Tag Heuer Monaco CAW211P worn by Steve McQueen. Photograph from the Official Website of Tag Heur
Style Watches

On the wrists of legends: Car racing heroes and the watches they made famous

In which we look back at the era where watch brands earned their motorsport heritage. If you are both a racing fan and a watch lover, get ready for an awesome trip.
Francis Aguila | Jan 11 2019

I was a car guy first, long before I was a watch guy. When I was a little boy, I was fascinated with anything related to automobiles, so as I got older it was inevitable that my love of cars transformed into a love of racing. Motorsport and horology are completely inseparable—after all, how does one measure speed without time? Measuring lap times and gaps, as well as formulating a winning pit strategy, all require absolute precision timing. This is the genesis of my love of watches.

Daytona worn by Paul Newman. Photograph from @jewelryreference on Instagram

One of my greatest inspirations in racing was a name revered by watch enthusiasts: Paul Newman. While I admire all time greats like Senna, Schumacher and Alonso, Paul Newman's racing story was the one I identified most with. He began racing at 46 years old, starting in small events, and then working his way all the way up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where in 1979 he won 1st in class and 2nd overall. Similarly, I got into racing later in life (though much younger than 46 years of age), and like him I compete in sports car and endurance racing. So it was only fitting that the first watch I ever truly coveted was a Rolex Daytona, a piece that is synonymous with racing, and with Paul Newman.

Rolex Daytona 6239 Newman.

The "Paul Newman" Daytona generally refers to vintage Rolex Daytonas that had the "exotic" dial, white or black with art deco touches like the square indices on the subdials and a distinctive font, with red hash marks around the edges. The Newman dial came in reference numbers 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264, and 6265. While it isn't necessarily the most desirable of the Newman Daytonas, I consider the "true" Paul Newman to be the 6239 with the white "panda" dial. Why? Because that's the exact specification that Joanne Woodward, Newman's wife, gave him when he started racing. And inscribed on the case back was "Drive Carefully, Me." As a petrolhead, how could I possibly resist that sort of story?

(L-R) Rolex 116520, Rolex 116500LN

Oddly enough, this specific variant of the Daytona wasn't very popular when it was launched. In fact, it was something of a sales failure. The story goes that a watch store owner stumbled upon a magazine photo of Newman wearing his Daytona, and started using this connection to push his non-moving inventory. Today, the Daytona is perhaps the most sought after Rolex model, and is certainly my favorite watch. The current 116500LN has two versions, a black and a white dial. The white dial variant, which I affectionately call the "Stormtrooper," is the most sought after. I also have a soft spot for the previous model, the 116520, with the steel bezel and the in-house movement. If you are a car guy and want the ultimate car guy watch, few pieces can match the Daytona.

This article is dedicated to the watches that were worn or popularized by some of the sport's greatest drivers. Virtually all of these watches are chronographs, of course. In the days before digital systems, a stopwatch or chronograph was actually used by crew members for timing duties during race days and practices. It was during this era that watch brands earned their motorsport heritage, and since not too many watchmakers got into racing, it's actually a fairly rare thing to have. If you are both a racing fan and a watch lover, get ready for an awesome trip.

Monaco worn by Steve McQueen. Photograph from Paramount Home Entertainment

Perhaps no other watch brand has a connection with motorsport as strong as Heuer - now Tag Heuer. Their vintage model lineup is littered with automotive references - the Carrera, Monza, Silverstone and the Monaco are but a few. The Heuer Monaco reference 1133B is a particularly notable car guy watch. It was popularized by another famous actor/racer, Steve McQueen, when he wore one in the 1971 film "Le Mans." Its colorful dial resembles the Union Jack, and is one of the most iconic watches of its era. Numerous reissues have been released, but the one most faithful to the original is reference CAW211P, released in 2015. This specific model even says "Heuer" rather than "Tag Heuer," which furthers its nostalgic value.

Tag Heuer Monaco CAW211P. Photograph from the Official Website of Tag Heuer

Heuer's most famous racing watch, however, is the Autavia. A number of variants have been released over the years, many of which are identified with certain racing drivers. Two, however, really stand out in my mind.

Heuer Autavia 1163T. Photograph from @plymouth.hemi.1971 on Instagram

The first is reference 1163T, worn by Jo Siffert. If that name doesn't ring a bell, don't feel bad. He had an unspectacular Formula 1 career in the 1960s until his death in 1971--and though he did win a couple of class titles in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Siffert wasn't a big name in racing. He was, however, the first ever racing ambassador for Heuer, paving the way for the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alexander Rossi, Patrick Dempsey, and even Juan Manuel Fangio, posthumously. The 1163T had a "panda" dial -- white base and black subregisters -- along with a blue sweep hand and indices. Add that to the brushed steel case with the black rotating bezel and you have a very handsome watch. Like the McQueen Monaco, this had a couple of reissues, but this year Tag Heuer released a Jo Siffert variant of its modern Autavia. While not a true reissue - the case isn't even the same shape - it does have the gorgeous blue details on the 3-register panda dial of the original.

Tag Heuer Autavia 2017. Photograph from the Official Website of Tag Heuer
Tah Heuer 2446 Rindt

The Heuer reference 2446 with the 3rd generation dial (with the straight hands opposed to the sharp, dauphine hands of the first two variants) is possibly the most recognizable Autavia, largely because its design was what the Tag Heuer Autavia 2017 was modeled after. The 2446 is also associated with Formula 1 driver Jochen Rindt who in 1970 became the first and only driver to win the Formula 1 driver's championship posthumously, after a horrible crash in that year's Italian Grand Prix. The 2446 features a 3-register dial, as opposed to the 2-register configuration on the 3646, known as the Mario Andretti—another Formula 1 champion. The black rotating bezel is rather unique, in that it's scaled 1 to 12, rather than the typical tachymeter scale. It gives the watch a cleaner, bolder look, which is to say it lends it a lot of character. The 2446 is becoming exceedingly expensive, and it’s hard to find an all-original. Thankfully, the Autavia 2017 is a modern but faithful homage to its spiritual predecessor, and is even offered with beads of rice bracelet that is very period correct. Tag Heuer scored big with this reissue.

Seiko A828-4019 Speed Master. Photograph from the Official Website of Seiko Japan

Before he was a Tag Heuer brand ambassador, Ayrton Senna was known to wear Seikos. Seiko doesn't have too much racing heritage, save for the odd collaboration with Honda or Subaru, and though their Sportura line sort of serves as their motorsport collection, they don't have any current racing ties that I'm aware of. I've written about the black and blue dial variant of the 6138-0040 "Bullhead" and its alleged connections to Senna. There is one Seiko, however, whose link to the F1 great is absolutely certain—the A828-4019 "Speed Master." It's a quirky digital watch which was designed by Italian styling house Guigario. It has a chunky, decidedly 80s look, with the screen turned at about a 20 degree angle. Sadly, this watch doesn't have any modern iteration, but Seiko recently reissued the Guigario-designed SCED035 "Ripley" so there is hope that the A828-4019 "Speed Master" could be similarly revived. And while it may not be a chronograph, a link to arguably the greatest driver of all time sort of trumps it's lack of the traditional racing look.

Seiko 6138-0040 "Bullhead"

Another man with a claim to the title of "greatest of all time" is Michael Schumacher, who had a long relationship with Omega before his move to Audemars Piguet. There are maybe a dozen or so versions of the Schumacher, and my favorite might be reference 3559.32.00, aka the "Legend," with the panda dial. While it is a handsome watch, it looks too much like the Paul Newman Daytona, and that puts me off just a little. But there is another, unsung connection with Omega and motorsport, and that's through rally legend Walter Rohrl. 

Omega Speedmaster Schumacher "Legend" 3559.32.00. Photograph from the Official Website of Omega

Rohrl is a two-time World Rally champion, and is considered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rally drivers of all time. His watch of choice? An Omega Speedmaster Mk III, reference 176.002, with the gray dial. It's a massive watch, with a case that is so thick it can't be hidden under a shirt cuff, but it has loads of character. The light blue accents are beautiful against the gray backdrop, and the airplane second hand gives some hints to its aviation and aerospace heritage. Rorhl once said in an interview that it was his lucky charm, and even though its sheeer size and weight actually hurt his wrists when he wore it while racing, he wouldn't take it off, and instead wear it on the other arm. This is another piece that hasn't gotten a reissue, but with the Speedmaster line enjoying a strong enthusiast base and a more widespread acceptance of larger watch cases, the time may be right for Omega to take a second look at this very interesting piece.

Speedmaster Mk III worn by Walter Rohrl. Photograph from omegaforums.net

Nowadays, most watch brands have some sort of relationship with motor racing. Casio is a sponsor of the Toro Rosso Formula 1 team, Richard Mille has Alain Prost as an ambassador, and Hublot supports all of Ferrari's motorsport programs. But it’s pieces with real history, the ones that took part in the golden age of motorsport, that tug at the heartstrings of car lovers like me. Every time I see one of these pieces, I get transported to a different time and place. To an era where motorsport was at its apex in terms of excitement, glamor, and spectacle. Back to when, in the words of living legend Sir Jackie Stewart, "racing was dangerous and sex was safe."