Vintage Heuer Chronographs – The Real Winner At Le Mans
Cars & motorsport

Vintage Heuer Chronographs – The Real Winner At Le Mans

Beyond the inherent absurdity of owning numerous watches, watch collectors engage in some unusual behaviors. One of these habits that appears abnormal to normal people is called “watch spotting.” For vintage chronograph collectors, the highest form of watch spotting occurs in racing movies. 

By Jeff Stein
Special Contributor

From the movies “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans” in the golden age of motorsports to the modern movies that celebrate this era, watch enthusiasts may miss some of the action on the track, while they primarily focus on the wrists of the racers.


Heuer at Le Mans

With the release of “Ford v Ferrari” on November 15, 2019, the watch spotters came to life. “Ford vs. Ferrari” tells the story of the collaboration between car builder Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale).

From 1960 to 1965, Ferrari had been dominant at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning all six races. Ford Motor Company wanted to buy the Ferrari company, and when Enzo Ferrari declined the offer, Henry Ford, Jr. declared war, announcing that he would dedicate the vast resources of the company to defeating Ferrari at the 1966 race. Henry Ford, Jr. subsequently hired Carroll Shelby to build the fastest cars on the planet; Shelby retained Miles to drive one of the beasts; success came with the Ford GT-40s taking the top three places in the race, with the Ferraris finishing 8th and 10th.

And so the question – which watches for Matt Damon, in the role of Carroll Shelby, and for Christian Bale, playing Ken Miles? When we think of timepieces for motorsports in the 1960s, Heuer was the dominant brand. Racers wore Heuer chronographs, crew members used the stopwatches, rally navigators used the dashboard timers, and race organizers used Heuer timing equipment. In the 1960s, we saw Heuer timepieces being used in top international events, such as Formula One, endurance racing (Le Mans and Daytona), and the international rallies, as well as in top racing series in the United States -- such as the Indianapolis 500 and various stock car races.

Given this deep historic connection between 1960s motorsports and the Heuer brand, it is not surprising that the costume design team for “Ford v Ferrari” contacted TAG Heuer with the request for watches to be worn by the actors, as well as stopwatches to be used in the pits. The heritage team at TAG Heuer responded with a selection of timepieces from the period, with a white-dialed Carrera being selected for Matt Damon and a black-dialed Autavia being selected for Ken Miles.

Christian Bale (as Ken Miles) – Heuer Autavia

Introduced in 1962, the Autavia was Heuer’s chronograph for AUTomotive sports and AVIAtion. Defining features of the 1960s Autavias were black dials with contrasting white registers, a rotating bezel with a choice of markings, and a stainless steel case that was waterproof to 100 meters. The Autavias were offered in both two and three register models.

The dials used in the first models are easily recognized by their oversized registers (sometimes called “Big Subs”) and the cases had wide bezels, marked in either hours, minutes or decimal minutes.

The version of the Autavia worn by Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari” was introduced by Heuer in 1968. In this model, Heuer switched to a third execution of the Autavia dial, with smaller registers than the first models, and the screw-back case had a narrower bezel. Hands have gone from the dauphine shape of the earlier models to simple “stick” hands.

This version of the Autavia was notable in being the first Heuer chronograph to offer a tachymeter bezel, as an option for the customer. The tachymeter bezel is especially useful for the racer or navigator, allowing the conversion of elapsed time over a measured distance into the speed attained by the racer over that distance. Cover one mile in 26.7 seconds, and you were driving 135 mph.

Matt Damon (as Carroll Shelby) – Heuer Carrera

If we define a sports car as an automobile in which every element makes it go fast (or at least look fast), then the Carrera would be Heuer’s sports car. Introduced in 1963, dials were clean, with thin markers replacing the previous numerals and the hash-marks for minutes and seconds moved from the dial to the inner bezel (tension ring). The Carreras featured stainless steel cases with strong, angular lugs. Like the Autavia, the early Carreras was offered in both two and three register models.

On the first generation of the Carrera, the registers were always the same color as the dials, meaning white registers on the white dials and black registers on the black dials. Around 1970, the Carrera received the “contrasting registers” treatment, with both “Panda” (white dial with black registers) and “reverse-Panda” alternatives.

The Carrera worn by Matt Damon in “Ford v Ferrari” (Reference 7753 SN) is one of the models that was introduced in 1970, having a white dial and black registers. The movement was also changed from the previous Valjoux 92 to the Valjoux 7730, so the chronograph has 30-minute capacity, rather than the previous 45-minute capacity. In this newer model, the markers on the dial have become wider than the simple ones on the earlier Carreras, and a black stripe is added to the hands to match the inserts in the markers.

The “Continuity” Question

Watch nerds have looked at Bale’s Autavia, circa 1968, and Damon’s Carrera, circa 1970, and criticized the selection of these models for a movie that focuses on events occurring in 1966. We can defend the choice of these watches, on a couple of grounds. Looking at Damon’s Carrera, we can say without any doubt that the contrasting registers provided a bolder look than the earlier Carrera dials.

The fact that the watch was so visible on the screen confirms this point. As to Miles’ Autavia, this second execution case was worn by world champions Jochen Rindt and Mario Andretti, so the racing pedigree is strong. Finally, the scarcity of the earlier Autavias and Carreras, and the fact that they may sell for two or three times the price of the later models suggest that TAG Heuer may have been more inclined to ship out the later models.

Of course, the same way the watch nuts watch “Ford v Ferrari” and may be critical of the use of watches from 1968 and 1970, the “car guys” study every detail of the cars and the track scenes. From tire profiles to lug nuts to exhaust sounds, to scenes that were shot at racetracks that did not even exist in the 1960s, it’s easy enough to pick at the details of any movie.

So too, the movie is studied by the sunglasses guys and the hat guys.

Maybe that’s when we should remind the car guys and watch guys, and anyone else who may be looking for trouble, to relax, buy yourself a bucket of popcorn, and enjoy a wonderful movie that tells a fantastic story. Well done, “Ford v Ferrari”; well done, TAG Heuer!

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