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50 years of Tag Carrera

  1. The more you read about Stirling Moss’s 1955 Mille Miglia campaign, the more it seems like the single greatest drive in motorsport. Road races like the Mille and the Targa Florio were epic undertakings, unrepeatable feats, not least because they were insanely dangerous, even by the standards of the day.

    But perhaps the deadliest of all was the 1,933-mile Carrera Panamericana, which was launched in 1950 to signify the completion of the Mexican stretch of the Pan-American highway. Among the 132 competitors in the inaugural race were a British actress who had married a Mexican bullfighter, and a Texan lady whose Buick wore sponsorship from a bra manufacturer. But it wasn’t long before the Carrera started attracting Europe’s big guns, both carmakers and drivers. In 1952, the race was split into sports cars and stock-car categories to reflect its growing competitiveness, and future Ferrari F1 world champion Phil Hill lined up in a privateer Ferrari alongside works drivers Alberto Ascari, Giovanni Bracco and Luigi Villoresi. Mercedes, meanwhile, was fielding three 300 SL gullwing prototypes, as part of a live experiment. The car driven by Karl Kling and Hans Klenk would go on to win that year’s race, shirking off an attack by a vulture that smashed into the windscreen, showering the occupants with shards of glass and knocking Klenk unconscious. German sports-car newbie Porsche also began competing…

    Words: Jason Barlow 

  2. In 1953, Antonio Stagnoli’s Ferrari suffered a blow out at 165mph and crashed, killing the co-driver instantly and fatally injuring Stagnoli. Six spectators were killed an hour later, in a separate incident. Two days after that, another Italian driver, Felice Bonetto (The Pirate) told the press he would “be driving until I die”. When his Lancia hit a huge ditch barely an hour later, his words became swiftly prophetic. His friend, the great Piero Taruffi, who had won the event in 1951, found Bonetto, his neck broken. He had no choice but to leave him where he was and continue his own race, which would be won that year by Fangio. In 1954, Ferrari driver Umberto Maglioli managed to average 138mph over one of the stages; a year later, in the wake of the 1955 tragedy at Le Mansin which a driver and 83 spectators were killed, and 120 people injured, the Carrera Panamericana was cancelled.

    That the name lives on is partly down to Porsche, of course, but also Jack Heuer, who had twigged onto the PR value of supplying his watches to the US racing scene, and thrilled to the tales he was told. “I first heard about the Carrera from Pedro Rodriguez at the 12 Hours of Sebring,” he recalls. “The officials were members of SCCA [Sports Car Club of America], voluntary guys, and I supplied them with their timing equipment.” Heuer was working furiously on developing the world’s first self-winding chronograph at the time, and needed a suitable platform to promote its efforts (the Calibre 11 automatic chronograph would arrive in 1969). “We were too small to go full-blast with big advertising worldwide,” Heuer recalls, “so I said maybe we should try PR.”

  3. “The Rodriguez brothers were racing with Ferrari, and they were still so young they were travelling with their parents. Pedro and his brother Ricardo were two of the fastest, smartest and bravest endurance drivers of all time. To hear them talk of the Carrera made my imagination soar. Just the sound of the name itself - elegant, dynamic, easily pronounced in all languages - was charged with emotion. I thought, that’s a good name for a watch.”

  4. CARRERA - THE WATCH

    Heuer knew instinctively what specification his new Carrera watch had to have: an open, legible dial, in a shockproof and waterproof case, one that could withstand the privations of the motor race that had inspired its name. But his imagination was also fired by the emerging modernism of the early Sixties, as seen in the work of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and the thrilling iconoclasm of the pop art movement. The Carrera would blend the new trends of the early Sixties with the chronographical classicism of Heuer’s earlier timepieces. “I was excited by the new forms, materials and techniques just then coming into play,” Heuer remembers. “We wanted to take advantage of these, while [remaining] sober, simple and motorsports driven, classic and timeless.” Since its launch, there have been 10 different Carrera generations.

  5. THE DRIVER - JO SIFFERT

    ‘Seppi’ or ‘Smokin’ Jo’ is one of those drivers whose reputation is founded on more than pure racing results. The son of a poor Swiss farmer, Siffert wheeled and dealed his way into F1, and signed a deal with Heuer in 1969 to become the company’s official brand ambassador - the first non-automotive personal sponsorship deal in F1 history. Siffert had been an unofficial Heuer fan for years, and even had a nice sideline buying the watches at cost price and then selling them to his colleagues in the pitlane. Though more closely associated with Heuer’s Autavia model - known by many aficionados as the ‘Siffert’ - it was Jo’s partnership with Porsche in the world sports-car championship that cemented his legend, and helped elevate Heuer’s Carrera and Monaco chronographs to iconic status. He won both the Daytona 24 hours and 12 Hours of Sebring with Hans Herrmann in the Porsche 907, raced the gorgeous 908/3 Spyder to victory in the Targa Florio, and became synonymous with the 917, and the 917/10 Can-Am cars. So linked was he to Porsche that they even paid for him to race for March (then run by a young Max Mosley) in the 1970 F1 season, to stop Ferrari from hiring him. Having won a glorious F1 victory at Brands Hatch in 1968 in a Lotus 49 for the privateer Rob Walker squad, he was killed at the Kent circuit while racing a BRM in a non-championship event in October 1971. His passing prompted some soul-searching for Jack Heuer. “I had a personal crisis… [Siffert’s] death prompted me to establish some guidelines on how to use racing drivers in our ad campaigns. I decided not to conduct campaigns based on a single driver, but rather to base them on the cars.”

  6. THE FILM STAR - STEVE McQUEEN AND THE MONACO

    Is this the single greatest brand tie-up of all time? Possibly, but when Steve McQueen chose to wear a Heuer Monaco in his 1971 film Le Mans, it was an act of serendipity rather than marketing. McQueen first met Siffert at the Sebring 12 hours in 1970, during the film’s pre-production phase. Along with Derek Bell, Siffert had been hired to teach McQueen how to drive a Porsche 917, and although the prop master had already approached Jack Heuer about supplying watches for the film, Seppi happened to be wearing one of his anyway. When the film’s director, Lee H. Katzin, urged McQueen to finalise his character Michael Delaney’s appearance, he replied, “I want to look like Jo, because he’s a real racer, a real pro.”

  7. THE FERRARI CONNECTION

    In 1971, Enzo Ferrari asked his driver Clay Regazzoni to find suitable timing equipment for the company to use at Le Mans. Jack Heuer did a deal with Ferrari soon after, becoming the Scuderia’s official timekeeper, in F1 and also at the newly opened Fiorano circuit, combining trackside photovoltaic cells with a device called the Le Mans Centigraph. Essentially an electronic keyboard and printer, it could record the times of 15 cars down to 1/1000th second, giving Ferrari a technological edge. From 1971 to 1979, Ferrari legends such as Jacky Ickx, Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve were given solid-gold Heuer watches, engraved with their name and blood type. In 1975, Heuer launched the Chronosplit, the world’s first quartz wrist chronograph with a double digital display. Enzo Ferrari ordered 15 as gifts for friends, with the Prancing Horse logo either side of the LCD. In return, Heuer got its famous red logo on the nose of the Scuderia’s cars.

    “Our agreement with Ferrari was key - it is the biggest marketing coup we ever made,” Jack Heuer remembers. “Ferrari was a myth and still is. I was the same age as Enzo’s lost son Dino, and I just seemed to connect with him. He was a great salesman and a ferocious negotiator. He would always push for more than we could deliver. But the deal was done on the spot and signed with Enzo Ferrari, using his trademark pen with violet ink. A fantastic time.”

  8. TAG HEUER IS BORN. THE McLAREN CONNECTION

    Tag - Techniques d’Avant Garde - is a Luxembourg-based holding company, with interests in technology, aviation and finance. It bought Heuer in 1985 and set about expanding the company’s product line, ambition and technological reach. It also took a share in the McLaren F1 team, formulating and triangulating one of the most enduring partnerships in the sport. Although the group subsequently sold the watch division to luxury goods giant LVMH in 1999 for about £452m, the McLaren and indeed F1 connection has flourished. After Steve McQueen, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna remain arguably the best-known brand touchstones. In the late Nineties, Tag Heuer began reissuing some of its most iconic watches, including the Carrera, the Monaco, the Autavia, the Monza and the Silverstone. A new Carrera, celebrating McLaren’s 50th anniversary, with the Calibre 1887 movement, goes on sale this month.

  9. RUSH

    As well as doing full cinematic justice to the thrill of motor racing, Ron Howard was determined to make Rush as authentic in its period detail as possible. With Heuer famously emblazoned on the mid-Seventies Ferraris driven by Clay Regazzoni and Niki Lauda, all involved decided this was a heaven-sent opportunity. Look closely and you might notice a Heuer Silverstone on Daniel Brühl’s wrist (Lauda), while slightly less historically accurate is the gold Carrera worn by Chris Hemsworth (James Hunt). Original timing equipment was also loaned to the film makers. Jean Campiche, Heuer’s official timekeeper for Ferrari during the Lauda era, remembers the accident at the Nürburgring. “It gave us a very good sense that his will had almost no limits,” he notes with some understatement.

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