of motor racing in the 1960s and created in the same daring spirit that you can see (and hear- do turn up the volume) in the movie Grand Prix, the same spirit that inspired James Garner to get behind the wheel and race fast cars, even though the studios would have surely preferred that he play golf or read a good book. That’s the spirit of the Carrera.
Photos by Carlo Stepanians- @Heuerfan