The Heuer Monaco: Since 1969

When talking about Heuer’s groundbreaking Monaco 1133, many watch aficionados refer to it simply as the ‘McQueen Monaco’. The watch has been inextricably linked with Steve McQueen since he wore one in his 1971 motor-racing film ‘Le Mans’. But while the story of how the Monaco 1133 became a part of Hollywood history is well-known, it’s only one strand in the development of the Monaco as a watch that came to define an era.

The Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix is one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events, famed not only for the glamour associated with the race and its location on the city streets of Monte Carlo, but also because of the undisputed challenge it presents to even the most skillful drivers.

Jack Heuer, who in 1962 had taken control at his great-grandfather’s watchmaking firm, instinctively recognized the world of motorsports–particularly its celebrity drivers–as a potentially lucrative business venture. In 1968, the F1 sponsorship ban was lifted, and Heuer became the first non-motorsport sponsor. Heuer had begun a firm friendship with an F1 driver, his fellow Swiss Jo Siffert. Siffert was often seen bearing the Heuer logo on his jumpsuit and wearing the company’s Autavia models, which he enthusiastically promoted to his fellow drivers in return for a salary from Heuer.

Steve McQueen, Jo Siffert, and Derek Bell on the set of Le Mans

Steve McQueen, Jo Siffert, and Derek Bell on the set of Le Mans

At this time Heuer, under Jack’s leadership, was entering one of its most creatively fertile periods. In the watch world, a race with intensity to rival any Formula 1 championship was underway: to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph, for which a number of watch brands were carrying out top-secret R&D. Heuer, in what was at the time considered an unusual move, had partnered with Breitling and smaller manufacturer Buren to combine resources, and by 1968, this venture–enigmatically codenamed Project 99–bore fruit.

For the 1969 Basel World Fair, Heuer launched three models featuring its Calibre 11 automatic chronograph movement: the Autavia, the Carrera, and the Monaco, Heuer’s tribute to the Monaco Grand Prix. Rival firm Zenith had actually announced their own automatic chronograph a few months earlier, but had received nowhere near as much coverage. Certainly, though, Heuer and Breitling were a lot closer to market release.

Vintage ad for the Calibre 11 in the Carrera, Monaco, and Autavia

With the Autavia and the Carrera, Jack Heuer figured he had his bases covered, and wanted to think a little out-of-the-box for his third model. In 1968, the case-maker Piquerez had approached Jack with an over-sized square design featuring round, fluted pushers. Previously, square chronographs had a reputation for rusting easily, but the Monaco 1133 would be the first waterproof model ever released. – Heuer seized the opportunity to trademark an avant-garde look, proof of Jack Heuer’s farsighted flair for creativity.

So, although there is dispute over who was the first to release an automatic chronograph, Heuer can at least definitively claim it was the first brand to put one in a waterproof square casing.

Calibre 11 movement inside a Heuer Monaco ref. 1133B

Jo Siffert now re-enters the story. He had become friends with Steve McQueen, and was acting as an advisor on the star’s latest project, the epic F1 drama Le Mans. McQueen, a self-professed watch-nut, was intent on a realistic performance and to that end, he wanted to replicate Siffert’s look beyond his overalls.

Steve McQueen & Jo Siffert on the set of Le Mans

Siffert, often associated with the Autavia, naturally suggested a Heuer watch, and Jack Heuer was invited by the film’s producers to visit the set and bring along a few models. The Monaco was not considered a ‘racer’s watch,’ but rather a more versatile timepiece suited for formal and informal occasions. But, because the film’s producers needed three versions of the same watch, and the only model Jack had three of with him was the Monaco, so it was that McQueen appeared in Le Mans sporting a Monaco 1133.

Steve McQueen with a Heuer Monaco on the set of Le Mans

Le Mans bombed on release, and the Monaco 1133 fared little better, partly due to its radical appearance, with its square case and its crown needing to be placed on the left because of the Calibre 11 movement. The watch can also feel a little uncomfortable on the wrist for those unused to it. Both the film and the watch have, however, been critically assessed over the years, and McQueen’s blue-dialed Monaco has become in-demand among collectors.

The Monaco was discontinued in the 1970s with the arrival of more accurate Quartz watches, but it was reissued in 1998 with a new design after Heuer–which had narrowly escaped going under in the 1980s–was bought by Techniques d’Avant Garde and became TAG Heuer. 2003 saw another version with a new mechanism, this time restoring the iconic blue face. To mark the Monaco’s 40th anniversary in 2009, TAG Heuer faithfully reproduced the original design, right down to the placement of the crown and the hour markers.

Echoing Jack Heuer’s evolutionary ethos, new editions of the Monaco continue to be released, but most experts and collectors would agree that the original 1133/b will always remain the benchmark against which all Monacos must be measured.

Images Credits: Header, 3, 6-7; Crown & Caliber. 1; HODINKEE. 2; Monochrome Watches. 4; OnTheDash. 5; Solar Productions/Cinema Center Films.

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