Watches

The $18m watch they couldn’t give away

Daytona PhilipsGive a watchnerd the keys to Marty McFly’s De Lorean and you’d have a whole different film. Instead of all that faffing about with the Johnny-B-Goode-meets-Eddie-van-Halen thing, they’d set the dials to 1963 and start beating down the door of their nearest Rolex dealer to stock up on Paul Newman Daytonas.

Originally, the ref. 6239 Daytona, the “Paul Newman,” was a the Ford Edsel of watches. A complete sales flop.

Back in 1963 when the Daytona first shipped out of Geneva, Rolex dealers struggled to sell them. In fact, the ref. 6239 was the cheapest Daytona Rolex made at the time, yet they still hung around on the shelves longer than canned cockroach soup.

If you’d put down your Gibson for long enough, Marty, you could have had one for way less than $300; dealers often had to discount them to shift them. People simply preferred the standard-faced watches.

So why the rocketlike ascent from dealer dud to — without exception — the most expensive standard watch ever sold at auction? It’s quite a puzzle, even given Newman’s fame. It certainly isn’t the stuff on the inside that’s worth the staggering figure. And to give credence to the value inherent in such things, the last watch that sold for anywhere near this sort of money was a one-off, extraordinarily complicated solid gold Patek Philippe.

Watch collectors get excited about movements, but there is nothing remarkable or even rare about the movement ticking away inside the Newman’s case. The ref. 6239 was powered by a standard, 17 jewel Valjoux calibre 722, with a balance running at a lowly 18,000 beats per hour. Of course you had to wind it yourself every day, no automatic system here.

If you’d taken the trouble to open the caseback on a lowly Harvard chronograph made by the West End Watch Co., you’d have found the very same movement. Likewise, near as dammit, in the contemporary Heuer Carrera, for under $200. The point is that the Daytona was far from the only watch with the Valjoux under the hood. If you’re a vintage collector, rummage in your watch box and there’s a good chance you’ll find something running a Valjoux 72X series movement.

More basic makers like Eterna, Longines, Wakmann; all produced watches built around the Valjoux 72X series. This isn’t to say it’s anything but a fine, accurate, and robust motor, but to borrow an analogy, it’s far from the exotic heights of Lampredi V12-style rarity.

The case itself was unremarkable too; stainless steel, not gold. Just a tachymetre scale around the bezel and pump pushers for the chronometer. The crystal was cheap, serviceable plexiglass. It wouldn’t shatter like sapphire, and you could even polish out the scratches picked up from tweaking your carbs.

This was a functional tool of a watch, never destined to be a collectible. Back in the 1960s, it was just one of the other watches Rolex were known for making then. Waterproof Submariners for divers; everything-proof Explorers for, well, explorers; antimagnetic Milgausses for engineers; and chronograph Daytonas for racing drivers.

So, had you been standing outside our mythical Rolex dealer in October 1963, you’d be forgiven for passing over the Daytona just like everyone else. And even as late as the 1980s you could have snaffled a ref. 6239 Newman Daytona for under $4,000.

And, it’s probably worth pointing out, to further democratize the watch, that the ref.6239 is far from the only Newman Daytona. That’s because the term refers specifically to the dial rather than the watch as a whole. You can spot a Newman by the art deco numbers on the crosshair sub-dials, the tiny squares on the five-minute marks on the chronograph sub-dials, and the contrast between the sub-dials and the main dial.

Here’s where we start to see some real cases for value besides tacit celebrity endorsement. Made by Rolex’s dial suppliers at Singer, the value of a Newman is all in the dial. You’ll find Newman dials on refs. 6240 (rarer than an honest politician), 6241, 6262, 6264, 6265, and 6263.

Before attempting to explain what happened to first hurl the Daytona into the limelight, you need to understand something about Watchworld. It is, in absolutely no sense of the word, a rational place. It’s the place where a bit of red writing on the dial of a Rolex Submariner lifts the price from $6,000 to around more than five times that. A bit of white writing (specifically the word “Comex”) is even more powerful, and it can turn a $6,000 watch into a $132,000 collectors’ item. A cracked, “tropical” dial caused by a manufacturing fault sees a similarly irrational value hike.

If watch enthusiasts were rational, the place simply wouldn’t exist because we’d all be wearing ultra accurate, pennywise and reliable Casio F-91w’s or using our iPhones.

That’s why nobody really knows why these Daytonas have gone stratospheric, although plenty of people will assure you they do. There are few rational reasons behind its ascent, but it’s hard to pin a rise of this size on one thing. But what we do know is that towards the end of the 1980s, this dog got itself a pedigree, and a new name.

The stack of photographs showing Newman wearing his ref. 6239, particularly that shot by Douglas Kirkland, was the christening. The ref. 6239 quickly became known as The Paul Newman. Collectors love a Rolex with a name, so maybe this was really the whole reason; you’ll find BLNRs, Hulks, Gilts, Rootbeers, and Pepsis amongst other names affectionately given to certain pieces. But the association with racer and film star Newman propelled the ref. 6239 to a different level than any of those.

By the early 2000s, Newmans had leapt from sub $10,000 to $40,000 at auction. As the decade was drawing to a close, they’d risen to nearly $70,000. From there, the line on the graph is like looking up at the side of Mont Blanc. The other early Daytona references have been dragged up the slopes with it, but none has got anywhere near the Newman summit.

Funny enough, despite their common presence on untouched shelf space, now there’s intrinsic rarity in these watches. That’s because the singer-dial watches didn’t sell, and Rolex made relatively few of them to meet the relatively small demand. Collectors believe around only 2,000 were produced. Interestingly enough, whatever the true number may be, there are rather more Newmans on wrists and in watchboxes than ever were brought into existence in Geneva. Because the dial makes the watch, the unscrupulous but skilled among us can take a standard Daytona and graft on a Newman dial. They’re far from being the most-faked Rolex (that dubious prize probably goes to the Datejust or the Sub), but the rewards for successfully counterfeiting one are huge.

And that’s what makes Newman’s very own Newman even more special. Provenance does not come any better than this, but having a few fakes around doesn’t hurt the value of the real thing that’s provably so. The contemporary photographs, the engraving on the back, the family link and that wonderful story about Newman himself simply giving the watch away.

The watch that auctioneer extraordinaire Aurel Bacs declared is “history now” is the very peak of vintage Rolex collecting. Yes, the new owner has a beautiful, historic watch as well as a rather emptier bank account, nut what he or she has really bought with The Newman Newman more than anything is its perfect story.

Image courtesy of: Phillips

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Watches

One of the world’s classic watches. Yours for £8.

Chances are, as you read this, you’re no more than 3 metres away from a Casio F-91. It’s still the first watch for generations of children, the choice of half the British Army’s regiments (and practically standard issue for military training) and you’ll find them abandoned in office drawers, forgotten in bags, Blu-tacked to the dashboards of cars and even on wrists.

Casio wouldn’t tell me how many F91-Ws they’ve precision-glued together since 1991, but it’s got to be a few million. But this ubiquity is far from a bad thing. There’s an argument that the F91 is as much a Watchworld classic as the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Speedmaster or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.

I’ll stick my neck out here. In my view, this £8 watch does the whole ‘form and function’ thing just as well as any other classic watch. But it’s the best kind of classic; a democratic one that pretty much anyone can afford and enjoy. No waiting lists, no buzz-to-enter heavy-carpeted boutiques, no sniffy watch salesmen. Just nip on line and your F will be beeping happily from a box on your doormat the next day.

When you unbox it, you’ll find you even get an instruction leaflet, clearly designed by a particularly devious, wizened and ancient origami master at the very top of his game. Although it’s tiny, it unfolds to the size of an OS map of Europe. Seriously, don’t bother with wallpaper – it’s cheaper to buy a crateful of F-91s and use the instruction leaflets. Two per wall should do you. I swear it’s even got a section in medieval Catalan.

This is a watch for less than the price of two pints of London Pride, a couple of Starbucks coffees (although I’d argue S’bucks has little to do with coffee) or a 3 minute parking ticket in central Oxford. Yet cheap doesn’t mean nasty. Not so much Sub as subfusc, it quietly and efficiently gets on with telling you the time (the date, the day and a few other useful things like when you need to wake up) without fuss. That’s what most people want a watch for.

And these things are practically indestructible. Check the wrist of your garage mechanic. Your builder… And there’s a guy in Spain who has even filled his with olive oil (seriously) and pressure tested it to depths that would have that Submariner weeping.

Talking with ex and serving soldiers, they remember their F-91s from their time in camo (or more likely No5 dress) and they remember them fondly. As one said, “Robust doesn’t do the F-91 justice.” Another one talked of how his F (see, the affection of an abbreviated nickname already) had done everything he’d asked of it through two tours in Afghanistan, all without failing once or even needing a new battery.

Believe me, when someone hits the big red button there’ll be three things left: Nissan Micras, smiling, smug cockroaches and F-91s. And the F-91s will still be going ‘beep’ every hour.

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Driving

The future’s looking bleak for modern classics

There’s an old saying ‘take an interest in politics before it takes an interest in you’.  And, slowly but with the familiar, grinding, dead-handed certainty, politicians are taking an interest in classic cars. If you own a modern classic car built between 1979 and 2005, they’re very interested indeed in you.

That’s £12.50, mate.

In the UK and across the rest of Europe, politicians are falling over themselves to impose low emission zones, urban car bans, permits and access stickers faster than speed bumps. And they see absolutely no difference between a modern classic like a well-maintained Mercedes 500E and a smoke-belching Peugeot 405 diesel estate that saw its last service in 1992. 

More taxes and bans – coming to a town near you

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has led the charge with his new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) covering the same area as the congestion charge.  Drive into it in your modern classic built between 1979 and 2005 and the Mayor will relieve you of £12.50 a day, every day. That’s because there’s a gap of 26 years – a sort of automotive no-man’s land – for modern classics too young to fit the historic tax class but too old to comply with Euro 4 legislation.   Continue reading

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Driving

“Simple, neat and wrong.”

After years of falls, road deaths have stopped falling.  In fact, in previous years they’ve rising fast enough for the Department for Transport to pre-releasing figures and ministers to start getting their defence in early.

UK transport minister Robert Goodwill warned a parliamentary road safety conference last week to prepare for “bad news” ahead of Thursday’s announcement, telling attendees to expect a “rise” in road fatalities.

Now, in 2019, the Transport Select Committee is…

…concerned that progress increasing levels of road safety has levelled off and is launching an inquiry to scrutinise the Government’s approach to road safety, last set out in its 2015 road safety statement. The inquiry will investigate which changes would be most effective at reducing the number and severity of road traffic accidents.

And the EU are talking about the compulsory fitting of satellite-controlled speed limiters (Intelligent Speed Adaptation – ISA – even though it’s anything but intelligent) to cars from 2020.  The UK says it will comply and do likewise.

H.L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”  He could have been describing the UK’s road safety policy.  This isn’t about Continue reading

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Musings, Writing

Let the passengers take the strain.

I should have realised that attempting to use a train to travel anywhere more complicated than London was a mistake.

Oh yes, it’s an adventure alright.

We booked tickets to go to Cornwall this weekend. All peachy – only a small second mortgage required. Now we discover (because we checked – not because anyone thought to tell us) that the train times have changed.

Even better – there aren’t any trains for much of the journey. Instead, there are buses. And there are few things that strike more fear into the heart than the words ‘rail replacement bus’.

Not only that, but there are actually no trains at all at the station we need to get back to on Sunday. Continue reading

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Watches, Writing

When a watch tells more than the time

Watches, perhaps because they are so much more personal than almost any other artefact, have a knack of telling stories that bring the past vividly into the present. Here’s one of them…

In the gathering darkness of the evening of September 28th 1944, a group of 12 German Kampfschwimmer (military frogmen) slipped into the Waal river in Holland and began swimming silently towards the road and rail bridges at Nijmegen.

Bridge at Nijmegen

Arnhem bridge. Photo credit: Fellows Auctions

Their intention? To lay explosive charges under the main supports of the bridges – key strategic objectives on the way to Arnhem – and deny their use to the allied forces. Continue reading

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Musings, Writing

The irony – presenting school prizes

As well as the day job and a bit of scribbling about watches, I work with the splendid Speakers for Schools organisation.  In February ’17, John Marston, the headteacher at St. Birinus school in Didcot invited me to speak to some of his students.  I talked to them about how important it is to fail intelligently.  In October John asked me back to present the prizes and school colours – and give a speech – at the school awards evening.

The irony was far from lost on me.  I was a sod at school.  Not an endearing, cheeky chappie type sod but a nasty, difficult little sod.  My teachers would have been very glad Continue reading

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