Buying Guide: The Best TAG Heuer Watches From The 1980s
We like to talk about vintage watches a lot within the Fratello team. Though most of what we write about is largely focused on the most recent releases and developments, for many of us, a lot of the fun can be found in the sometimes weird and often wonderful world of vintage watches. It’s a world full of history, remarkable watches, incredible stories, and quirky details. It inspired us to come up with a series of articles focusing on the best watches per decade from a select group of brands. Some of them are priceless, some of them still affordable. In this installment, we will take a look at the best TAG Heuer watches from the 1980s.
While the 1970s were a decade filled with tremendous change in the watch industry, the 1980s showed the fruits of that change. When Seiko started the quartz revolution, most Swiss brands never predicted the enormous long-term effects on the industry. This is also why a lot of Swiss brands ended up in trouble, often with disastrous results. In the 1980s, quartz was king, which is reflected in some of this week’s picks.
When it comes to style and design, the eighties were a special time. Often perceived as a decade with a distinct lack of style, or rather an abundance of tacky style and designs, the 80s were often frowned upon. But, over time, and with the benefit of hindsight, we have seen an increasing appreciation for some of the more unique watches from this era. So as you might imagine, there are plenty of good things to discover if you are looking for a vintage piece from the 1980s.
TAG Heuer in the 1980s
For Heuer, the 1980s were tumultuous. The brand suffered heavily from a decline in sales due to the quartz revolution. It forced Jack Heuer to sell the company to Piaget/ Lemania in 1982. Despite this, Heuer released several great mechanical watches. Although there weren’t able to save the company, it is interesting that the early 1980s still saw the brand release several watches that still look amazing today and use some great movements. As a result, they are sought-after by collectors.
Heuer was sold once again in 1985 to Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG). On the 1st of January 1986, the brand was renamed TAG Heuer and set off to try to regain its previous success. To do so, the brand first determined that selling luxury mechanical watches was not the way forward. They had to cater to a large audience by creating affordable watches powered by quartz movements to make sure people would regain interest in the brand. And TAG Heuer did find some great successes with this new strategy, as we will see. But as a result of the changes that happened, you will find a split between the early to mid-eighties and what came after in the late 1980s. It’s something that you will see reflected in the picks for this list.
The entry-point — TAG Heuer Formula 1
The first product line released under the new name in 1986 was the TAG Heuer Formula 1. It perfectly embodies what the new owners had in mind with the new TAG Heuer strategy. The Formula 1 line was inspired by the huge success of the colorful Swatch watches introduced in 1983. The overall concept for the F1 was also based on bright colors, affordable quartz movements, attractive packaging, and stand-out marketing campaigns. But it wasn’t just purely based on an image. The F1 did combine the one connection that Heuer and Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) had. Both companies were active in racing, and that’s why the Formula 1 name was where the stories of TAG and Heuer connected the past and the present.
Although the new Formula 1 line was more expensive than the Swatch watches, it was a big change from the Jack Heuer era. The watch designed by Eddy Burgener had a case construction with a stainless steel inner case coated by a fiberglass outer layer. The first series was water-resistant up to 200 meters. So you could easily take them swimming and diving during the summer holidays. The watch came in a modest 28 and 34mm size. It featured rubber straps that you could cut to size and swap to change the look of your Formula 1. Inside the case, TAG Heuer used a series of different quartz movements from Ronda, ESA, and ETA. In 1987 TAG Heuer also added Formula models with a stainless steel case and a bracelet. In 1989 the brand also added quartz chronograph models to the line-up.
The magic is in the colors
But the retro magic of the Formula 1 series is definitely in the colorful first series. As Mike explained in an installment of Wrist Game or Crying Shame about the Formula 1, at one point, these watches popped up everywhere. And that’s a big part of the charm of the first series of TAG Heuer Formula 1 line. The watches can be described as colorful, trendy, and affordable, and perfectly fit the 1980s. Swatch and G-Shock and the TAG Heuer Formula 1 are part of the cultural watch heritage of the eighties. Although very different from what Heuer did in the decades before, the Formula 1 line was essential in saving the brand.
The first generation was produced until 1990, when the Formula 1 series returned to a more serious appearance. While the case shape and the characteristic bezel remained, the colorful dials changed. The new dial design gave the watches a more serious appearance. Essentially, the brand was slowly stepping away from the fun, colorful character of the first generation. Finding a good condition Formula 1 from the 1980s can be a challenge. The quartz movements often didn’t survive. Additionally, they weren’t exactly high-end watches, so people did not necessarily keep them around for all these years. But if you are looking for a vintage Formula 1 from the 1980s, expect to pay roughly €250–€750 depending on its condition. Considering its cultural heritage and importance for the brand, that’s quite a bargain.
My pick — Heuer Silverstone ref. 510.403
My pick for this list is the brilliant Heuer Silverstone ref. 510.403. It is part of a series of Lemania 5100-powered watches that Heuer released in the early ’80s. If you have read my article on the best Heuer watches from the 1970s, you know that I love the Calibre 12 Heuer Silverstone watches. That first-generation Silverstone and this second-generation model only have their dial shape in common. Both feature a square dial with rounded edges, but that’s about where the similarities end. This Silverstone has more in common with another icon from the 1970s; the Omega Speedmaster TV Dial ref. ST176.0014. Both watches feature a similar dial layout typical for the Lemania 5100 movement.
This second-generation Silverstone was introduced in 1983. It featured a 40mm square case design with a high gloss finish that immediately stands out. Looking at it face-on, it seems as if the entire case has the same finish, but the sides actually have a brushed finish for some nice contrast. Watches powered by the Lemania 5100 movements are generally pretty chunky, and this Silverstone is no different. At 15mm thick, this is quite a serious slab of steel on the wrist. Fortunately, the 22mm lug width allows you to put on a matching strap that ensures the watch balances perfectly on your wrist. Originally, the watch came on a Tropic Rubber strap that looks great. The story goes that some may have also been delivered on a rare Novavit SA bracelet, but there is no official image that confirms it.
Hard to find
The Silverstone features a beautiful charcoal grey dial. The layout is defined by the automatic Lemania 5100 movement. The movement operates at 28,800vph and has a power reserve of 48 hours. Unlike the Speedmaster TV Dial and Speedmaster “Holy Grail,” it does not feature the 24-hour indicator at 12 o’clock. Heuer decided to remove it, so it leaves space for the logo and model name. A remarkable fact is that there are so-called “Poor Man’s” versions of the Silverstone, the Sinn 105 being one of them. Some of these versions were powered by the Lemania 5012 movement. Essentially this was a slower-paced version of the Lemania 5100 that also did not have the 24-hour register. But for their Silverstone, Heuer decided to take the 5100 and do the extra work of removing the register.
In a strange move, Heuer decided to remove the model names of the dials of their watches in the mid-eighties. That’s why you will also find this Silverstone without the model name underneath the logo. It was a break from the past where the brand was always connected to the model names that reflected its connection to racing. As mentioned, the Heuer Silverstone ref. 510.403 was part of a series of watches that Heuer released with Lemania movements. This partnership is definitely worth checking out. The guys at Calibre 11 wrote a two-part history about it and all the models that it produced. This Heuer Silverstone was one of the most iconic watches stemming from the partnership, and it is a rare bird indeed. If you find one, expect to pay between €4K–€6,5K. That is if you can find one.
Money is no object #1 — Heuer Autavia ref. 11063
The Autavia name is the only of the iconic trio of Monaco, Carrera, and Autavia that Heuer kept alive during the 1980s. The Autavia models introduced in 1983 are the 11063 models, the third and last generation of the Chronomatic Autavias. Heuer produced three “regular” versions that differed in color configuration. The 11063 T featured a Viceroy-style aesthetic with a black dial with white subdials and red accents. The second was the 11063 MH pictured with a black dial, grey subdials, and white hands and indices. This version featured a rotating bezel insert that featured both a minute and an hours scale. The third version is the 11063 P that was a diver’s version that featured a black dial with grey subdials, round hour markers, and Mercedes-style hands. The watch came with a unidirectional rotating bezel with either a diving scale or a decompression scale.
Besides these three “regular” versions, Heuer also produced a GMT version of the same watch. It came with a black dial with grey subdials and a unidirectional bezel with a blue and red “Pepsi” insert. While it might be confusing that Heuer used the same reference number, they are obviously easy to tell apart from their looks. All four models featured the same 42mm case that was 15mm thick and featured a lug width of 21mm. As you can see in the images, the style of this generation Autavia is still very much connected to the Autavias from the 1970s.
The end of an era
Inside the case of the regular models, Heuer used the legendary Calibre 12 movement. This follow-up to the legendary Calibre 11 was used for many Heuer watches in the 1970s. This updated movement improved the operation frequency from 19,800vph to 21,600vph compared to the Calibre 11. Additionally, Heuer also improved the overall construction to improve the shock resistance. The GMT version was powered by the Calibre 14 movement, essentially the same movement with an added 24-hour GMT hand. When Heuer was sold to TAG, that’s also when the iconic Chronomatic movements disappeared. The Autavia 11063 represent the last of the Chonomatic Heuer and therefore are a special series.
Depending on your preferred version, you might have to be patient in finding an Autavia 11063. The 11063 P “Diver 100” is scarce and seldomly shows up for sale. Equally tough to find is the GMT-version. The one that you will find the most is the 11063 MH with the black dial and grey subdials and black bezel with the minute and hour scales. Prices for one are roughly between €4K–€5K depending on their condition. Compared to some of the earlier Autavias that came before, that’s a relatively affordable price. The rare models obviously go for more, whenever they do show up for sale. Be quick when they do because they are sought-after by collectors because of their status as the last of the Chronomatic Autavias. They do truly mark the end of an era.
Money is no object #2 — Heuer 1000 Professional ref. 980.006
The Heuer 1000 Professional line of watches was the brand’s first venture into dive watches. The line found its origins in 1979 when Jack Heuer overheard a conversation about bad-quality dive watches. It gave him the idea to enter the market with their own line of Rolex-inspired quartz diving watches that could withstand a beating. The first models to come from that idea were produced by French contract manufacturer G. Monnin. The Heuer ref. 844 featured an automatic movement and the ref. 8440 was its quartz counterpart. In 1980, Heuer updated the original design and moved production back to Switzerland. Now I could perfectly well make the ref. 844 is a pick for this list. The reference is a favorite amongst collectors as it’s the first automatic dive watch from Heuer.
But I would like to focus on the quartz ref. 980.006 that was introduced after the design for the ref. 8440 changed. Heuer only produced this reference in its characteristic 42mm case. Its standout features are the curved lugs and the easily recognizable crown guards. The model was initially available in steel (980.006), steel & gold plated (980.021), and gold plated (980.022). In 1981 when these watches were introduced, they were not officially called the 1000 Professional line. That name was introduced in 1984 and is easily recognizable because the Heuer 1000 Professional models had “1000” printed underneath the logo. After TAG took over the brand, the “1000” moved to the lower part of the dial for most models.
Three different versions
During the production run of the 980.006, which ended in 1990, there are three different overall references. The first is the ref. 980.006 that was in production from 1981 until 1984. There were multiple dial variations released of the first version, and Heuer also changed the hands from cathedral hand to Mercedes style hands for the second variation. In 1985 Heuer introduced a new version of the watch known as the 980.006L. This updated model featured a significantly thinner case and had “1000” printed on the dial underneath the Heuer logo. The third and last version was introduced in 1986 after the brand was renamed, TAG Heuer. The new logo was printed on the dial, and the “1000” disappeared from the dial altogether. The watches were powered by quartz ESA/ETA 536-121 and ETA 963.114 movements.
As you might have guessed, the L-version is the rarest out of the three different 980.006 models. This is because it was only available for a couple of months in 1985, making it hard to find. When you do, expect to pay roughly between €1K–€2K for one. The first Heuer 980.006 was available from 1981–1984, and goes for roughly €1K–€1.5K. Lastly, the TAG Heuer 980.006N is the easiest to find, and prices for one are roughly between €750–€1,250 depending on the condition. So prices are pretty affordable considering the historical significance of this Heuer “Jumbo” diver. Why did I pick the quartz? Well, because we’re talking about the best of the 1980s, it only makes sense to pick the quartz version. Additionally, this is a great example of the line that saved the Heuer brand after the takeover by Piaget/Lemania in 1982.
Money is no object #3 — Heuer Autavia ref. 111.603 “Olive Drab”
When I stated that Heuer released three regular versions and a GMT version of the Autavia ref. 11063, I was technically right. But only because the reference number of the Autavia models with a colored case was different. So, two Autavia’s that are technically the same in one list? Yes, I know it might be a bit strange. But this watch is on the list as it is my favorite example of a series of models that Heuer delivered with a colored PVD coating. So it’s more the principle of the brand’s pioneering spirit, rather than picking just one model. In the early 1980s, Heuer used PVD coatings in black, pewter (grey), and olive (green) for their Regatta 134.600 series, the Lemania-powered 510.500 series, and the Autavia 111.600 series.
I featured the all-black Heuer Monaco ref in the previous article about the best Heuer watches from the 1970s. 74033 “Dark Lord.” Heuer was trying to make the then failing Monaco a success by introducing the black version, but they failed in the end. This initial failure did not keep them from creating more watches with PVD coating. As we know now, the quality of these PVD coatings was not the best. Unfortunately, it makes most of the watches look rather worn out and hasn’t aged too gracefully. As the PVD-coated models that I mentioned all came on matching PVD-coated bracelets, the effects of the chipping and scratching of the coating could be seen all over the watch.
The pioneering spirit
But if you are into the looks of these watches like I am, there is a solution to ensuring you don’t destroy the bracelet. As you can see in the pictures, the Heuer Autavia ref. 111.603 “Olive Drab” looks absolutely stunning on a NATO or leather strap. I think this actually should have been my top pick out of the five watches that are featured. These colored Autavias were introduced in 1983. Technically speaking, they are the same as the Autavia ref. 11603 MH, with a 42mm stainless steel case and a unidirectional bezel featuring an hour and minute scale. Although the watch uses the olive color for the PVD coating, the bezel insert, and the dial, you can clearly see a difference in shade. Especially the bezel insert, which looks more brown than green. But the overall effect of the colors is brilliant.
Inside the case, Heuer used the Calibre 12 as with the standard models. As you can see, the pushers and crown — as with all Calibre 11 and 12 models placed on the left side of the case — are also executed in the stealthy olive green color. Finding any of the PVD-coated models in good condition can be quite a challenge. Additionally, prices for a piece in good condition are a lot higher because of how clearly visible the watch’s state is. Prices for a Heuer Autavia ref. 111.603 “Olive Drab” are roughly between €4.5K–€8.5K, heavily depending on its condition. But if you can find one in good condition, you are not only buying one of the coolest Autavia’s out there, but you are buying a testament to the pioneering spirit of the Heuer brand in the 1980s.
As always, I can only cover a few of the great number of classics that Heuer produced. When it comes to Heuer, there is an incredible world of different models and references to discover. If you begin exploring the world of vintage Heuer, don’t be surprised to find a great variety of subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the different generations of one model. Especially the number of dial executions is sometimes overwhelming. Next, you have to keep in mind that many vintage pieces were serviced over the decades, and parts have been replaced. And lastly, you have to be aware of many fake and Franken pieces out there.
A lot of this crucial historical info has been well documented by passionate Heuer collectors and is available to read online. I want to mention a couple of websites: Jeff Stein’s On The Dash, Vintage Heuer, Calibre 11 — home of many vintage Heuer collectors, and the Heuer Price Guide. All of them contain tons of valuable information. On top of that, contacting vintage experts will help out greatly. It’s a great way to learn more about a watch and get to know some amazing people along the way.
Next week, we will look at some of the best watches from Swatch from the 1980s. In the meantime, make sure to let us know what your favorite Heuer/TAG Heuer watches from the 1980s are in the comment section below!