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Tag Heuer 510.501/12. A watch designed for racers and worn by pilots!

The '70s and the '80s proved to be such crazy times and worthy ambassadors of the extremes! They gave us some amazing supercars such as the Countach and the Pantera while at the same time a lot of resources were dedicated to the development of fuel-efficient hatchbacks such as the Golf and Civic. The huge leaps in technology allowed the introduction of new, amazing products that completely changed and redefined our everyday lives. The personal computer was starting to find its way into our homes right around the same time Nintendo was introducing the Gameboy and the NES. Sony came up with the Walkman, the grandad of MP3 players, and the first mobile phones started making their appearance. Quartz watches with huge capabilities were flooding the market and they could be found for a fraction of the price of a mechanical one. Everyone was after the next best thing, which was going to be simpler, faster and cheaper. This is slightly different to the current trend that tends to revisit the past and place focus on reliability and quality rather than just cost. Cost effective tends to overpower plain cheap and this is quite encouraging.

These were very turbulent times regarding the watchmaking industry. The mechanical movements could not compete with the cost of their quartz counterparts and the industry was in the brink of collapse. Some of the most well known companies turned their attention to quartz technologies while at the same time formed alliances and performed mergers and acquisitions in order to survive the harsh economic environment. Heuer was a leader in Swiss electronic time keeping, Omega was trying to keep up and a few traditional watchmakers teamed up and came up with their Mega quartz movement as a response to the quartz revolution. Even Rolex caved and produced the Oysterquartz, which lived a long life until the beginning of the ‘00s. Thankfully most of these companies continued their involvement with traditional watchmaking as well.

In 1983 Heuer was sold to an investment group, which was led by the Piaget family. The same group had recently acquired the famous Lemania company, which had provided some legendary movements to the market during their illustrious history. The first Speedmaster, a watch that admittedly changed the history of space exploration, was powered by the calibre 321, a Lemania movement. Some of the most famous Patek Philippe chronographs are still equipped with Lemania based movements such as the CH25 and this is only a small fraction of their achievements over time. Lemania produced the famous 5100 movement in 1978 in order to provide a mechanical, cost effective alternative. It has often been debated that if it wasn’t for the 5100 and the Valjoux 7750, entry level mechanical chronographs would be dead a long time ago.

The Piaget family decided to sell the Heuer name to TAG two years after the acquisition and this lead to the formation of Tag Heuer. In the meantime, Heuer and Lemania had already produced some iconic timepieces together.

One of Heuer's most well known products was the 510 line of chronographs. They used the lemania 5100 movement and came out in steel, grey, black and olive PVD coating. During its short life and due to Heuer’s connection with motor sports, the 510 was not only used by different race drivers but it was also selected by the Kenyan Air Force as a formally issued pilot watch. It even became a Cinema star and can be seen in the popular ‘Delta Force’ movie. These facts gave it instant recognition and elevated it to its current cult status.

The 510.501 I am reviewing today is what I like to call a transitional model. It was produced during the early days of the TAG takeover and it has a different mixture of features that justify the transitional characterisation. The exact reference number is 510.501/12, with the /12 denoting the use of the lemania 5012 movement which is basically the same as the 5100 with the omission of the 24h subdial and slower ticking rate of 21600 beats per hour. Tag Heuer decided to tweak the movement in order to reintroduce the 24h hour subdial. My guess is that at the time TAG received the helms, there were still some 510 cases and some 5012 movements lying around in the factory and TAG decided to put them to good use. It was probably decided to add the 24h function in order to capitalise on the recognisability already achieved by the Heuer 510.50X series. These models can be described as transitional since they are signed as TAG Heuer on the caseback and dial but they feature the Famous Heuer shield on the crown. I really don’t know why but I just love these small quirks. In a way, they tell us the story of the company at the time.

Heuer produced the 510.50X line in two irritations before Tag took over. The later one featured the day-date function while the previous one only the date. The Tag example does not feature the day in order to accommodate for the new, oversized Tag Heuer logo. The date is displayed in black font on a white disk and this proves to be a bit distracting sometimes. The dial sports a tachymetre chapter ring, tritium markers with minute printing right underneath them in a very subtle font. When the watch catches the light just right, one can get a glimpse of the recessed subdials which add depth to the dial. The dial is not as plain and simple as the one that is found in the Tutima. It offers more information, more detail and more depth in its execution. This means that it feels much denser than the Tutima and sometimes not as easy to read. This is by no means a deal breaker since the legibility is still excellent and the small details are simply fascinating.

The chronograph functions feature the orange colour coding, which can be found on a lot of Lemania powered chronographs and this is just a blessing when legibility and discrimination between functions is concerned.

The 24 hour and the running seconds hands are slightly thicker than those found in the Tutima military chronograph. As far as hour and minute hands are concerned, Heuer decided on the use of a popular design, which could be found in a number of high-end watches such as Omega’s Speedmaster and Rolex’s Explorer II, 1655.

One of the most prominent features of the watch is its case shape. Quite reminiscent of the 70s and the 80s, cushion shaped, with the glass sitting much higher than the rest of the body in order to accommodate for the stack of 4 hands on the centre. This design is similar to that of Orfina's Porsche design. With the case transitioning nicely towards the crystal and the prominent step filled with filleted material. The early black PVD coating can easily be scratched and this has led to the development of what I will very freely describe as a particular patina; the edges tend to expose the silvery finish of the metal underneath which actually improves the contrast, outlines and compliments the details and the shape of the case.

The watch features the Heuer specific pushers with the prominent ridges that had been in use since the introduction of the automatic Autavia back in 1969 and can be considered as a Heuer trademark.

The 510.501/12 continued on the footsteps of its successful Heuer siblings. These transitional models were only produced for a very short period of time before they were replaced by the new Professional line and hence are a bit rarer than the Heuer signed models. The Tag Heuer name might put off some hardcore collectors but the fact is that such examples are the company's storytellers.

I am not saying that every time you strap it on your wrist you will be transformed into a pilot, a racing driver or a Special Forces commando but one can always hope and most certainly imagine!

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