Tag Heuer is no stranger to motor racing – most of the brand’s watches have a racing pedigree and design inspired by the sport. But do not be misled that these watches are only for the track. They are every bit proper tool watches as they are trend setters. This Baselworld, they unveiled an extension to their rather extensive Monaco line – the TAG Heuer Monaco Gulf Special Edition.
The most prominent and well-known of TAG racing watches is perhaps the Monaco. Worn and endorsed personally by the King of Cool (who else other than Steve McQueen!), the Monaco is an embodiment of coolness; a timepiece which rejects the status quo. Its square design was outlandish when it was launched as it is today and movement, to say the least, revolutionary (more on that later).
Review: Tag Heuer Monaco Gulf Special Edition 50th Anniversary
The Monaco has seen countless reboots and reiterations, from simple, time only watches to tourbillon-equipped pieces. However, the most popular piece by far remains as the original model 1133B from 1969. The current iteration of the Heuer Monaco is perhaps the closest and most-fitting tribute to the iconic original.
Gulf Oil International is one of the most well-known players in the automotive scene. Combined with Tag’s track record as a racing timekeeper and major sponsor, the end result is quite spectacular. These are they heyday of design, when a set of colours suffice to be the calling card. The Gulf colour scheme has gained fame and notoriety, and now found emblazoned on cars, motorcycles, bicycles, ad infinitum.
The Case, Dial and Hands
First impressions matter and the Monaco stands out immediately with its vintage-inspired design cues: a simple and conventional design, yet one that is thoughtfully executed with caring attention to detail.
The watch is instantly recognisable by its distinct, slab-sided square stainless steel case. It measures 39mm wide and 15mm thick – a tad larger than the 1969 model. Not a small watch by any means, but its thickness is not overpowering, even on smaller wrists. The watch feels robust and sits comfortably on the wrist, though admittedly, it may not slip under cuffs with ease. A overall satin-brushed finish, accompanied by beveled and faceted edges and lugs gives the watch a sporty appearance.
The new Monaco retains much of the original’s hallmarks, placing the crown at 9 o’clock and pushers at 2 and 4 o’clock. The only obvious cosmetic upgrades are its rectangular pushers and thinned case proportions – both decidedly giving the watch a more balanced and sleek appearance. Perhaps the only real changes are the modern material and finishing, which are done to a high engineering standard.
The watch dons a handsome sunburst blue dial which bears close resemblance to its historical counterpart. Its indices layout hark back to the 1969 original, being applied horizontally instead of in a radial manner. The old-school “Heuer” marque is used, and much favoured by collectors, instead of the newer “Tag Heuer” shield, adding to its nostalgic charm. To top it off, the dial is protected by a raised sapphire crystal – the icing on the cake. Simply put, it’s a face purists would appreciate.
This particular watch was created in tribute to their partnership with Gulf. The defining characteristic of the Monaco Gulf are a pair of striking blue and orange Gulf racing stripes. Their colours are identical (see photography note below) to the Gulf livery on McQueen’s iconic Le Mans Porsche 917K. A handy Gulf logo sits at 6 o’clock, above the date window. Finally, a blue perforated leather strap with matching orange stitching completes its racing look, which is fittingly attached onto a “vintage-style” Heuer deployant buckle.
The dial is complimented by a hands set which are similar to its historical counterpart. The hour and minute baton hands and “rocket” seconds hand features distinct red accents, contrasting nicely with the blue dial. They are filled with luminous paint and provides excellent legibility.
Turning the watch over, we find a see-through sapphire crystal case back.
We’d like to address the historical significance of the Caliber 11. The original movement is one of the most important and noteworthy chronograph movements ever created. Jointly developed by Breitling, Heuer, Hamilton-Buren and Gerald Dubois of Dépraz & Cie (presently Dubois-Dépraz), the Caliber 11 is (acknowledged by many) to be the first automatic chronograph ever.
Sidebar: The majority of Monacos sold were equipped with the Caliber 12, which was introduced later to address the Caliber 11’s weaknesses. Despite the change of movement designation, the watch was still referenced the same, as “1133B” – “11” refers to the Caliber 11-equipped pieces. These early Monacos are extremely rare and tend to be preferred by collectors over their updated counterpart.
The base movement was the Buren cal. 1281, to which a Dubois-Dépraz 8150 chronograph module was added. As the Buren movement was not capable of supporting this addition, a few modifications were made, with one of them being a 180 degrees rotation of the main plate. This resulted in the positioning of the crown on the left and pushers on the right – contrary to Heuer’s claims in their advertising campaign.
An interesting aspect of the original movement is its self-winding system. Instead of a large top-rotor, the Buren cal. 1281 utilised a micro-rotor, allowing thickness to be minimised. Additionally, the chronograph module was designed to be serviced independently.
Things are slightly different with the new Monaco. Much to our surprise (some purists may cry blasphemy!), the new watch uses the moniker Caliber 11. Except its not the Caliber 11, but a Sellita SW300 ébauche paired to a Dubois-Dépraz chronograph module. Finishing is done nicely, with haute horology decorations such as Côtes de Genève present. However, it bears no resemblance to the historic movement, save for the branding.
Instead of a micro-rotor, the new movement uses a conventional automatic rotor setup (with clockwise hand winding through the crown). It beats at 28,800 bph (compared to 18,800 bph on the historic movement), and houses a 40-hours power reserve. But the most significant departure lies in the sub dial arrangement: chronograph minutes on the left and running seconds on the right.
There is no official word on the movement change, but an educated guess would be due to a scarcity of older movements. Perhaps a valid argument then would be the choice of not using a in-house movement such as the Heuer 02 caliber found in the re-issued Autavia – especially so at its price point.
The Tag Heuer Monaco Gulf Special Edition 50th anniversary (Ref. CAW211R.FC6401) has a recommended retail price of USD 5,900. Though it may seem rather steep, we have to bear in mind that pre-Biver Monaco re-issues such as the 2009 Heuer 40th anniversary model (Ref. CAW211A) retailed for USD 10,000. Thus, its price will certainly appeal to more fans.
The Monaco’s innovations and pure heritage is impressive, and there are few watches which are able to match up. For readers who are more inclined towards sporty chronographs, we’ve covered some choices over here. Otherwise, we present a non-exhaustive list of timepieces which are capable of one-upping the Monaco’s pedigree.
We begin with the one of the brand’s cult classics – the Heuer Autavia (ref. CBE2110.FC8226). The original watch was fitted with an identical Caliber 11 and featured a similar case layout. It was originally developed for racing, alongside the Monaco and Autavia, and was one of Heuer’s “Big Three”. It has a handsome “reverse panda” dial and is sized at 42mm. Under the hood is the in-house Heuer 02 caliber, beating at 28,800 bph with a 75-hours power reserve to boot. The Autavia is priced at USD 5,300.
Another piece that comes to mind is the Omega Speedmaster Professional (ref. 322.214.171.124.01.005), hands down the most iconic watch on this list and of all time. It features a “no-nonsense” monochromatic tri-compax dial layout, with old school hesalite crystal. Powering the watch is the hand wound Omega Caliber 1861 – a Manufacture Breguet (previously Lemania) based movement, and one that was used by Patek Philippe. The Speedmaster is priced at SGD 6,850.
The Rolex Daytona (ref. 116500LN) is the most “exclusive” and sought-after watch on this list. Launched in 2016, it replaced the ref. 116520 and was deemed by many to be the closest “re-edition” of Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. It is powered by the caliber 4130 – an in-house column wheel chronograph boasting a 72-hours power reserve. The Daytona is priced at SGD 16,660, though, acquiring one might be a challenge.
The Breitling Navitimer can trace its roots to the caliber 11. Originally designed for pilots, the watch is able to calculate speed, distance, fuel consumption and conversion of metric distance – all on the fly. The latest Navitimer (ref. AB0121211C1P1) is powered by the Breitling 01: an in-house automatic chronograph with 70-hours power reserve. It comes in a 43mm stainless steel case, with prices starting at SGD 11,600.
Simply put, the Monaco’s design is an icon in its own right. It stood out from the norm when launched and still makes the same case today. For that reason, we feel that it’s one of the coolest watch of all time. And confirmed by the King of Cool: Steve McQueen himself. Do we need more reasons?
The current iteration retains the nostalgic charm of the vintage model with the same quirky and chunky square case, yet offering modern practicality. The Gulf colors are eye-catching and adds zest to the watch.
If we were to nitpick, it would be that of its date window: we’d prefer that the watch used a metallic date frame, similar to the 1969 original. Additionally, the movement change might not sit well with some, though functionally, the SW300 is a proven workhorse.
All in all we feel that the Monaco Gulf is a tasteful piece which pays fitting tribute to motorsport, and, a nod to the King of Cool himself.
Photography note: the Gulf livery on the Monaco Gulf Edition is more muted than that picked up by the flash photography of the watches. Flash tends to saturate the colours. The colours on the dial is more akin to the daylight photograph of the Porsche 917K.