For aficionados of auto racing, Carroll Smith is nothing short of a legend. A renowned engineer, he understood the workings of a racing car the way a concert pianist knows the keyboard on a Steinway.
The high-performance Rolex Daytona owned and worn by Smith was a tool of his trade just as much as any box-end wrench, and is now offered for sale in Watches Online: Discovering Time (1-13 October).
‘Daytonas are chronographs — which is to say that they are timers,’ says Christie’s watch specialist Mike Fossner. ‘This one has some unusually pragmatic characteristics, such as pushers that screw down, and a bezel made of steel rather than black acrylic.’
That bezel is a tachymeter. The increments etched around the edge, in conjunction with the second hand of the watch, allow the user to make an instant and accurate assessment of the speed of a car travelling between two fixed points. It is a brilliantly simple way to fulfil a complex requirement, something certain to appeal to a technically minded problem-solver like Carroll Smith, which is surely why the watch came his way in the first place.
‘This watch was constantly around cars and it was used during races. It hasn’t spent its life in a sock drawer’ — Watch specialist Mike Fossner
‘It was presented to Smith by the Cuddy racing team, and is inscribed to that effect,’ says Fossner. ‘The provenance is what makes this watch interesting to me. It was constantly around the cars and it was used during races. It hasn’t spent its life in a safe or a sock drawer like some Rolexes you see. Carroll Smith wore it, and he wore the hell out of it.’
An auto-racer to the core, Smith began his career behind the wheel of an MG, winning Sports Car Club of America events on the Pensacola beaches. He went to Europe and won his first race in a Cooper Formula Junior at Cesenatico in Italy, a stunning debut by any measure.
He could have carried on, pursuing glory on the track. But instead he turned his analytical eye on his own talent, inspecting it like a spark plug in the palm of his hand, and saw that he did not have what it takes to make it to the very top as a driver.
Smith did, however, have a champion’s lust for victory, and realised that the best way to satisfy that strange hunger was through his technical expertise. He took his hard-earned knowledge of metallurgy, drag, torque and hydraulics — along with his grasp of the twisted nuts and bolts of human psychology — and bent them all to the goal of making cars go fast, faster than the cars of all the opposition.
In the mid-1960s Smith returned to the US, where he was offered the job of team manager for the Ford racing team. His brief was to make Ford’s GT40 into a car that could break Ferrari’s dominance of the 24 Hours of Le Mans: the Italian team had won for five years in a row, from 1960 to 1965. With Smith’s know-how Ford won the Le Mans in 1966, and pretty much everything in 1967.
Those wins were due in part to Smith’s obsession with precision engineering and with tiny fractions of second. He shared that cast of mind, of course, with all fine watchmakers — because a watch, after all, is nothing more or less than a tiny engine.
Any horologist would appreciate what Smith meant when he said of his own machines that all tinkering was a waste of effort ‘until we have established reliability’, and that ‘the necessary fiddling about can be greatly facilitated by a bit of forethought’.
‘Nothing is ever in such short supply at a race track as time’ — Carroll Smith
Those aperçus are contained in Smith’s series of manuals on automotive engineering. Nearly 20 years after his death, his books still command an almost biblical authority in racing circles, and are quoted wherever petrolheads and speed junkies gather. Two volumes, Prepare to Win and Drive to Win, are included in the lot, along with his steely Rolex Daytona.
Certain other Daytonas bear the imprimatur of Smith’s glamorous friend Paul Newman, who was both a brand ambassador for Rolex and a gifted racing driver in his own right.
‘Newman drove the status of these Daytonas,’ says Mike Fossner, ‘and the name Paul Newman is generally the next thing a collector wants to hear when looking at one. So this particular watch is intriguing: it is not a Paul Newman, but it has been closer to Paul Newman himself than just about any of the Daytonas that bear his name.’
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That true-life starry association is part of what gives this watch desirability. But its real attraction, according to Fossner, lies in the down-to-earth fact that ‘it was used for the purpose it was designed for’ at the highest level of motor sport.
It is a great watch, in other words, because it belonged to an outstanding man who knew his game, and knew what is really precious in life — time itself. ‘Nothing is ever in such short supply at a race track as time,’ Smith once remarked, looking back. ‘It doesn’t seem to matter whether we are at the track for a race meeting or for testing — there is never enough time.’