I met with a fascinating gentleman last week, a former commercial director for a leading Formula 1 team, who is looking for sponsorship for a historic documentary film about the women who embraced the passion and terror of life in the pit lane during the sport’s most dangerous era in the 1960s and 70s.
He showed me trailers of footage from the movie that, while punctuated with tragedy, portrayed the raw, chaotic, life-on-the edge nature of F1 before modern day billions, much-needed safety measures and noiseless hybrid engines allowed us to watch supine on a sofa rather than chewing knuckles on the edge of our seats.
Wives and girlfriends of drivers were often more than mere terrified spectators, they were part of the team; perched on pit lane walls with stopwatches and feeding that data back to the garages.
They were likely using Heuer stopwatches in those days, perfected by the racing-mad Jack Heuer.
These were adapted into wristwatches with the same stopwatch functionality, starting with the Heuer Autavia in 1962, the Carrera in 1963 and the first self-winding chrono, the Monaco, in 1969.
The Monaco earned a place as a hall of fame racing watch when it was worn by Steve McQueen for the 1971 film Le Mans.
All three Heuer chronograph families are still being produced by TAG Heuer, with the Monaco getting a boost for its 50th anniversary in 2019 with a series of limited editions that were quickly snapped up by collectors, making it difficult for regular customers to get their hands on the iconic model.
That is being put right this month by TAG Heuer with the addition of three Monacos to its core collection, all using the improved and in house developed Calibre Heuer 02 automatic movement with its 80 hours of power reserve.
Accompanying the movement upgrade was the launch of a Monaco on a steel bracelet for the first time in 20 years.
It is this steel on steel Monaco that arrived this week an I have been wearing for a few days now.
There are few watches made today whose history strikes you so immediately. While TAG Heuer’s Carerras have subtly evolved and always seemed in tune with the styles and trends of the time, the Monaco is a monolith that could only have arrived as we entered the 1970s and has endured, unaltered, ever since.
When people see the watch, they want to know what vintage it is and are surprised it is brand new.
This, I think, is the Monaco’s greatest strength, and perhaps its weakness as well; it is a watch that may never have the mainstream appeal of a Rolex Daytona, but I do not believe you love a Daytona in quite the same way as you love a Monaco.
The 2020 steel on steel model wears large on my wrist, despite measuring 39mm x 39mm, a slither smaller than the TAG Heuer Monaco 02 that launched last year. That was the first to use the Heuer o2 movement, in a 40mm case, but worn on a leather strap made it less imposing.
There is nothing wrong with imposing for a watch that even casual watch enthusiasts will recognise across a crowded room.
Steel bracelets are commercial gold right now so it seemed inevitable TAG Heuer would bring one back after a 20 year hiatus.
Bracelets are also a technical, engineering and aesthetic challenge in their own right, and getting them wrong can upset the balance, weight and wearability of a watch.
In this instance, I think TAG Heuer could have embraced the angular architecture of the Monaco a little more. Its rounded links make it comfortable to wear, but feel slightly at odds with the square watch head.
I wonder how it might have looked on a ladder bracelet, like Zenith brought back for its El Primero A384 Revival earlier this year. The square missing links of the Gay Frères design from the 1960s not only would have radiated out from the square watch face, they would also nod to the perforated leather straps on which Monacos are commonly worn.
There are other rounded elements to a Monaco, and the designers of the bracelet may say they were picking up on the shape of the chronograph pushers.
The choice of a butterfly clasp makes the bracelet smooth on the underside of the wrist, but it does mean it can only be lengthened or shortened by removing or adding links using a screwdriver. I have found deployant clasps that can be tweaked for length without tools a handy option.
The sunray black dial has silver sub dials with red hands for 30 minute and 12 hour chronograph counters and a red central seconds stopwatch hand.
Rhodium-plated hours and minutes hands are filled with white Super-LumiNova while seconds are shown at 6 o’clock, just above a small date aperture.
It is a lot of information to present, but everything is clearly legible. It is like the two core functions of the watch, telling the time and measuring time, coexist without getting in the way of one another.
Phd horologists will do more justice to the Heuer 02 automatic movement than I can. It is nice to be able to see it beating through a crystal case back, and will certainly add to this watch’s appeal in an era when offering in house movements is so vital to the authenticity of watchmakers.
People look to the past for comfort in this year of uncertainty, but clipping into this Monaco transports me back to the days of motor racing when injury or even death was accepted as a price worth paying for living life at its most exhilarating.
TAG Heuer Monaco Chronograph 39 mm Calibre Heuer 02 Automatic (Reference CBL2113.BA0644) is on sale now for $6,750.