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Feature: Why TAG Heuer’s Monaco Is The Most Overlooked Chronograph

If one criterion of a truly iconic watch is that you should be able to recognise it from the other side of a room, then TAG Heuer’s original Monaco must be one of the most iconic watches of all time.

This bonafide cult classic from 1969 is one of the most distinctive-looking watches ever made thanks to its square case, petrol-blue avant garde dial and contrasting chronograph registers.

Topping off its idiosyncratic looks are the crown on the left side of the case and weird horizontal hour markers that do nothing to aid legibility but definitely single it out as a horological maverick.

An early generation TAG Heuer Monaco, circa 1970. Image Courtesy of Bonhams

An early generation TAG Heuer Monaco, circa 1970. Image Courtesy of Bonhams

No wonder the actor Steve McQueen (more of whom later) was a huge fan, famously wearing the watch in the 1971 motor-racing film, Le Mans .

Over half a century later, the Monaco has spawned as many versions as Lewis Hamilton’s had tyre changes. Some bear little resemblance to the original at all bar that famous square case. But it has emerged as something of a TAG Heuer talisman, a constant presence in the brand’s catalogue since a re-release in 1997 and then a subtle re-design in 2002 that opened the floodgates to a multitude of interpretations.

That said, we still don’t think it’s a watch that gets as much respect as it deserves.

To celebrate twenty years since TAG Heuer freshened up the Monaco line, let’s shed some light on why it’s one of the world’s great chronographs.

The Great Automatic Chronograph Race

You’ve probably heard the story by now but here’s a recap.

In the mid-1960s the race was on to make the world’s first self-winding chronograph movement. The three contenders were Seiko, Zenith and a consortium comprising Heuer-Leonidas (as TAG Heuer was then called), Hamilton-Buren, Breitling and movement maker Dubois-Dépraz.

The consortium came up with the Caliber 11, a movement that switched the winding crown to the left side of the case and amalgamated Buren’s micro-rotor technology with a Dubois-Dépraz chronograph module to make the watch slimmer.

The race was nail-bitingly close. All three brands showed their new movements at Basel in April 1969 but Zenith had already unveiled a prototype of its El Primero calibre back in January 1969, thus claiming the gold medal.

The celebrated Calibre 11 chronograph movement

The celebrated Calibre 11 chronograph movement

Jack Heuer, the founder’s great-grandson but probably the second most important person in the company’s history, had intended for the Calibre 11 to power the already existing Carrera and Autavia collections. Beaten in the self-winding chronograph race, he sought consolation by making history in a different way.

Teaming up with renowned case maker Ervin Piquerez, a well-known designer of diving watch cases in the 1960s, they created the Monaco, the first waterproof watch without a round case—this shape being far easier to make water-resistant than a square or rectangular case.

As for the Monaco moniker, Jack Heuer had a knack for naming watches and christened this one after the most glamorous race on the Formula One circuit. Alongside the Carrera and Autavia it completed a perfect trio of racing chronographs for Heuer (the Monza was added in 1975) and all three remain in the brand’s catalogue to this day.

McQueen Vs Newman

Rolex’s Explorer II from the early 1970s may be nicknamed the ‘Steve McQueen’—despite no photographs existing of him actually wearing it—but, let’s be honest, no one ever really pictures the late actor with anything but a classic early Heuer Monaco on his wrist.

Steve McQueen wearing a Monaco in the 1971 film Le Mans

Steve McQueen wearing a Monaco in the 1971 film Le Mans

McQueen started wearing the Monaco when he took on the role of racing driver Michael Delaney in Le Mans . He based the character on his friend, Swiss driver Jo Siffert, a consultant and stunt double in the film, copying not only Siffert’s white racing suit but his watch.

Siffert had a sponsorship deal with Heuer but it was purely McQueen’s choice to wear the Monaco and he decided to purchase six identical models, ensuring he had a few handy back-ups in a shoot that involved several perilous stunts.

It was perhaps the greatest bit of free publicity in TAG Heuer’s history.

McQueen died at the age of 50 in 1980 with less than 30 films under his belt, many of them classics. But movies aside, McQueen has become a posthumous menswear icon, the personification of what is known as ‘Ivy League’ style—think button-down shirts, desert boots and chinos.

Chronographs not your bag? TAG Heuer also offers less-complicated versions of the Monaco

Chronographs not your bag? TAG Heuer also offers less-complicated versions of the Monaco

Paul Newman was cool, no doubt, but McQueen was cooler and tougher, entering the movie industry only after serving in the US Marines and working as a Canadian lumberjack. During the mid-1970s he was the most popular and highest paid movie star in the world.

In 2020 one of McQueen’s personal Monacos sold for a record $2,208 million at a Phillips auction in New York, by far the most expensive Heuer ever sold—albeit small change compared to Newman’s Daytona which went for almost $18 million in 2017.

If it was ever proven that McQueen did indeed own an Explorer II, and the watch was located, it would be fascinating to see what it would sell for at auction.

Prism of Innovation

More than any other model, the Monaco is now TAG Heuer’s go-to watch when it comes to showcasing its latest technology. Far from treating it as a sacred object that must never be meddled with, the brand has launched an array of models over the years that conjure up the avant garde spirit of the original.

Among these have been the Monaco 69 whose reversible dial offers both analogue and digital displays, and the outrageous Monaco V4 with a belt-driven movement that looks like one of Max Busser’s crazy designs.

Interestingly, not all models in the Monaco collection are chronographs, giving buyers the option of enjoying a simpler version of the watch while retaining that 1970s aesthetic.

There are even quartz versions and umpteen limited editions with funky racing stripe dials that couldn’t look more 70s if they wore flares and platform shoes.

The newest version of all (below) has a vivid purple gradient dial, and being limited to just 500 pieces will be highly sought after. Nab one if you can!

The latest version with a vivid purple gradient dial

The latest version with a vivid purple gradient dial

The watch is said to be a common sight on the streets of Monaco during race week, when even billionaires swap their Richard Milles for this accessibly priced TAG Heuer, as though part of some Paneristi-style cult.

It’s one of the most affordable, iconic and original-looking chronographs on the market and, quite rightly, its appeal shows no signs of abating yet.

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