Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona has still got it

By Alex Doak

5 minute read

The most iconic example of the most iconic wristwatch in history was always going to hammer above estimate.

What no one in Phillips’ New York saleroom expected, however, was quite how massively it exceeded that estimate. On 26 October, 2017, after just 12 minutes of lively bidding, a ref. 6239 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona sold for $17.75 million, including fees. 

The catalogue’s “in excess of $1 million” estimate suddenly seemed not so much timid, as hilarious.

As you can safely assume, this was no ordinary Rolex. It was Paul Newman’s very own Cosmograph Daytona – the original specimen of the most collectable Rolex reference, gifted to the star by his wife Joanne Woodward in 1968, when serious motorsport started to overtake the acting (hence the caseback’s engraving, “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME”).

Distinguished by their panda dial colourway, blocky subdial calibrations and non-screwdown mushroom pushbuttons, the ‘Paul Newman’ Daytonas were unpopular in the ‘60s and ‘70s, meaning examples of ref. 6239, 6241, 6262 or 6264 are rare. Combined with the fact Newman wore at least five iterations religiously over that period, you can understand why he became a nickname. And why the most mundane of examples regularly fetch £100,000-plus hammer prices.

Despite Phillips’ cautious estimate, everyone knew Newman’s own would be as piquant as his eponymous salad dressing (a man of many tastes, clearly). It was in fantastic condition and boasted guaranteed provenance: consigned by one James Cox, who was gifted the watch back when he dated Newman’s daughter, Nell.

“Apparently, Pop forgot to wind his wristwatch that morning,” Nell recounted in her signed letter accompanying Cox’s lot consignment. “James responded that he didn’t know the time and didn’t own a watch. Pop handed James his Rolex and said, ‘If you can remember to wind this each day, it tells pretty good time.'” If only he knew.

2 Paulnewman Rolex Watch Pr
Top: Paul Newman at the Riverside Raceway, 1981; photography by Ron Galella /Getty Images. Above: Photography courtesy of Rolex

Is Paul Newman’s Daytona really worth the hype?

In a word, yes. The hype, hyperbole, crazy figures and cult following that can put the most provenance-packed Patek Philippe to shame are all justified. “This chronograph was the most expensive and complicated watch made by Rolex for a generation or more,” notes Benjamin Clymer, founder of leading watch website, Hodinkee. “It was never intended to be worn by civilians, most vintage Daytonas selling for six figures today languished in jewellers’ display cases for years. As such, they were produced in far fewer numbers than other Rolexes.”

“When you couple this with the fact the Daytona has been around for more than half a century and a good percentage have been lost or damaged, and you begin to see that the Daytona is at the cross section of great design, a world-recognised name and immense rarity,” adds Clymer.

What are the Rolex Daytona’s stand-out features?

Introduced in 1963, the very first Daytonas were simply called ‘Cosmograph’. It was not until late 1964 that Rolex decided to align the world’s first dedicated motoring watch with the historic 24-hour race on Florida’s Daytona raceway, near the beach where Malcolm Campbell broke the land-speed record aboard Bluebird, in 1933 (wearing a simple Rolex Oyster, incidentally).

It really was a watch fit for the fast lane. The off-coloured registers to the dial – chronographs up to this point used monochromatic dials – were particularly purposeful for racing; the two-toned nature made for much greater legibility on the move. It was also the first chronograph to feature a logarithmic tachymetre scale, used for measuring speed by calculating distances over time. Its calibrations were placed on the bezel of the watch instead of the dial, allowing for larger markers on the dial, again perfectly suiting the Daytona to the racetrack. 

One of the Daytona’s lesser-known firsts was the employment of screwdown chronograph pushers – first introduced in 1967 on the ref. 6240. While slightly tedious to use in a hurry, this development extended Rolex’s claim of making the most waterproof watches on Earth to those models fitted with vulnerable, leaky buttons. 

Inside all Daytonas made from 1963 through 1986 were Valjoux 72 calibres – a workhorse movement that was shared by countless lesser manufacturers. While it’s the Valjoux 72-based Daytonas that collectors strive for today, the manually wound movement was considered Rolex’s Achilles heel at the time, because it remained the only movement Rolex sourced from the outside – all others were developed and produced completely in-house. In 1987, however, the Daytona became a self-winding chronograph with the introduction of Rolex calibre 4030, based on Zenith’s revived El Primero. To this day, these watches are eminently collectable in their own right. 

Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona
Photography courtesy of Rolex

The Rolex Daytona’s pièce de résistance complication

It was in 2000 that the Daytona finally became a thoroughbred Rolex, with the introduction of the caliber 4130. The first-ever in-house chronograph movement at Rolex, it’s an achievement that, whatever the watchmaker, is no mean feat; the stopwatch as a complication is notoriously tricky to engineer into a mechanical movement without draining power reserves and affecting normal timekeeping precision. 

As soon as the new Daytona was announced, both collectors and novices rushed to place their orders. Within a month of its announcement in 2000, the stainless-steel Rolex Daytona with in-house 4130 movement had a three-year waiting list – that persists to this day. So much so, Rolex are even reticent to distribute imagery of the steel model to the press, for fear of heightening unmeetable demand. 

“Change at Rolex has always been gradual,” says leading collector and authority on all things Rolex, James Dowling. “The unkind might even choose the word ‘glacial’. 

“This pattern of incremental change is most interesting at the more affordable end – pride of place going to the current ceramic-bezel Daytona, with either white or black dials. Coming in at £10,500, it is over £2,000 more expensive than the discontinued steel-bezel model. But what’s appealing to the collector is that it harks back to the legendary reference 6263 from the ‘60s.”

But, while the modern Daytona is an incredibly well-engineered and (let’s face it) status-symbolic everyday watch, the incredible demand will always be down to the lore and legend surrounding those vintage Paul Newmans. If you can sweet-talk your way onto your local dealer’s steel-Daytona waiting list, you’ll be in line for one hell of a horological bang for your buck, and VIP access to an unbroken and pedigree heritage. 

Will you look as cool as Newman did wearing one, though? No amount of money can buy that, we’re afraid.

How to spot a ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona

The general-consensus criteria for the world’s most collectable steel watch boils down to some surprisingly broad iterations:

  • A ref. 6239, 6241, 6262 or 6264, with a manual Valjoux 72 movement 
  • A ‘non-Oyster’, with normal, unscrewable pushers. 
  • An acrylic-domed crystal. 
  • A tri-colour dial  – cream centre and black subdials, or black centre and white subdials, with red outer track. 
  • Subdials with block markers instead of lines. 
  • Subdials with crosshairs meeting at the centre. 
  • The running-seconds subdial at 9 o’clock is marked at 15, 30, 45 and 60, unlike the usual 20, 40 and 60. 
  • And for the full package, an acrylic fat strap rather than a bracelet – Newman never wore anything else. 

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