Le Mans is a place of legends. Car marques live or die by the ‘trial by ordeal’ that is ‘Les 24 Heures du Mans’ at the Circuit de la Sarthes on the western side of France. Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Ford, and Porsche have all created their reputations (and legends) winning the race; often multiple times.
There are movies about the race; one is due for release this coming Fall (Ford v. Ferrari). But arguably the one that most people think of is the 1971 film simply named after the race. It created legends across the board: Steve McQueen as a racing driver in his own right, the start of Porsche’s involvement and later dominance in the 1970’s; but for once, the instillation of a watch – named after another race – as a racing chronograph. Steve McQueen’s choice of wrist wear for the movie “Le Mans” was the new TAG Heuer Monaco. An avant-garde design of chronograph, something he felt that his character: Michael Delaney would wear.
Heuer Monaco Chronograph
By 1969, Heuer chronographs had already gained acceptance and respect from most of the top racing drivers of the day. The likes of Ronnie Petersen, Jo Siffert, and Jacky Icyx were seen wearing the watches that came with a variety of names. Jack Heuer had built a reputation on chronographs with modern designs and aesthetics. Jack Heuer took his inspiration from motor racing. Initially from Carrera Panamerica race that resulted in the Carrera chronograph. In 1969, a motor race was another inspiration: Monaco.
What set the Monaco apart was both the appearance – a square cased chronograph with a blue dial – and a water-resistant case. It was avant-garde and new. So much so that initially, the watch was not popular! Since that film, the watch has become iconic and legend. And this year, to celebrate a half century since the launch of the Monaco, a series of five limited editions will be launched.
The limited editions will have one watch for each decade; and each limited edition will be truly limited in number. We were invited to Le Mans, where arguably the Monaco legend (paradoxically perhaps) was born to launch the second in the series of limited editions. The first limited edition was launched at the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix back in May. One month later, give or take, the racing motor racing world and the TAG Heuer team assembled in near the Circuit de la Sarthe.
The launch of the watch, at Château de la Groirie, was an entertaining and heart felt affair. Derek Bell, Patrick Dempsey, and Chad McQueen were all on hand; Jack Heuer chimed in via video. Entertaining is an understatement. Jack Heuer was humorous and engaging about the name for the new chronograph and why it was chosen. He chose the name Monaco for the new square shaped chronograph because it sounded sexy and alluring! And when he was asked to supply chronographs for props for the movie “Le Mans”, he sent the Monaco because it had not been selling well up to that point and he thought it needed some exposure. That idea sure worked!
Steve McQueen, who wanted his “look” for the movie to be based on Jo Siffert, decided on white overalls with the same badges; one of which was “Heuer Chronograph”. Once the racing look had been decided, McQueen set about choosing a watch. Initially he chose the Omega Speedmaster – it was “The” chronograph at the time because of the recent moon landing. But on seeing the Monaco, he decided it was just the kind of avant-garde and maverick watch design that a driver such as Patrick Delaney, his character in the film, would wear.
For all his achievements at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Derek Bell is both charming and modest. One of my boyhood heroes, he seemed to be perennially on the podium at the end of the day and night around Le Mans and now right holds the title of “Motor Racing Legend”. He owns and wears a TAG Heuer Monaco.
His stories of racing and filming at Le Mans were as humorous as they were hazardous. Filming a movie about motor racing in the early 1970’s involved taking your life in your own hands to get the shot. Equally, driving a balanced race car with a 70mm film camera hanging off the side or end of the car and being asked to drive at race speed is hazardous. Humour came in the form of almost killing Steve McQueen.
McQueen was so concerned with getting the best filming sequence, that when asked to direct the racing scenes, he took to actually lying on the race track on the racing line! Bell and Siffert only just avoided killing him – and themselves in the process. Derek Bell also pointed out that in his days of racing at Le Mans, before the large sponsorship and mobile racing team pavilions, the race teams would hire chateaus like the Château de la Groirie to stay at, to house everyone, and to work on the cars.
Patrick Dempsey’s enthusiasm for racing is all too obvious for anyone who spends anything over two minutes talking to the man. Not only does he race himself (he finished second at Le Mans GTE Am in 2015), but he also runs the Dempsey Proton Team (GTE Am class) and grew up next to Carroll Shelby – who is racing royalty. As a brand ambassador for TAG Heuer, Patrick Dempsey (who incidentally has his own vintage Heuer Monaco from 1972) arrived wearing the new Monaco limited edition watch.
He pointed out that the dial was a racing red colour – making the watch stylish and noticeable on the wrist. The dial also has “Monaco” and “Heuer” at the top of the dial as with the original watches.
Dempsey also pointed out that the watch was so iconic to both watch history and motor racing; along with movie product placement. It is difficult to think of an earlier example where the placement of a product led to such a change in demand and status.
Le Mans: the Movie and the Race
The evening was rounded off, not surprisingly, by a showing of the ‘Le Mans’ film in the cinema room. Despite the half century since it was made, and its current cult status, the camera work and the filming of the racing sequences was innovative and stands the test of time: as does the Monaco chronograph that was part of the film.
TAG Heuer are the timing partner for the Aston Martin Racing team so the rest of the stay was given over to residency at the AMR pavilion. Sadly, the Aston Martin race cars did not make it through the night. Despite qualifying well in the GTE Pro class, the cars were off the pace from the start, and in the end, the attempt to keep in contention cost them.
Video: Le Mans 2019 Pre-Race Parade Lap (1m 16s)
A truly wonderful and entertaining weekend. Le Mans continues to be the ultimate test of car, driver, and time itself. You are always measuring yourself against what remains of the 24 hours you were presented with at the start. Le Mans legendary status, and the legends the race creates, still remain.
The TAG Heuer Monaco chronograph being one of them.
Andrew K.G. Hildreth is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, and Freeman of the City of London. A lifelong enthusiast and collector of watches – it was the first thing he asked his parents for when he was four years old. He has written for a number of publications on watchmaking and haute horlogerie (along with photography, fountain pens, and vintage cars – especially Bentley).
When not writing and talking (endlessly) about watches, he travels around the world occasionally indulging in his favourite tipple: a gin and tonic. His watch articles can be found in PuristSPro (AndrewH_219), Revolution, The Rake, The Telegraph, GQ, MensHealth, Hodinkee, WatchesbySJX, Watch Journal, QP, iW Magazine, The Hour, Twelve, or Calibre.
His gin article was published on AlphaLuxe.
You can also follow him on Instagram: @andrewh_219