Steve McQueen picked what would become one of the most famous watches in history out of a lineup. 1971’s Le Mans was in pre-production, and McQueen, playing pro racer Michael Delaney, needed a watch. At first, and Omega Speedmaster that caught his eye, but prop manager Don Nunley reminded him of the Heuer badge on his character’s uniform, the same as most real-life competitive drivers at the time. Nothing was more important to McQueen than authenticity. So he switched gears: his character would wear a Heuer Monaco in the film.
And because authenticity was so important to McQueen, he did all his own driving for the movie. He wore the Monaco while screaming down the infamous Mulsanne straight in a Porsche 917 at almost 200 mph on the last day of filming. As filming wrapped, McQueen emerged from the 917 and his wife and two kids flocked around him. The film’s chief mechanic, Haig Altounian, was already attending to the car when McQueen walked over, took the blocky Monaco off his wrist, and offered it up. “I want to thank you for keeping me alive all these months,” he said, according to Altounian. Altounian demurred at first. Didn’t McQueen want to give it to his son? The mechanic demurred until he couldn’t anymore. It’s too late,” McQueen finally said. “It’s got your name on it.”
And so Altounian wore Steve McQueens watch, inscribed with the phrase “To Haig Le Mans 1970,” for a year or two. Then he realized what was at stake with such a priceless artifact, and tucked it into a safety deposit box for nearly five decades. Now, though, the watch is primed for the bright lights again, with a headlining spot in Phillips’s December auction in New York. Assuming you have a couple million dollars lying around, you can give McQueen’s former watch its next great adventure.
Phillips has a knack for tracking down and selling these types of fame-making watches. In 2017, it sold Paul Newman’s Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, the one with a distinctive design so closely associated with the late actor it was named after him. In the same way, the Monaco is greatly indebted to this very piece owned by McQueen. Before Le Mans, the model wasn’t a top seller. Heuer suggested the piece because it had excess stock and was easily able to send over multiples of it. The movie changed all that. Now, the Monaco is an iconic watch largely because McQueen chose to wear it in Le Mans. To this day, 49 years after the release of the film, Heuer still uses stills from the film to market the piece. In a Zoom meeting with Tag Heuer’s CEO Frederic Arnault and heritage director Catherine Eberle-Devaux, the pair spent a majority of our time ogling an image from Le Mans in which McQueen is unzipping his jacket. His Monaco is prominent. “It’s so mythical to be able to say this is the watch being sold,” says Arnault. “In terms of glamour, of fame, it is the most important [Tag Heuer watch],” Eberle-Devaux adds.
Article written by Cam Wolf #GQ