Tissot PR516 Chronograph: A Brief History and Hands-On Review of the Collection

Tissot PR516 Chronograph: A Brief History and Hands-On Review of the Collection

Founded in 1853 in the Swiss Jura town of Le Locle, Tissot is today one of the largest Swiss watchmakers in the world, with a vast and diverse collection of timepieces, from dressy to sporty to high-tech, all offering one of the industry’s best value propositions across the board. Throughout its history, and starting as early as 1938, when a Tissot watch was used to time a series of Alpine ski races, Tissot has also been a watchmaker with close ties to sports — from tennis’s Davis Cup in 1957, to its close timing partnerships with bicycling and motorcycling championships from the 1980s to today, to its recent high-profile status as official timing partner of the NBA. And while Tissot is probably not the first brand that leaps to mind when you think of motorsports-inspired timepieces, it was indisputably one of the pioneers of that genre, a style most clearly and boldly expressed in the PR516 collection, a mainstay of the Tissot portfolio that has undergone a significant, vintage-inspired refresh in 2024. 

Tissot PR516 Chronograph driver ad

Tissot’s association with motor racing, and the seed from which the original PR 516 (originally spelled with a space between letters and numerals, and later hyphenated) would spring, began with what was essentially a fan letter from a satisfied customer. In 1958, Tissot received a signed photograph from a Swiss racing driver named Harry Zweifel, which was accompanied by a note in German that read, Meine Tissot ist an jedem Rennen dabei,” or “My Tissot is at my side in every race.”  This unsolicited endorsement spurred Tissot’s watchmakers to develop a wristwatch that would be suitably robust and reliable for the sport of automobile racing — like the British Formula 2 Championships in which Zweifel competed for Scuderia Glaroma — which was poised for an explosion in popularity in the 1960s and ‘70s. Tissot called the resulting timepiece the PR 516 — the “PR” for “Particularly Robust” or “Precision and Resistance,” depending on which Tissot enthusiast you ask, and the three numerals denoting the 16th model in the 5th series. (Historically, Tissot models with “5” in their model name could be counted on to be waterproof; the original PR 516, in fact, was intended as an extension of the brand’s Seastar dive watch series.) Debuting in 1965, on the heels of two iconic predecessors in the racing-watch genre, the Rolex Daytona (1963) and Heuer Carrera (1964), it was significant in several respects.

Tissot PR 516 Heritage Edition

The PR 516 (Heritage Edition from 2012 pictured above) obtained its road-race robustness from its combination of a thick, water-resistant steel case and a recessed “armored” crystal, made of mineral glass. The watch contained a then-new Tissot movement, Caliber 781, which offered four different variations, manual or automatic winding, each with or without date, and incorporated a suspended, “floating” architecture in which the caliber was suspended between flexible shock absorbing elements. Most memorably, it was the first wristwatch to incorporate the so-called “707” bracelet, the brainchild of Swiss designer Lucien Gurtner; the bracelet’s drilled holes were inspired by the design of the steering wheel in a racecar, an enduring style element that can be found in some fashion on numerous bracelets and straps of racing watches today. 

Roger Moore wearing Tissot Live and Let Die

An advertisement for the PR 516 in 1966, with the watch prominently featured on a gloved hand gripping a steering wheel, helped garner the model an enthusiastic international audience. In 1968, another fan from the world of motorsport, Peruvian rally driver Henry Bradley, had the name of the watch painted on his Ferrari race car, apparently out of pure passion for the model in those days before big-time brand endorsement deals. That same year, Tissot introduced the chronograph version of the PR 516, which was arguably even more ideal for racing drivers, with a three-register dial to record elapsed seconds, minutes, and hours; a tachymetric scale to calculate speed over distances; and a countdown function to time rally periods before the starting gun of a race. This version, which eventually adopted an “S” for “Sport,” making the PR 516 into the PRS 516, continued in production through the 1970s to the modern day. In 1973, a PR 516 became the first and only Tissot watch worn in a James Bond movie, by Roger Moore in the memorable speedboat chase scene in Live and Let Die. Sharing the screen with both a digital Hamilton Pulsar and a tricked-out Rolex Submariner (the latter with a built-in buzzsaw), that PR 516 model is believed to have been the actor’s personal watch. 

Mario Andretti Lotus Tissot

Tissot followed up the introduction of the PR 516 with a series of racing sponsorships throughout the ‘70s, including partnering with Team Renault Alpine in Formula 1, with Team Porsche for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and with Team Lotus in the heyday of one of its drivers, the legendary Mario Andretti (above, driving an F1 Lotus 80). Tissot continues to maintain a significant presence in international motorsports today, as official timer of MotoGP, the Grand Prix of motorcycle racing, and a longtime relationship with NASCAR and one of its most high-profile drivers, Danica Patrick, for whom Tissot has made several personalized limited-edition watches. All along the way, Tissot continued to release models within the Tissot PR 516 and PRS 516 families — some quartz, some automatic, some chronographs, others three-handers — even as the racing-inspired series took something of a back seat (no pun intended) to other emerging collection stars like the now-ubiquitous PRX. In Tissot’s rollout of new watches for 2024, however, the PR516 (no space) once again takes its spot at the front of the pack (okay, pun intended) with a retro redesign aimed squarely at enthusiasts. I had the opportunity to go hands-on with all four of the new models; you can read about them below.

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Mechanical (Ref. TI49.459.21.051.00)

Price: $1,850, Case size: 41mm, Thickness: 13.7mm, Crystal: Glassbox Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Manually Wound ETA Valjoux A05.291

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Mechanical

The clear headliner of the retooled PR516 family is the PR516 Chronograph Mechanical (above), which traces its most direct inspiration to the Ref. 40528 from the 1970s and features — in an extreme rarity for Tissot — a manually winding mechanical movement. The ETA Valjoux A05.291, which was based on the existing, automatic Valjoux 7753 and specially designed for this revival of the PR 516, represents not only a new level of technical sophistication in the racing-inspired line but also a host of technical talking points. The base caliber’s winding rotor has been removed and replaced with a new bridge inscribed with “TISSOT 1853,” while the mainspring of the retooled movement has a fixed bridle instead of its original sliding one, a failsafe measure to make sure the mainspring locks when it’s fully wound. 

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Mechanical - back

Measuring 30mm in diameter and 7.285mm thick, the caliber (above and below) has a newly designed barrel architecture that allows for a 68-hour power reserve (up from the base caliber's 48 hours). Its balance spring incorporates the alloy Nivachron, which renders it highly resistant to the effects of magnetic fields, and, consequently, more consistently precise in its chronometry. The movement also eschews the traditional index assembly in favor of ETA’s chrono regulation system (ETA, for those uninitiated, is the Swiss movement-making firm owned by the Swatch Group, which also owns Tissot), which uses laser-regulated precision for long-term stability and accuracy, even when the mainspring is nearing the end of its power reserve. At a beat rate of 28,800 vph (4 Hz), Caliber A05.291 is adjusted to a daily precision of +5/-5 seconds. As one would expect in this day and age, Tissot puts this micromechanical wonder on proud display behind a sapphire window in the caseback.

Tissot PR516 Valjoux Caliber

The spirit of the watch’s 1970s ancestor also lives on in its exterior aesthetics, particularly the dual-scale bicolor bezel, which like the original watch features both a tachymeter scale and a pulsation scale — the former for calculating speed, the latter for checking heart rates, both useful in an actual competitive racing environment, or what Tissot refers to more generally as “adrenaline-filled activities.” The pulsation scale occupies the first quarter of the bezel from 12 to 3 o’clock, with black markers on a white background, while the tachymeter, spanning the rest of the bezel’s arc, reverses the arrangement with white markers on black. The black dial hosts a classical subdial arrangement, with chronograph counters at 3 o’clock (30 minutes) and 6 o’clock (12m hours) and running seconds at 9 o’clock.

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Mechanical dial CU

Chronographic elements are distinguished from time-display elements by the presence of orange details, i.e., the hands for the subdial counters and the central chronograph seconds hand. All three subdials are framed by snailed circles and feature white numerals reminiscent of those seen on car dashboards. The 30-minute subdial has an additional splash of color, with the first five-minute sector in sky blue, presumably to serve as a five-minute countdown to race time. The rectangular hour and minute hands and applied hour indexes are all coated with Super-LumiNova, as is the aforementioned 15-minute pulsometer sector of the bezel, all of which glow a bright minty green in the dark. (Since the seconds hand is not luminous, however, the scale itself is not particularly useful under these conditions.)

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Mechanical - lume

The barrel-shaped case measures a substantial but not unwieldy 41mm in diameter and 13.7mm thick. The finish is predominantly brushed, with polishing along the curved facets of the lugs and the bracelet. The box-type sapphire crystal, another retro element, rises above the bezel. On the right side of the case are the two button-type chronograph pushers and the fluted, non-screwed crown with a polished Tissot “T” emblem in relief on its rounded matte surface. The top pusher engages the stopwatch function, sending the central orange hand, with its T-shaped counterweight, skipping around the dial to record the seconds. Another push of the same button stops the hand, while a follow-up press of the lower button sends the hand zipping back to its original position at 12 o’clock. 

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Mechanical - wrist

The PR516 case lugs curve ever so slightly to nestle against the wrist and connect to the three-link stainless steel “beans” bracelet, whose domed links make for an elegant presentation as well as ergonomic comfort. The bracelet fastens the watch securely to the wrist with its sturdy folding clasp, which is equipped with both a security push-button release and a fine-adjustment mechanism. All in all, it’s an impressive timekeeping ensemble for an MSRP under $2,000.

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Quartz (Refs. TI49.417.11.041.00/11.051.00/22.051.00)

Price: $495 - $550, Case size: 40mm, Thickness: 11.9mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA Caliber G10.212 Powerdrive

Tissot PRS516 Chronographs collection 2024

Accompanying the Chronograph Mechanical are three versions, based on the same 1970s vintage model, outfitted with Swiss quartz movements. The Chronograph Quartz models (above, with Chronograph Mechanical, second from right) differ from the flagship mechanical model in several aesthetic aspects as well. Their cases are smaller by a smidgen — 40mm in diameter rather than 41mm, and correspondingly thinner in profile as well, at 11.9mm. The sapphire crystal over the dial is flat rather than box-style. The dial features a similar three-register architecture but differently arranged (and sans orange details): two parallel subdials at 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock, rather than at 3 and 9, for a 1/10-second chronograph counter and a 30-minute totalizer, respectively, plus a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock.

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Quartz - Gold - Subdials

The subdials are spaced apart for more of a harmonious triangle on the dial, as opposed to the somewhat bottom-heavy design of the subdials on the Mechanical model — the consequence being the Tissot logo under 12 o’clock on the Quartz dials looks a bit crowded by the subdials; the logo on the Mechanical model has a bit more room to breathe. It’s all a matter of taste, of course.

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Quartz - Blue

In most other respects, the front-facing elements of the Chronograph Quartz are pretty much the same as their mechanical sibling’s, differing only in colorways; the blue-dialed reference with color-matched blue tachymeter bezel scale (above) is particularly striking, The bicolor steel-and-gold model also features a discrete distinction, with tone-on-tone black subdials that lack the silvered borders of the other models. Of course, these watches chronograph hands, powered by the ETA-produced G10.212 Powerdrive caliber, also move differently, with the hand of the 2 o’clock counter making a rotation once per second and the central hand ticking around the outer scale in quick jumps rather than the more sweeping motion of the Mechanical’s seconds hand. 

Tissot PR516 Chronograph Quartz - caseback

The major design element differentiating the Quartz models from the mechanical can be found on the steel caseback, which is solid rather than transparent, and features a decorative relief engraving of a laurel wreath (of the type awarded to winning race car drivers) and a steering wheel with a “516” numeral in the center. One final detail emerges when the Quartz watches are compared side by side with the Mechanical: the center links of the former's “beans” bracelet have a more polished finish — most prominent, of course, on the gold links of the two-tone model — that lend them a slightly elevated sense of luxury. Pricing, as you also would expect, is much more entry-level despite the high level of finishing throughout the timepiece, ranging from $495 for the all-steel models to $550 for the steel-and-gold.

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