In 1970 at the racetrack of Le Mans in France, a young property master put six photographs of leading race drivers of the period on the desk. Without hesitation, Steve McQueen pointed at Joseph Siffert’s picture and said, “I want to look like him [for the filming of Le Mans].” No sooner said than done, a range of Heuers were brought to the set for Steve McQueen to pick. Unsurprisingly the king of taste chose the most unusual design, a Monaco with a glaring blue dial.

The Monaco reference number 1133 B is decoded thus: ‘11’ for Calibre 11 (the newly developed automatic-chronograph calibre); ‘3’ stood for Monaco line; the second ‘3’ indicated a steel case and finally the ‘B’ was the suffix for a blue dial.

Technically, it was not short of revolutionary. A monocoque caseback embedded the movement and had four notches on the outsides at 12 and six o’clock. The top-case held a square glass with a rubber seal underneath. The two pieces clicked in place and made the unusual construction waterproof.

Siffert getting ready for a race, with Heuer logos on his suit and car.
Siffert getting ready for a race, with Heuer logos on his suit and car.

Jack Heuer said to me during a working dinner some time ago: “You know, back in the old days all sports watches were round. Our watches were all waterproof. When my supplier Piquerez presented their new waterproof system for this square case design, I just asked for exclusivity and gave it a go!”

Heuer called the new Monaco in their period advertising materials with a Swiss sense for understatement simply: “Avant-garde. Le seul cronographe automatique carre du monde!” (Translation: “Avant-garde! The only square, automatic chronograph in the world!”) Aligned to the name and very promising was the second tagline: “Monaco — partout a sa place: aussi bien au volant d’une voiture de course formule 1 qu’a la soiree de gala du Casino!” (Translation: “Monaco — has a place both at the wheel of a Formula 1 race car and a gala evening at the casino!”)

Heuer called the Monaco ‘Spielgefährtin’ (playfellow) in a German ad. In the US a graphic explained why the winding crown moved to the left side (automatic and therefore no need for winding). The same ad stated that the Monaco was designed by a famous Swiss stylist! Maybe a young Gérald Genta or Richard Sapper?

During the mid ’60s the average watch size was between 34 and 36 mm. Hence the style of the Monaco hit a conservative watch world like a bomb, polarising to say the least, a kind of love or hate relationship for most until today.
Beyond any doubt, the design was bold, edgy, with alternating brushed and polished surfaces as well as convex and concave sides.

The utterly striking case was eye-catching and big at 40mm by 40mm. The so-called Steve McQueen version from 1970 revealed a stunning blue dial. Depending on light conditions and angle the blue could change from indigo to steel or from sapphire to midnight in glimpse of a second.

Steve McQueen styled like Joseph Siffert for the Le Mans movie, with a Monaco 1133 B on his wrist.
Steve McQueen styled like Joseph Siffert for the Le Mans movie, with a Monaco 1133 B on his wrist.

As a long time Monaco owner, I have learned wearing the 1133 B can be highly addictive. Most watch aficionados know the feeling when you get caught, looking at your watch all too often, struggling to be held for an unfriendly fellow.

The Heuer Monaco had an outstanding design paired with technical excellence but I believe it was too avant-garde for its time. It wasn’t universally loved, similar to another outstanding product with wheels and clutches: the Porsche 911 Turbo 3.0l. Presented in 1974, at peak of the energy crisis. The first production turbocharged Porsche showed an eye catching design with its flamboyant rear spoiler and widely flared fenders. As a descendant of the 917 it was styled like a race car, slightly adapted to street use and recommended to skilled drivers only. Soon after launch, the 911 Turbo was nicknamed the “Widow Maker”. Unsurprising then, that petrolhead Steve McQueen ordered a 911 Turbo for his stable.

The author in the driver’s seat of a one-off Porsche 911 Turbo that belonged to the owner of Martini Racing, Gregorio Rossi di Montelera, with a Monaco on his wrist.
The author in the driver’s seat of a one-off Porsche 911 Turbo that belonged to the owner of Martini Racing, Gregorio Rossi di Montelera, with a Monaco on his wrist.
New Challenges

But back to watches… Heuer enlarged the Monaco range with a manual wind version and an appealing three sub-register dial configuration. For me, it was a real sleeper, a fantastic watch with all the goodies, featuring a running second as well as 30-minute and 12-hour totalisers. A year later, another automatic Monaco with a striking silver dial and small running second at 10 o’clock broadened the portfolio.

Rare Heuer Monaco with three registers on the dial
Rare Heuer Monaco with three registers on the dial

Meanwhile, the Quarz Revolution raised dark clouds over the Swiss watch industry. Heuer made a final attempt with a black coated Monaco reflecting an industry trend initiated by a car designer called Ferdinand Alexander Porsche. Sadly, the Monaco’s production ceased only five years after its promising start.

Steve McQueen lost his battle against cancer in 1980 and Jack Heuer had to leave his company in 1982.

In the meantime, the Heuer company was controlled by TAG (Techniques d ’Avant Garde) and renamed as TAG Heuer. All new products after the takeover carried the new logo showing TAG above the Heuer shield.

(Just as a side note: TAG had a stake in McLaren Racing and financed the development of the Porsche F1 engine. Former Heuer sponsored Ferrari driver Niki Lauda won in 1984 his third World championship title on McLaren/Porsche.)

Would the Monaco have revived without ambassadors?

In 1998 I was living in Paris working as a marketer for one of the big luxury companies when an invite for a Heuer Monaco launch event landed on my desk. I went and loved it! Steve McQueen was chosen as a testimonial and back on display. So far so good. The stainless steel case was redesigned, fitted with a black dial, which was only Heuer Monaco branded with the TAG logo. The case was smaller and showed a more reduced design. All in all, a perfect fit for the ’90s, where minimalistic designers like Helmut Lang had their peak success. The production of the new Monaco was limited to just 5,000 pieces.

Then in 1999, a very interesting Heuer Monaco made in a very limited run of only 120 pieces was introduced for the Monaco Grand Prix that year. A step ahead was the 40th Anniversary limited edition, a tribute from Jack Heuer to Steve McQueen in 2009. The lovely blue dial and the return of the silvered horizontal indexes was in my humble opinion a leap forward. The hands had large luminous inserts for improved readability like the vintage original.

TAG Heuer Monaco Steve McQueen Limited Edition
TAG Heuer Monaco Steve McQueen Limited Edition

The 40th Anniversary Monaco looked less prominent on the wrist than the original 1133B from 1969. This was mainly due to the smaller case dimensions at the sides. The crown was more integrated and hence better protected, compared with older Monacos. The new pushers are great to use, even better than the old ones. (Does Patek Philippe have a similar supplier for the Nautilus Chronograph?)

The Steve McQueen tribute was a great overall package limited to 1,000 examples. This was particularly important for collectors seeking a vintage look, coupled with the new caliber 11 movement.

During the last 10 years TAG Heuer has created such an impressive portfolio. Chapeau! I have the honest feeling that one technical masterpiece follows the other. They have been real pioneers of the watch world, endeavouring to find the best new ideas and solutions to drive forward-thinking designs, many of which have been fronted in the Monaco line. Take for example the V4, a belt-driven system developed by the manufacture. (Incidentally, I’d highly recommend visiting the fantastic TAG Heuer museum for more information.)

TAG Heuer Monaco V4 Titanium
TAG Heuer Monaco V4 Titanium
The Monaco at 50

2019 is a very special and interesting year for the Heuer Monaco. Ongoing celebrations and new products mark the 50th anniversary.

The brand will launch five different models during the year, each limited to 169 pieces which means a total of 845 pieces. So far, my personal favourite is Watch 1 (representing the 1969-1979 decade). Under the magnifier the green dial is an absolute gem, beautifully executed with incredible attention to finest detail. The colour coding is very appealing. All steel hands correspond nicely with yellow markers topped by red lume dots. The sub dials have a sunburst finish which adds an additional twist. The Monaco logo seems slightly enlarged with a thicker serif font. (The 1133B dial also had serifs.)

The Monaco 1969-1979 Limited Edition (Image © Revolution)
The Monaco 1969-1979 Limited Edition (Image © Revolution)

On Watch 2 (Time period 1979-1989) my favourite feature is the shape of the two sub dials. The bright red dial has a nice sunburst finish contrasting well with the horizontally grained subdials.

TAG Heuer Monaco 1979–1989 Limited Edition “Le Mans” (Image © Revolution)
TAG Heuer Monaco 1979–1989 Limited Edition “Le Mans” (Image © Revolution)

Watch 3 (Time period 1989-1999) reminds me on one hand of the Monaco Reference 1533 with the silver dial. On the other hand, the dial with its textured finish has a very artisanal touch, a bit like stone prior to refinishing. The square red circle reflects the case design. ‘Monaco’ and ‘Chronograph’ are in larger fonts, perhaps suggesting the watch’s iconic milestone as the world’s first waterproof, automatic chronograph watch. All this is guesswork. I am pretty sure TAG Heuer will provide some more information rather soon.

Monaco 1989–1999 Limited Edition (Image © Revolution)
Monaco 1989–1999 Limited Edition (Image © Revolution)
'00s-inspired limited edition Monaco (Image © Revolution)
'00s-inspired limited edition Monaco (Image © Revolution)
Monaco 2009–2019 Limited Edition (Image © Revolution)
Monaco 2009–2019 Limited Edition (Image © Revolution)
The complete TAG Heuer Monaco limited edition series created for the watch's 50th Anniversary
The complete TAG Heuer Monaco limited edition series created for the watch's 50th Anniversary

I am a vintage watch man for whom the original was always the best choice to have. I’ve always found it very difficult to find good honest vintage pieces. As a consultant for the English auction house Bonhams I have had many vintage watches in my hands, but perfect Monacos are scarce finds today.

The market for Heuer has become more and more mature with a lot of information available. Due to fast rising prices, new timers are more appealing today than ten years ago. The Monaco still is a very emotional watch with great history and a portfolio full of possible variations.

After 50 years the Monaco has a matured offering, a large range spanning from a vintage collector’s dream to an entry model for a summer trip to the Côte d’Azur.

This year I returned to the Monaco Grand Prix. I drove down pass the Italian border, stopped at the Corniche to inhale the sea breeze and paused for a moment full of enjoyment. I looked at my old blue Monaco Reference 1133 B and thought to myself: it’s good to be back to see the Race of Races!