TAG Heuer’s Carrera McLaren MP4-12C is the best way to score a Richard Mille RM011-03 McLaren for under $8,000. Not only do both watches sport McLaren’s ubiquitous corporate orange in abundance, but they share the same complications – and the same actual complication module! And while the RM011-03 sold out long ago at a cool $191,500 apiece, an enterprising car and watch enthusiast can collect a full-set TAG McLaren for under eight grand. It’s like driving a McLaren at a Honda price.

To be fair, McLaren AND Honda have a glorious history together, so that combination is more apt than it might appear at first glance. In many ways, the 2014 TAG MP4-12C – reference CAR2080.FC6286 – is the best of both worlds with reliable TAG Heuer running gear and McLaren style. But the genesis of this limited edition wasn’t as straightforward as TAG’s subsequent Aston Martin and Porsche co-brandings.

McLaren and TAG Heuer have deep business relations dating to their mutual acquisition by Mansour Ojjeh’s Techniques d’Avant Garde holding firm during the mid 1980s. After parting ways during the mid 1990s, the companies continued to work on jointly branded products during the late 90s and 2000s. Despite flying their respective brand flags on the same track racing hardware throughout this period, TAG Heuer and McLaren each made a decision to prioritize road cars by the dawn of the 2010s.

The story of the horological MP4-12C – and the Mclaren car of the same name – began in January of 2011. As the first model year of Mclaren’s first solo road car project since the F1 of the 1990s, it was a logical time to open a second front on the luxury watch market.

Initially, the Carrera MP4-12C was announced as a 1,000-piece limited edition whose sales would be handled by McLaren automotive dealers rather than TAG Heuer’s authorized vendors. Due in part to the ambitious $14,000 price – a level multiples beyond TAG’s average MSRP at the time – the exotic distribution arrangement was envisioned as a way to sell accessories to McLaren-level budgets rather than risk a pitch to TAG shoppers unaccustomed to paying Blancpain prices at their local malls.

Whether by accident, dispute, or confusion, very few of the watches made their way to clients between 2011 and 2013. In 2014, TAG Heuer soft-launched the watch for a second time and allowed at least a few of its conventional watch showrooms to sell the model. Given two launches over four years, the Carrera’s rollout stalled, and awareness of the watch never reached mainstream of the watch collector community. And that’s a shame, because this McLaren-fortified TAG remains an incredible luxury watch value.

First, consider the design excellence of this Carrera. Simply festooning a watch with car branding is simple and expedient. It’s how TAG Heuer brought its 2019 Aston Martin and 2021 Porsche watches to market so quickly. But Jaeger-LeCoultre’s legendary 2004-2014 Aston Martin Amvox series of watches proved that a convincing car-watch collaboration requires unique models, not just branding. The Carrera McLaren follows that formula.

TAG Heuer had the good sense to bring McLaren into the design process. As with Hublot’s remarkably convincing Techframe Ferrari tourbillon and Classic Fusion Ferrari GT, TAG’s reliance on automaker input created a more coherent product than co-branding alone can produce. Only the 43mm media-blasted grade-two titanium Carrera case is clearly a TAG design, and that’s good, because the Carrera is TAG’s more relevant basic model.

Inboard of the thrusting Carrera lugs and grey metal, McLaren’s corporate orange begins to assert itself on the tachymeter. “330” is highlighted on the scale as a reference to the automotive MP4-12C’s claimed – and underrated – top speed. Just below that colorful flourish, the chronograph pushers take the form of automotive pistons; a McLaren-branded crown includes a rubber shoulder molded in the form of a tire tread. Cues like these can feel forced if the remainder of the watch doesn’t embrace auto imagery holistically.

That isn’t a problem with this Carrera. McLaren’s roadgoing dashboard imagery takes over the dial. All numerals are solid blocks of luminova formed in precisely the font used on the MP4-12C’s hybrid speedometer-tachometer. The large and luminous orange “0” at the top of the dial arrives intact from the roads of Woking, England.

A carbon fiber face adopts the material that dominates McLaren’s road and track machines. The shape of the smoked sapphire at the center dial follows the same outline as the McLaren instrument binnacle through which drivers monitor their machines’ speed and engine health. TAG Heuer’s custom strap combines perforated rubber, black leather, and an orange Alcantara underlay crafted from the well-known auto racing technical fiber. The deployant clasp is media-blasted to match the case.

Critically, none of this four-wheeled imagery feels forced. The design is so well integrated and committed to its purpose that the effect is immersive. As with fine narrative storytelling, good design induces the audience to suspend its skepticism. The Carrera McLaren is like that. And, to extend the narrative metaphor, the Carrera’s watchmaking keys a commanding second act.

TAG’s rank-and-file watches from the 2010s rarely impressed by dint of tech spec. But with the McLaren Carrera, watchmaking was part of the draw.

TAG Heuer teamed with modular complications specialists Dubois-Depraz to make the MP4-12C something special. A flyback chronograph with annual calendar anchored the car-themed model’s pitch to traditional watch collectors and helped to justify the five-figure price tag. TAG chose the reliable ETA 2892-A2 as the base movement, but the caliber was specified in high-grade “Top” specification rather than the base grades that would have sufficed. All told, the TAG/ETA/Dubois-Depraz “Caliber 4900” was a credible offering even when the ambitious pricing was taken into account.

But the movement was more than credible; it was the technical equal of the Richard Mille RM011-03 McLaren. That watch also employed Dubois-Depraz’ flyback/annual calendar module, but it did so at a retail price approaching $200,000 in 2016 money. At the RM’s 2021 preowned market price of nearly $600,000, the now $6,000-$8,000 Carrera looks like a bargain.

And while “driver’s watches” – Richard Mille’s included – rarely boast great water resistance, this Carrera was designed with a swimmable 100-meter water test rating.

I’m not a TAG Heuer fan in general. While I respect what the brand does with admirable value across its range, it’s the rare TAG watch that stirs my passions. But I’m a colossal car enthusiast, and there’s a gasoline-soaked TAG Heuer that calls my name. My favorite TAG Heuer is a McLaren.