Porsche and TAG Heuer – together, at last
“We have been flirting for decades, more than a half-century, but at last the relationship is going public.” It’s an unusual way of characterising an automotive-horological partnership. But the more you think about it, the more apposite Catherine Eberle-Devaux’s romcom metaphor becomes. Eberle-Devaux is the heritage director of TAG Heuer and, after many months of protracted “prenuptial” negotiations, TAG and Porsche have finally signed a global brand partnership: a match made not exactly in heaven, but in La-Chaux-de‑Fonds and Stuttgart.
It has, by any standards, been a slow- burn affair. Or, as 26-year-old Frédéric Arnault – CEO of TAG Heuer, which is now owned by his father, the LVMH chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault – puts it: “We’ve been close on many topics with never having properly worked together.”
The love story began in the early 1960s, when, as now, Heuer was under the control of an ambitious, forward-looking young member of the owning family. Jack Heuer was aged 29 when, in 1961, he assumed control of the firm his great-grandfather had founded.
A watch business was not the only thing Jack inherited from his great-grandfather who, fascinated by all sorts of machinery, had been one of the first car-owners in the Swiss canton of Bern. “He realised very quickly that you never knew when you were going to arrive [anywhere], because you had to stop frequently to cool the engine and God knows what,” Jack once told me, explaining how, with over-heating engines and the risk of everything from snow to slow-moving cattle on Switzerland’s early roads, it was easy to lose track of time. “So he invented what we call the ‘Time of Trip’ chronograph.”
By the time Jack joined the company, Switzerland’s roads had improved sufficiently for him to compete in rallies, in a red MGA using Heuer dashboard timers. “We came in third, exactly one minute late, because I had misread the small minute-register dial – I was furious,” he said. It was a moment of Damascene importance. He overhauled the design of the company’s timers and named them after famous motor races. What would become Heuer’s most successful watch was named after the shortlived but lethally exotic Carrera Panamericana, which ran only five times, killed dozens and was last staged in 1954.
Today, close to 100 watches in the TAG Heuer catalogue bear the Carrera designation. Nor was Jack Heuer the only person to realise the commercial power of a race that, by his own admission, “made my imagination soar”. Porsche produced its first car named Carrera in 1955. As at Heuer, the name has stuck around.
Another famous motor race would bring the two brands even closer. By 1970, Steve McQueen was arguably the world’s most famous and bankable movie star: aged 40, with a string of box-office hits to his name, he was able to make his passion project, a film about the Le Mans endurance race. As a slice of motorsport history it has its good points, but as a piece of cinema it is (the pun is irresistible) a car crash. But for Heuer and Porsche lovers, it is a work of near-sacerdotal importance: McQueen drives a Porsche both on and off the circuit, and wears a Heuer patch on his overalls and a Heuer Monaco on his wrist.
Off-screen, however, Jack Heuer was more intent on deepening his partnership with Ferrari. From 1971 until 1979, every Ferrari driver wore the Heuer patch, and each would visit the Heuer factory to collect a gold watch engraved with their name and blood group, which, as Jack once told me, was as much to prevent the driver selling the watch as it was to assist in an emergency.
Meanwhile, Porsche was dabbling in watchmaking. In 1972, the first Porsche Design chronograph made its debut; the brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche and executed in blackened steel, it was a watch ahead of its time. In the late 1970s Porsche launched an anodised aluminium watch with IWC that came with a compass. The start of the 1980s saw the first titanium watch –another chronograph. Porsche Design worked with IWC until the late 1990s and then moved to Eterna. More recently, Porsche Motorsport teamed up with Chopard.
TAG Heuer, as it became in 1985, has made watches in collaboration with McLaren, Audi, Nissan, Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin. “Historically, we’ve worked with many car companies in the past, so when I joined TAG Heuer in 2017 I thought it was amazing that we had never really worked directly with Porsche,” explains Frédéric Arnault. “I really feel – and this is felt by all our team – that Porsche is the car brand that fits the best with TAG Heuer, and TAG Heuer with Porsche. We have so many points of history in common. And when we started discussions with the Porsche management, it was also felt very strongly on their side.” The aim is to build “a strong partnership for the long term”, continues Arnault, a young scion of the LVMH family business, which bought a majority share in TAG Heuer in 1999.
Unsurprisingly, the first watch made by TAG Heuer for Porsche is a Carrera. Arnault proudly enumerates the design features: “We took the design of the numbers from Porsche counters. We chose the asphalt-grey finish on the dial to recall some codes of Porsche. Of course, we wrote the name ‘Porsche’ on the watch but we didn’t want it to be too obvious. So instead of putting the logo on the dial, ‘Porsche’ is engraved on the bezel, instead of the word ‘tachymeter’. And the rotor is designed to recall the Porsche steering wheel.”
There may also be an option for Porsche clients – or, as doubtless Porsche hopes, TAG Heuer clients who want to become Porsche clients too – to specify their car with a TAG Heuer clock, and there is talk of Porsche content on the TAG Heuer Connected smartwatch (also a Carrera, by the way).
More to the point, I wonder what Porsche Arnault is driving now? I remind him that his half-brother Antoine – who heads up, among other brands, Berluti – trimmed a 1973 Porsche 911 Targa 2.4 in Berluti leather that was subsequently sold at auction; and that his predecessor Jack Heuer drove a Porsche during the 1970s, when Heuer-wearing racing driver Jo Siffert became the official Porsche dealer in Fribourg and persuaded him to have a Porsche as his company car.
“I do not own a Porsche,” he admits. “But yes, it’s a possibility. I think I would probably choose the latest one that they’ve launched, the Taycan. The 911 is also a really fantastic car. I would have to choose between them and the avant-garde aspects of the Taycan.”
I am sure that Jack Heuer would approve of seeing a Porsche back in the CEO’s parking space, but there is one aspect of his leadership that I would strongly advise Arnault not to emulate: the reason Jack stopped driving a Porsche in 1975 was because he wrote one off sliding into a guard rail. That is one piece of shared Porsche-Heuer mythology that is probably best left unrevived.