How Motorsport Gave Us One Of The World’s Most Expensive Watches

Anthony Peacock
24 Jul , 2020

Motorsport hasn’t only delivered some of the most expensive cars in the world (a Ferrari 250 GTO sold at auction in California for more than $48 million dollars two years ago, for example) but also one the world’s most prized watches.

Paul Newman was a star of Hollywood and additionally a pillar of the motor racing community, having won several national championships as a driver in the United States, not to mention a few more as a team owner in Indycar racing. Incredibly for an amateur, he also finished second at the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hours, at the wheel of a Porsche. Competing well into his 80s, he even took pole in his last race – so petrol coursed through his veins as freely as acting. The intersection of these two glamorous worlds made him at the time the most marketable personality of his day: the very first true king of cool.

And that’s why his personal watch was the equivalent of a Ferrari 250 GTO. In New York three years ago, his 1968 Rolex Daytona sold for $15.5 million, making it the most expensive watch in the world at the time: nearly a third of the price of the Ferrari, for a lot less metal. In fact, by the time fees were added on, the Daytona exchanged hands for $17.5 million, shattering the previous record for expensive watches (a Patek Philippe, which was sold for $11 million).

Newman’s Daytona was originally a present from his wife, Oscar-winning actress Joanne Woodward, which she reportedly gave him in in 1972, bought from Tiffany’s in New York.

And there was a special reason. Newman had always loved motorsport, long before he played fictional racing driver Frank Capua in the 1969 film ‘Winning’. In preparation for the role he went to the Watkins Glen racing school near New York – and that was the start of a lifelong addiction to going faster.

He entered his first professional race at the Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut, and that’s when he was given the emblematic Rolex Cosmograph Daytona – which he wore for most of the of the rest of his life.

But it wasn’t a new design of watch: Woodward chose a reference 6241 with an ‘exotic’ black and cream dial that was produced for only two years – 1969 and 1970 – and eventually came to be known as the ‘Paul Newman’ model. The nickname didn’t actually arise until the 1980s: simply because by then there had been so many photos around of him wearing it, so the association stuck.

She had her husband’s watch engraved on the back with the legend: ‘Drive Carefully, Me’ – a direct allusion to Newman’s tendency to go as quickly as possible. This occasionally got him into trouble. He always cited as ‘Newman’s first law’: “it’s useless to put your brakes on when you’re going upside down.” Newman’s second law was: “just when things look darkest, they go black.” So that engraving was probably an appropriate warning.

And her choice of watch turned out to be spot-on for another reason. Daytona was inexorably linked with Newman’s life from beginning to end, as he also became the oldest driver to form part of a winning team at a major race, when he took a class victory at the 1995 Daytona 24 Hours – aged 70.

So the Newman Daytona might just be the single most famous watch in the world. It spans Hollywood and racing, appealing to those who love cars as well as those who love films – and of course fans of iconic watches. And it all came down to the speed and romance of motorsport.

Although Newman only owned one, between 2000 and 3000 of these watches were made at the time. Unbelievably, the ‘exotic dial’ that was their defining characteristic actually made them quite unfashionable during the 1960s and 70s: there were even reports of many being sold for as little as half price. It was only in the early 1980s that interest began to pick up, gathering a momentum as time passed that would become seemingly unstoppable. By the very end of the 1980s it was a $1500 watch, and by the early 2000s values were past the $100,000 mark, before the million dollar threshold was breached in 2013.

Newman gave his Daytona to James Cox: a former boyfriend of Newman’s daughter Nell, back in 1984. That was a remarkable act of generosity, but at the time similar models of the watch were selling for around $250, so it would have been hard to imagine such a stratospheric increase in value. It was Cox who put the watch up for auction three years ago (although he did donate a “significant proportion” of the proceeds to the Nell Newman charitable foundation, so don’t think too badly of him…)

If you want a Newman Daytona watch now, you’ll need around a quarter of a million dollars (depending on the exact variant) but that’s very much the cheap end of the market for an example with uncertain provenance. If you want Newman's own – and we’re not talking about salad dressing here – you might just end up needing the sort of money that will buy a Ferrari 250 GTO. Or something even more expensive.

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