Vintage Heuer chronographs made between the 1930s and the 1980s are among the finest ever produced. Senior specialist Eric Wind and watch writer Ben Newport-Foster explain what makes them so special
Heuer's roots are found in the small watchmaking town of Saint-Imier in French-speaking Switzerland. The company was founded in 1860 by Edouard Heuer, who in 1887 patented his oscillating pinion, a small vertical clutch that allows a smooth transition of power when activating the chronograph. Still in use today by TAG Heuer and other major watchmaking brands, Heuer’s contribution to the first self-winding chronograph cannot be overstated.
In 1969, as part of a joint project with Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Dépraz to create the first self-winding chronograph, Heuer released the famous Calibre 11 in three watches — the Carrera, the Monaco and the Autavia. Which brand should claim the prize for the world’s first automatic chronograph remains a contentious topic among collectors, but one thing is certain: Heuer’s claims to watchmaking history will never be forgotten. These three watches were a mainstay of the company’s catalogue for many years, and have been a major influence on the design of racing chronographs ever since.
Heuer produced a wide variety of models that suit modern collectors’ tastes. The original Carreras, for example, are the classic definition of racing chronographs and their angular, diamond-polished cases are as stylish today as they were in 1963. The rounded case and thick black bezel of the Autavia still look superb on the wrist after decades, and, some 48 years after its release, the Monaco is still the most iconic square chronograph ever produced. Yet these are just a few of the variety of appealing models and references that Heuer made between the 1930s and the 1980s.
While many modern brands promote their partnerships with sports stars and teams, the need for mechanical chronographs in sports timing has long disappeared. This was not the case in the 1950s and 1960s, however, when many motor racing teams turned to Heuer because of the company’s long history of producing dashboard chronographs. Clipboard-mounted Heuer chronographs allowed race managers to time practice laps, and chronographs became popular with drivers, too: Jo Siffert and Jochen Rindt are forever associated with two Heuer chronographs, the Ref. 1163T and the Ref. 2446. Even Heuer’s most famous watch, the Carrera, was named after the infamous Mexican road race, the Carrera Panamericana.
If there is one element common to all Heuer watches over the years, it is quality. Early Carrera dials were manufactured by Singer, the same company that made dials for Rolex — both dials shared many of the same characteristics, including the hour-marker style and size, as well as the register numerals. With Heuer chronographs being used in professional racing, quality was of paramount importance — Heuer’s watches proved themselves by performing race after race, lap after lap.