Speed Dreamin’: Testing the TAG Heuer Carrera 1887

Speed Dreamin’: Testing the TAG Heuer Carrera 1887

A few years ago, TAG Heuer introduced a new version of its racing-inspired Carrera watch with a brand-new movement. Watch writer and reviewer Jens Koch took the watch, called the Carrera 1887, for a spin.

TAG Heuer celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010. Its most important model, the Carrera chronograph, was introduced less than 50 years ago, in 1964, but has become a recognized classic. The watch is the brainchild of Jack W. Heuer, then managing director at Heuer (which became TAG Heuer after it changed hands in 1985), designed a simple dial and then used the tension ring that presses the Plexiglas against the case from the inside as a design element by printing on it the graduations for the chronograph.

Thus, a classic watch with excellent legibility was born. Heuer, a fan of automobile racing, named the watch after the Carrera Panamericana, or “Pan Am,” Of the 1950s. The Pan Am was a challenging road race through Mexico over 3,000 kilometers of the newly finished Mexican section of the Pan American Highway. (Porsche’s Carrera cars are also named for this race.)

The Carrera watch was initially equipped with the manually wound Venus Caliber 72 but was later replaced by the now-famous Caliber 11, developed by Heuer in 1969, in collaboration with Breitling, Büren and Dubois Dépraz, as one of the first automatic chronograph movements. In the 1970s, the design of the Carrera underwent a series of changes until the quartz crisis caused the model to fall by the wayside.

Since its re-introduction in 1996, the Carrera has become TAG Heuer’s most successful model. The first watches were very similar to the original, but in 2004 their design was updated with a wide, black tachymeter track. In 2008, a new line extension, called Grand Carrera, was added.

The newest Carrera has returned to a simpler form. Its designers have omitted the tachymeter track and graduation markers on the dial and placed them instead, like its predecessor’s, on the inner flange. Otherwise, the hands, markers and understated ripple pattern on the chronograph counters recall the original. The silver rings for the minute and hour counters, first seen on the black-dialed 2002 model, have become a characteristic feature of the Carrera. One change: the date is now placed within the hour counter at 6 o’clock. The design is not as distinctive as one would like for a watch of this status; it probably won’t turn heads from far away. The small-seconds subdial at 9 o’clock has four cross-hair markers with the horizontal lines replaced by the words “Cal. 1887.”

TAG Heuer has accomplished a great deal with this exclusive movement, which has an interesting back-story. The brand obtained the rights to a complete and finished movement from Seiko and now produces it with a few minor technical changes and several design modifications. (TAG Heuer’s initial claim that it was a manufacture movement initially drew some criticism from watch industry insiders.) Caliber 1887 is based on Seiko’s Caliber 6S78, which debuted in 1998 and has been used mostly in the Japanese brand’s high-end Credor mechanical watches, available only in Japan.

When TAG Heuer set out to develop its own chronograph movement, it determined that this Seiko movement met many of its requirements: it is thinner than the Valjoux 7750, has a column wheel and most importantly, a rocking pinion. This type of chronograph clutch is an excellent fit for TAG Heuer, since it was company founder Edouard Heuer who invented and patented it in 1887 (hence, the caliber’s name).

TAG Heuer and Seiko came to an agreement that the Swiss brand would be permitted to use the movement design, which allowed TAG Heuer to save at least two years’ worth of development work, even though the movement still had to be reworked for mass production in order to meet the brand’s goal of making 50,000 pieces annually.

From a design point of view, TAG Heuer left most things unchanged, though it added a few new details, like an eccentric setting screw for adjusting the rocking pinion. The entire escapement, with its balance, hairspring, fine regulator and shock absorber, was replaced with components from the Swiss manufacturers Nivarox and Kif. Even the shapes of the mainplate, bridges and rotor were changed. TAG Heuer manufactures these parts in the town of Cornol at its subsidiary, Cortech. Milling machines from another company, Fleury, use a rather uncommon process to dry-machine brass parts like mainplates and bridges. The omission of oil as a coolant in the process means that the parts do not need to be cleaned between the various processing stages, thus saving time. Cortech uses a robot that places the 39 jewels in the mainplate and bridges. Final assembly takes place in a new TAG Heuer facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds on a semi-automatic assembly line with both manual and fully automatic stations. Seiko is the only non-Swiss company among the 22 suppliers for the movement. Seiko also supplies stamped parts, which it makes sure meet the Swiss standards for the “Swiss made” designation.

Another aspect of the Seiko movement that TAG found advantageous was its reliable, quick automatic winding. This is due to Seiko’s “Magic Lever” system, or double pawl, where the pawl lever is attached eccentrically to a wheel. One pawl pulls and the other pawl pushes the winding gear. This winding mechanism is said to be 30 percent more efficient than a conventional automatic winding system.

The movement’s highly visible column wheel, blued in-house by TAG Heuer, is another highlight. It ensures an extremely smooth-operating start-stop pusher, as in the old Venus column-wheel movements. Plus, the reset pusher requires relatively little pressure.

The rocking pinion was also important. This chronograph clutch, developed by Heuer, has a shaft, or pinion, with a toothed gear at the top and bottom for starting and stopping the chrono seconds hand. While the lower gear is always engaged with the second wheel (which means that the shaft is always turning), the upper gear is engaged with the chrono-runner only when a lever starts the chronograph. This rocking pinion simplifies the chronograph clutch and has proven to be very reliable. A traditional, horizontal clutch is viewed as more elegant, and a modern vertical clutch as technically superior, with the lowest initial jump of the chrono seconds hand during start-up. Still, the rocking pinion in the Caliber 1887 is intended to ensure a quicker start to the chronograph thanks to a larger upper gear with more teeth and a modified tooth profile.

The watch’s hack mechanism and quick-date adjuster make it easy to synchronize the seconds hand with a radio-controlled clock and to set the date quickly. The push-in crown is easy to pull and turn. It takes slightly more than an hour for the date to advance; the process begins just before 11 o’clock and ends just before 12 o’clock.

The movement consists of 320 parts and is nicely decorated. The view through the crystal caseback shows Geneva stripes and perlage on the bridges and rotor, polished screws, and the multi-part rotor with its T-shaped inner section and curved oscillating weight. Only under a loupe can one see processing marks on some polished surfaces. All in all, however, the movement is much more attractive than the Valjoux 7750.

The rate results are also easy on the eye. On the wrist the watch showed only a slight gain of 0.5 seconds per day. On the timing machine — a Witschi Chronoscope X1 — it showed an average gain of +2 seconds per day. The greatest deviation between the various positions was only five seconds, a good value. When the chronograph was engaged, the variation averaged only +1.8 seconds per day. The greatest deviation between the positions was somewhat high, at eight seconds. The drop in amplitude from horizontal to vertical positions was the same whether the chrono was running or not: 34 degrees.

Good rate results are important, but so is good legibility. The new Carrera 1887, unfortunately, is not as well designed in this area as its historical predecessor. Because the hands are exactly as wide as the rings around the subdials and also the same silver color, you need to look carefully to read the time. In the dark, the small amount of luminous material also makes it difficult. Although the hands are easy to discern, the dots of luminous material on the markers are hard to find and the 12 o’clock marker does not stand out in any way. Reading the elapsed time on the chronograph is simpler. Though not visible at night, the silver hands against the black dial are easy to see during the day. The minute hand does not run continuously but jumps ahead every minute.

The large dial and crystal increase legibility. They make the case, at 41 mm in diameter, seem even larger than it is. In contrast, its height is an impressive 16 mm, but the extended lugs and the slanted edge on the caseback and curved bezel camouflage the height very well. Both pushers and the standard, unthreaded crown are sturdy and do not have a lot of play within the case.

The clasp is also very sturdy, as well as solid and easy to open with the two deployant buttons. Unlike a double-folding clasp, this one has only one hinge, which makes it easier to close. Although the clasp may not be particularly striking in its design, it is still quite nicely finished. The bracelet is also well finished but is attached with simple pins rather than screws. The five-part links have alternating satin and polished surfaces, a pattern that is not echoed on the case. And, unfortunately, the bracelet tends to pull the fine hairs on the wrist. Otherwise, wearing comfort is fine, and the few sharp edges on the bracelet and case are not problematic.

The Carrera 1887 Chronograph costs $4,300 on a steel bracelet. This is appropriate for the quality it offers, and, for a watch containing an exclusive chronograph movement with a column wheel, could even be considered a bargain. Overall, fitting this racing-inspired watch with a new engine has been a successful endeavor.

+ Pushers are easy to operate
+ Good rate results
+ Beautiful movement

– Limited legibility

Manufacturer: TAG Heuer, Rue L.-J.-Chevrolet 6a, CH-2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Reference number: CAR2110
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date, chronograph with 12-hour, 30-minute and seconds counters
Movement: Caliber 1887, automatic; 28,800 vph; 39 jewels; Incabloc shock
absorber; Glucydur balance; fine regulator with eccentric; power reserve = 50 h; diameter 29.3 mm; height = 7.13 mm
Case: Stainless steel, curved sapphire crystal with double-sided nonreflective coating, fully threaded caseback with sapphire crystal, water-resistant to 100 meters
Bracelet and clasp: Stainless steel with stainless-steel safety folding clasp
Rate results:
(deviation in seconds per 24 hours, without/with chronograph switched on)
Dial up +4/+4
Dial down +4/+4
Crown up +1/0
Crown down +2/+3
Crown left -1/-4
Crown right +2 /+4
Greatest deviation: 5/8
Average deviation: +2/+1.8
Average amplitude:
flat positions 313° 284°
hanging positions 279° 250°
Dimensions: Diameter = 41 mm, height = 15.7 mm, weight = 160 g
Variations: With crocodile strap and stainless steel safety folding clasp ($xxxxx)
Price: $4,300

Bracelet and clasp (max. 10 points): Good finishing. The steel bracelet is rather simple but the clasp is superb. 7
Operation (5): The pushers and crown are very easy to operate and the hack mechanism and quick date adjuster make setting the watch simple. 5
Case (10): Nicely finished and polished with sturdy pushers and crown 8
Design (15): This attractive watch could have been given a more distinctive design. 12
Legibility (5): Not easily legible: confusing subdial rings and insufficient luminous material. 3
Wearing comfort (10): Comfortable to wear, though the bracelet pulls fine hairs on the wrist. 8
Movement (20): The well-designed chronograph movement with column wheel and quick pawl winding mechanism has appealing decorations. 16
Rate results (10): The rate shows minimal gain and the greatest deviation between different positions is quite small. 8
Overall value (15): The price is reasonable for a watch with these attributes. 13
TOTAL: 80 points

Source: watch time