I’m not much of a chronograph wearer, though many fellow enthusiasts are. It is a whole subclass of collecting that I never really engaged with but that clearly has its experts. There’s the racing-chronograph crowd, the military-chronograph hobbyists, lovers of aviation or dress chronos, and even the diving-chronograph enthusiasts. For each class of watch, there’s usually a chronograph option and a fanbase along with it. One of the most well-regarded chronographs ever made has to be the Heuer Carrera. However, vintage Heuer pieces from the 1960s command big prices. Don’t fret, though. There are some relatively unknown vintage gems out there for those interested.

Heuer Carrera 2447N

But first, very briefly, the Carrera story

Sporty chronographs experienced a golden era tied to the great age of motorsports in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1963, Heuer released the Carrera, named after the Carrera Panamericana, a famous road race in Mexico in the early 1950s. The watch was a big success and became a cornerstone model for the brand. 

Heuer Carrera 2447S

There was a push for sportier chronographs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which saw the release of the Omega Speedmaster and the Rolex Daytona, to name just a couple of chronograph icons. And with a history of stopwatches and chronographs going back to the brand’s beginnings in 1860, it was only natural that Heuer joined the fray. The Carrera was its answer, specifically, the ref. 2447, which was in production in various forms from 1963 to 1970. With its clean 36mm case and emphasis on legibility, the Carrera was a stunning piece of watch design that has become a true horological giant. Heuer then went on to create models with more circular cases and non-faceted lugs but with dials based on the legible Carrera design. Those are the watches I’d like to highlight today.

Zodiac Heuer Carrera lookalike

The plot thickens

While the Carrera is the beginning of this story, the true purpose here is to explore a fascinating subset of watches that came out of the Carrera’s creation. These watches are nicknamed “poor man’s Carreras/Heuers,” but in fact, they share parts and quality with contemporary Heuer chronographs. In the late ’60s, the brand’s legible chronographs were extremely popular, but not everyone who desired one could afford it. This led to other notable brands, including Hamilton, Dugena, and Zodiac, just to name a few, releasing their own budget-friendly versions, hence the nickname “poor man’s Carrera.”

According to OnTheDash, the leading authority on vintage Heuer watches, Heuer even produced some models for these brands. Look, for example, at the ref. 7823 SN models above, branded not only Heuer but also Zodiac and Hamilton. This was just one of several references that Heuer made to help satisfy market demand at a lower price point. The watches above all housed the Valjoux 7732 movement and, as you can see, had nearly identical dials and cases.

Zodiac Heuer Carrera lookalike

Time to dabble

Many of these watches share similar purity in design, build quality, and components as the Heuer watches. And you can find them for relatively affordable prices too. Many vintage Heuer chronographs are approaching or have surpassed the five-figure mark. Unfortunately, this puts them out of reach for many enthusiasts wishing to dabble in the world of vintage racing chronographs. “Poor man’s Heuers,” on the other hand, range anywhere from a few hundred euros (if you’re really lucky) to about €3.5K.

Enter my humble Zodiac chronograph, which I spotted at a watch meet here in Sydney a couple of years ago. Not owning any chronographs, I was intrigued by the size — 36mm is perfect for my smaller wrist — and the design language. The red chronograph seconds hand was also alluring. And thus, my journey with these designs began. Zodiac is a watch brand with gravitas in its own right. It became one of the original makers of the modern dive watch with the 1953 Sea Wolf, which led to a plethora of colorful variants. These chronographs, though, are not super common, and you are more likely to see a Carrera at a watch collectors’ get-together than a Zodiac, Dugena, or Hamilton equivalent. Occasionally, though, watch dealers list a vintage example like mine, as do sellers on eBay and Chrono24.

A design that has an enduring allure

As a testament to the genius of Jack Heuer’s original design language, the appeal of the Carrera-like design endures. Hamilton showed this with the Intra-Matic line, well-executed renditions with classic appeal and updated specifications. The advantage to the vintage pieces, however, is the classic sizing and that intangible feeling of wearing something many decades old.

Zodiac ref. 73321 — Image: Craft + Tailored

Final thoughts

Although I have been singing the praises of my vintage Zodiac timepiece, sadly, I realize that I don’t wear chronographs much. I experimented outside of my comfort zone, and while enjoyable, chronographs just don’t seem to be my thing. However, if you have a soft spot for great design and love the motorsports connection, perhaps “poor man’s Heuers” are an interesting subset of chronographs to explore.

Have you ever considered a foray into vintage Heuer Carreras? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. 

You can find me on Instagram here: @onhenryswrist