When timing is everything

Watchmaker Jack Heuer forged close motor racing ties through associations with Jo Siffert, Steve McQueen and Ferrari. A modern marketing man's dream? Oh yes. And yet it all started purely by chance
writer Ed Foster

As iconic motor racing images go, it's right up there: Steve McQueen — or perhaps more accurately Michael Delaney — doing up his blue open-face helmet while filming for Le Mans in 1970. On one side of his overalls run the blue and orange stripes of Gulf Oil; on the other there's a patch with 'Chronograph Heuer' emblazoned on it.

It's this picture that's sitting behind Jack Heuer, the honorary chairman of TAG Heuer and great grandson of watch company founder Edouard Heuer. Immediately our conversation turns to the American actor.

"That logo on Steve's overalls is, how can I put it, completely random. Maybe it was luck," says Heuer as he sips from a glass of sparkling water. This was a time when phrases such as 'SWOT analysis' — which apparently stands for 'Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats' — had yet to be invented. Thankfully.

"I opened a subsidiary in New York," he says, turning to look at the portrait of McQueen again, "and I was keen to meet some of my colleagues, so I went to see the Rolex importer. I was guided up the stairs to his office on Fifth Avenue and lining the staircase were seven or eight pictures of famous Hollywood actors, which were all signed and dedicated to the guy.

"When we'd finished talking I asked how he'd managed to get all the pictures and he explained that if you started up a relationship with one of the prop masters in Hollywood he would try and get your products into films in return for a signed picture. All the prop masters in Hollywood specialised in certain areas and the one for sports was called Don Lundy. I met with him and agreed to supply watches. In a couple of years I had pictures of the likes of Jack Lemmon on my wall.

"By complete coincidence Don then started to work on a new film called Le Mans. He calls me and says 'you need to send me more than just watches — I need stop watches, dashboard chronographs, timing boards, everything'.

"On the set Steve McQueen was being taught to drive by Jo Siffert and Derek Bell and as filming approached it became clear that he needed to choose 'a look'. Up until then he was alternating between red and blue overalls. When it came to it he said, 'I want to look like Jo'."

It just happened that Jo Siffert was the first racing driver that Heuer had sponsored and his overalls wore the 'Chronograph Heuer' logo. Such are dream associations made of.

"Unbeknown to me Lundy also had another watch brand's wares on set and asked Steve to wear one of those rather than a Heuer. Steve's reply was 'I can't wear that because I know them. They'll want to use me afterwards.' Lundy offered up a Heuer watch and he was fine with that because he had never heard of us...

"He needed three similar watches — one to use when he was racing, one as a replacement for that and then one for the still shots. I didn't have many watches in stock and the only one I had three of was the Monaco. It was the worst-selling watch! It wasn't a great success, so I sent three over and he made the film. We didn't make a deal to buy the rights for the images because when Steve died in 1979 he wasn't really that much of a role model. But 20 years later? He is! Everyone forgets...

"My successors had the good idea to get the rights from his son and we now have them. It was all a piece of luck. He refuses the other watch and..." Heuer shrugs and smiles.

"I actually never got to meet him, though. I was invited to the track during filming and they sent a plane to Paris to pick me up and take me to La Sarthe. There was a big lunch and I ate with a beautiful Swedish actress. Steve was out touring on a motorbike in the country so I missed him..."

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It was 11 years earlier that Jack Heuer started his relationship with motor sport. His great-grandfather was a motor racing fan — "he had the fourth car in America" — but for Jack the alpine ski slopes held more interest than asphalt circuits. Much like the McQueen image, it turns out the link that would become intrinsic between his watch brand and motor racing was formed purely by chance.

Back in 1959, rather than conducting professional market research into where Heuer should put its money, as any big company would today, Heuer simply decided to go to the Monte Carlo Rally. "I realised that 60 per cent of the cars on that rally were using our dashboard equipment and soon after I went to America and got to know the Sports Car Club of America, too," he says.

"I participated in some of the American rallies and soon I was invited to Sebring for the 12 Hours. It was the first time I'd set foot near a GT race and there were lots of Formula 1 drivers there as well. However, the first step into F1 and sponsoring Jo Siffert, was once again pure coincidence.

"We were launching the first chronograph in 1969, and because we were a small company we had spent quite a lot of money on development. We didn't have much left for marketing or letting people know what we had done. I was playing golf on my club's putting green in Switzerland one day and a friend of mine came over to say hello. He then said 'why don't you sponsor a young driver? I know one who's looking for sponsorship and it might work. He's called Jo Siffert.' It was easy for me — I drove 30 miles and met up with Jo. If it had been an Englishman I probably never would have taken a plane to go and meet him.

"Anyway, I met with Jo and we sorted a contract out very quickly — he had to wear the logo on his overalls, find a space on the car to put another one and he had to wear one of our watches. He was also allowed to sell the watches at all the circuits he went to — he was a natural salesman and quite liked making a bit of money on the side. Within six months lots of the engineers and mechanics had a chronograph from us! Soon after this we got to know Clay Regazzoni as well.

"The Commendatore [Enzo Ferrari] was absolutely convinced that the French were cheating with the timing, especially at Le Mans, so he sent Regazzoni to Switzerland saying 'look, you're Swiss, you know these people — go and find a watch company that can get me decent timing equipment'. We had a factory in Bienne and some of my staff saw him having lunch with [rival watch company] Longines in the only good restaurant. My people spotted him because by then they were looking for racing drivers to sponsor and they immediately called me to let me know. I thought that maybe Longines also wanted to get into F1. By chance the Ferrari team manager at the time, Peter Shetty, was a good friend from my university skiing club. I quickly called him up and asked 'why have you sent Regazzoni to Longines? You should send him to us — we have a very good electronics division!' So, instead of Regazzoni going to Longines, we went to Maranello and we designed the specification for the Le Mans timing system. We worked out how much it would cost and then in December 1970 I went to see the Commendatore. He didn't want to pay us the 35,000 Swiss francs so I asked what he could offer in return. That's when we negotiated the logo on the Ferrari, the patch on the race suit and all that.

"We built the Le Mans timing system, but still he didn't win the race... Still, he was happy with it and the second thing he asked us to do, in 1972, was to work on the new test track at Fiorano. We set up a timing system there that could measure how fast they were on every part of the track. It was very useful for setting up cars and eventually, in 1975, Lauda won the Formula 1 World Championship for them, the first since John Surtees in 1964.

"I actually got along with Enzo very well. I would usually go and meet with his son Piero and Mauro Forghieri to negotiate and then Piero and I would go to see the Old Man. Enzo would be sitting in his office with a violet Murano lamp on the wall, the shades down and a picture of [beloved late son] Dino behind him. It was very impressive. I was the same age as Dino would have been and somehow we just clicked. He trusted me and I trusted him, but he was a very good negotiator and always squeezed something additional out of me! Once we'd done the deal we'd go over to the Cavallino restaurant and have lunch. We'd have a bottle of Lambrusco and I tell you, when we were having coffee the Commendatore would tell some of the dirtiest jokes I have ever heard!

"I got to know all the drivers during the 1970s and they were.., they were heroes because they went to every race with one foot in the grave. It's a very different way to go about things when you go out to race and you're not sure how it's going to turn out. You always have that somewhere in the back of your mind. The drivers were different characters back in the 1970s — they were stronger, more mature, and they partied the night before, which they don't do now! They never knew if it would be the last time they got to do that."

Jack Heuer was especially close to the Ferrari drivers up until 1979 when problems in the watch world brought the Ferrari relationship to an end, and he clearly looks back on the time fondly. In the watchmaker's current guise of TAG Heuer, the link with F1 remains strong, with McLaren. But that's a partnership that certainly wasn't forged because of a chance meeting on a putting green.