It would be inaccurate to say Phil Hill was given watches for winning races.
Rather, he earned them.
“It all seems so unreal,” the American racing legend said at the close of the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, where he was named champion – the only American-born driver to ever win the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship. He and teammate Count Wolfgang von Trips raced for Scuderia Ferrari, the winningest team on Europe’s road courses and racetracks during the ’50s and early ’60s.
Hill made quick work of the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, conquering the circuit in two hours, three minutes, and 13 seconds. His teammate, Von Trips, only made it one lap before Lotus driver Jimmy Clark tapped Von Trip’s bumper at 130 mph and sent the Ferrari driver into a guard rail and back across the track before plowing into spectators, killing 14 of them. Von Trips was ejected from the Ferrari 156 “Sharknose” and met his end at Monza that day. He was 33.
The Cruel Sport had claimed another driver, but as was typical of formula racing in the ’60s, the race carried on despite the accident. Drivers would have had no way of knowing what became of Von Trips during the race, including Phil Hill, who would go on to take first place.
In a 1961 Sports Illustrated article addressing the race, motorsports writer Philip Payne recounted Hill’s victory:
Hill wept even as he received his laurels, for he had not known until then that Von Trips was dead. Into his tears went all the anguish of a moody, self-critical, sensitive man – a Hamlet in goggles and gloves – who has never been able to take racing serenely or coolly leave it alone.
The champion’s often emotional disposition towards motorsport was well known to his teammates, his rivals, and the automotive press. Starting in 1950, Hill quickly rose the ranks in America, where he raced for Caroll Shelby, and then went on to race in Europe, becoming a superstar on the track. He won 24 Hours of Le Mans three times.
Hill died at age 81 in 2008. And one way to understand his stature in mid-century motorsports is to look at his watch collection. Today, a number of mementos tied to his accomplished career on the track are crossing the block at Gooding & Company as part of A Life of Racing sale. There are several watches among the lots, and three that particularly stand out.
The oldest watch in the sale is a Wittnauer (Estimate: $ 4,000 – $ 6,000) signed with Hill’s name on the dial. It comes from the short era when Hill raced for Caroll Shelby. After leaving Ferrari, he raced for a number of teams, among them Shelby American. Hill piloted the Shelby Cobra, a stout and brutish American-British roadster powered by a 7.0L Ford motor – a total 180 from the svelte Ferraris he drove before. Ironically, he raced it in the Targa Florio, a prestigious road endurance race in Italy – home to his former employer, Maranello’s Prancing Horse.
For his efforts, he earned a time-only Wittnauer, at the time a Longines-owned company with American roots.
The sale also boasts a pair of Rolex watches. One is a 1993 Daytona 24 Hours Winner’s Watch: Rolex Daytona ref. 16520 (Estimate$ 30,000 – $ 50,000). But wait, Hill retired from racing in ’67 and opened up a high-end auto restoration shop. So how did he come to possess a watch that only winners of the Rolex-sponsored Daytona 24 Hours race receive?
Gooding specialist Hans Wurl has a theory. The winning team at Daytona in ’93 was racing legend Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. Gurney and Hill grew up racing in Southern California in the ’50s, even facing each other in Grand Prix racing in Europe. Rivals on the track, they were fast friends off it. “I have a hunch that maybe Phil played an official or semi-official role in ’93 at Daytona,” Wurl posits. “Maybe Gurney asked Phil to help out, and for it, he got a winner’s watch.”
The other watch is a Rolex Datejust ref. 16234 (Estimate $ 5,000 – $ 7,500) that Hill received in 2003 at Le Mans, after winning the race three times in the ’50s and ’60s. The gift honored his legacy and tremendous contributions to motorsport.
Derek Hill, Phil’s son, recalls his father as a low-key gentleman who didn’t get caught up in the world of fancy things he’d spent a career surrounded by. On the Datejust, Derek Hill says he “grew up wishing my father would actually flaunt it a little bit more. ‘Why don’t you wear that really nice watch, dad?’ It always kind of boggled my mind, because I thought he had so many nice things, but he just didn’t choose to wear them.”
Now that they’re up at Gooding, the watches might finally see regular wear depending on the buyers’ plans. But one thing is certain: There’s a big difference between buying the watches at auction and earning them the hard way.
All images copyright and courtesy of Gooding & Company. Photos by Mike Maez