Named after the track that hosts Italy’s most prestigious auto race, TAG Heuer’s latest Monza has recently notched a victory at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
Words and Photos by Jeff Stein
This past September, TAG Heuer hosted the first Heuer Collectors Summit of the Jean-Claude Biver era, at company headquarters in La Chaux-de-Fonds. TAG Heuer will launch its new Autavia chronograph at Baselworld 2017, and one of the highlights of the summit was a first look at the new Autavia for collectors and media. The evening before the introduction, Jean-Claude Biver welcomed collectors, offering remarks providing context for the new timepiece.
A passionate collector of fine vintage watches himself, Biver began by addressing the vexing topic of how today’s watch brands should go about developing timepieces that draw upon a brand’s portfolio of historic models. He said that TAG Heuer will not copy its historic watches, for this would detract value from the originals. TAG Heuer will not be re-issuing any of the vintage chronographs that appeared on many wrists that night. Instead, the company would draw inspiration from its unique history, and create new timepieces for today’s market that will themselves build value over time. Rather than a re-issue or homage, the new Autavia would be what he called a “re-inspiration,” drawing from the best Autavias of the 1960s. And with any luck at all, TAG Heuer’s new customers will become tomorrow’s collectors, joining the group at future summits.
Biver’s remarks regarding the relationship between Heuer’s historic models and today’s novelties provide a fitting introduction to the 40th Anniversary Monza Titanium chronograph. Introduced at Baselworld 2016, this Monza is the first of TAG Heuer’s historic models to be relaunched under Biver’s leadership, and it may show us what lies ahead for other models. The new Monza utilizes design ideas taken from two historic Heuer models—the automatic Monza chronograph of the late 1970s and an obscure cushion-case chronograph from the mid-1930s.
Heuer introduced the Monza in 1976, but to understand this model, a glance back to 1969 is necessary, for this is when Heuer introduced its first lineup of automatic chronographs: the Autavia, the Carrera, and the Monaco. In order to accommodate the new Caliber 11 automatic movement, all three models used new cases. The Monaco was square, the Autavia had a rotating bezel, and the Carrera was the most conventional, with a simple C-shaped case just large enough to house the new movement.
In 1971 and ’72, Heuer introduced its second generation of automatic chronographs with the outrageous shapes of the Calculator, Montreal, and Silverstone. Introduced circa-1976, Heuer’s third generation of automatic chronographs—which included the Daytona, Cortina, and Jarama—pulled back from the excesses of the early years of the decade. The shapes were more conventional and the colors more muted.
The Monza was part of this third generation, introduced in 1976 to celebrate Niki Lauda’s 1975 Formula One World Championship, which gave Ferrari its first Constructors Championship since 1964. Fittingly, Lauda clinched it with a third place finish in the Italian Grand Prix, at Monza, which was won by Clay Regazzoni, also driving for Ferrari.
With its size and shape, the 1976 Monza chronograph was almost identical to the first automatic Carrera from 1969. It was the finish of the case, however, that earned the Monza its place in the Heuer catalog—and in Heuer history—by being the brand’s first automatic chronograph to use a black-coated case. The black coating had a brushed finish on most of the surfaces, with only the narrow bezel being polished.
Over its life, the Monza models used two movements, the Caliber 12 (offering 12-hour chronograph capacity) and the Caliber 15 (offering 30-minute timing). Toward the end of the model run, Heuer added a line of chrome-coated cases, and the name “Monza” was deleted from the list of economy models.
The other source of inspiration for the 40th Anniversary Monza was a relatively obscure chronograph from the 1930s. In the 1936 Heuer catalog, we see a distinctive cushion-cased chronograph with a chamfered bezel. This was the era before Heuer began using model names or even reference numbers for its chronographs, and we know this watch only as Forme C, as shown on page nine of the 1936 catalog.
Though infrequently used by Heuer, the cushion-case is an elegant solution to an inherent design problem that troubles any wristwatch—the watch will rest on an area of the wrist that is essentially square, while the rotation of the hands suggests a round dial. The cushion-case addresses this conflict, with a chamfered bezel forming a prominent podium to display the circle-in-the-square of the dial and hands.
Drawing on these two historic precedents—themselves spaced 40 years apart—the Monza returned with a distinctive shape and style. Starting with the basic form of the original Monza, the 40th Anniversary edition takes design cues from the best elements of the 1976 model. The 1976 Monza employed a black-coated finish on a brass case, while this year’s Monza takes advantage of advancements in materials and uses a grade-five titanium case coated with titanium carbide. To suit modern styles, the case has grown from 38.5 mm across the dial in 1976 to 42 mm today.
Mimicking the original Monza, the 40th Anniversary model uses a brushed finish for most surfaces of the case, with a brightly polished bezel providing contrast. Major design elements of the dial and hands are inspired by the 1976 Monza. Both dials are black, but the matte paint of the vintage model now yields to a sunray finish, radiating from the center of the dial. Both Monzas use red accents, including the chronograph second hand, the small hand for the running seconds, and stripes on the chronograph minute recorder. TAG Heuer evokes the vintage predecessor through the warm tone of the lume plots that mark the hours, which match the inserts in the main time-of-day hands. Both models incorporate tachymeter scales on the flange, measuring from 60 to 220 miles or kilometers per hour. Pulsation scales are calibrated from 60 to 200, marked along a bright red line.
My pet peeve with the vintage Monza (and its Carrera predecessor) was the thickness of the Caliber 12 movement yielding a relatively chunky watch, and with the deep caseback causing the case to ride high on the wrist. Although the case of 2016’s Monza is larger than its older sibling, measured across the dial and from lug-to-lug (49.4 mm versus 43.8 mm), the new Monza is slightly thinner (13.2 mm compared to 13.6 mm). The construction of the caseback and lugs allows the watch to rest nicely and have a lower profile than the vintage original.
The caseback of the new Monza is held in place by four screws, which should remind Heuer-holics of the rugged construction of the brand’s Bundeswehr pilot chronographs from the 1960s. The plastic crystal of the 1970s Monza yields to an anti-reflective sapphire crystal on the new model, with the domed shape providing its vintage feel.
Over the years, the names of many Heuer chronographs have been taken from racing venues, including the Monaco, Daytona, and Silverstone. Built in 1922, Autodromo Nazionale Monza is the home of the Italian Grand Prix. Monza has earned the sobriquet “The Temple of Speed,” as the site of Formula One records for highest speed, closest finish, and most passes. The name Monza is also associated with more than its fair share of racing tragedies, being the track that claimed the lives of Alberto Ascari (1955) and Count Wolfgang von Trips (1961), along with two beloved heroes of the Heuer world, Jochen Rindt (1970) and Ronnie Peterson (1978). The brushed black cases of both the vintage and modern Monzas evoke the raw emotion of motorsports, with the red accents showing the energy and danger of the sport.
As I was wearing the 40th Anniversary Monza for a few days, I glanced at the vintage Monza, resting comfortably in the corner of a desk drawer. Yes, this was the watch that inspired the team at TAG Heuer, but as I admired the bold case and vibrant colors of the new Monza on my wrist, the original one now appeared a bit dull and monochromatic. In thinking about the original Heuer Monza and new 40th Anniversary Monza that it has inspired, I considered of the words of Da Vinci, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master, poorer is the painting which does not excel the sketch.”
If the 1976 Monza served as a sketch for this year’s version, then to my eye, Biver and his colleagues have well exceeded their vision. And with this being the first model to be created as a “re-inspiration” of the classic models, vintage enthusiasts can look forward to many more exciting new reinterpretations going forward.
Jeff Stein is an Atlanta-based attorney and an expert collector of vintage Heuer watches. His web site, onthedash.com, is a leading informational resource for collectors interested in Heuer.