My second offering in September is nevertheless a premier watch — a classic early 1960s Universal Geneve Polerouter Date with stunning black gilt-gloss dial and trademark Speedmaster-style twisted lug case (both watches shared the same case maker back in the day). Said to be designed by the great Gerald Genta himself in his early days — the legend behind such later icons as the Royal Oak and the Nautilus — these early Polerouters are getting harder to find in good condition and more & more desirable overall.
And with good reason. The Polerouter was made tough with a high quality steel screw back case for water resistance and gained its name keeping good time for Scandinavian pilots flying over the highly magnetic North Pole shortcut in the 1950s. The Polerouter was also made innovative, as Universal quickly came up with a revolutionary micro-rotor system of automatic winding, their own proprietary Microtor, to reduce the thickness of the movement and therefore the watch. This winding system was so clever and ahead of its time that Patek Philippe revisited it in the modern era to legendary — and legendarily expensive! — effect.
Most of all the Polerouter was made super stylish courtesy of Mr. Genta. With its two-part dial composed of gorgeous black gilt-gloss crosshair interior and machined textured calibrated silver outer track, this Polerouter Date is nothing short of a stunner. Most of these dials have deteriorated badly and while this one does show a little of its age it’s still in really fine condition with crisp printing and wonderfully warm vintage charm. Equally well-matched with a suit and tie, an Oxford or a faded T this classic Polerouter is a fine companion for any occasion. But hurry — just as time waits for no one this legendary vintage icon is priced to fly away quickly!
Summer may be gradually winding down but there are still some hot vintage watches to be had. Take this gorgeous mid-1960s Seamaster 600 for example. This classic manual winder from the great house of Omega features a stunning original silver sunburst dial and an elegant yet robust all-steel water resistant screw back case.
Inside that handsome packaging you’ll find another quality in-house movement from Omega, in this case the hand winding caliber 601 finely tuned with two positional adjustments. The connection between a manual watch and its owner can be a pleasurable one, reinforced as it is with the daily interaction of powering up the movement via turning the crown. And I predict a very happy symbiosis for this SM 600 and its new owner.
Whether you’re off to the office or out for a night on the town this classic Seamaster remains as timeless and versatile as when it was designed way back in 1965. Just strap it on and see what this stylish vintage Omega can do for you.
1966’s Harper is not only one of the great Paul Newman’s best and most enjoyable films. It’s also by this late date a bit of an under looked classic with a remarkable creative pedigree. Based on the great Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, and capturing the bubbling striking and strangeness of burgeoning, fast moving California in the post war era, Harper is an excellent crime thriller with a first-rate cast. Not only is there the always terrific Newman as the title character at his most wry, nimble and reluctantly heroic. The film is also packed with other standout actors like the screen legends Lauren Bacall, Shelly Winters, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner. Great character actors also play their parts notably the always indelible Strother Martin, Robert Webber and Harold Gould. The movie was also legendary screenwriter William Goldman‘s big breakthrough, establishing him as a major Hollywood writer and adaptor of work and essentially launching his long successful career in the movies. It was capably directed by Jack Smight with a nice light touch, who also went on a pretty good run later in the 60s and 70s helming films like No Way to Treat a Lady (from a novel by Goldman), The Illustrated Man, Airport 1975 and Midway. Finally Harper was shot by the great Conrad Hall and the film has a terrifically bright and colorful California feel even though it is essentially a noir in content.
Without giving too much away, down on his luck private investigator Lew Harper is hired by an old friend, an ex- Assistant DA and now private attorney Alfred Graves (Arthur Hill) to investigate the disappearance of his client, millionaire grower and developer, Ralph Sampson. The unlikeable Sampson has disappeared en route to LA while flying back from Vegas and his wife, the beautiful but ice cold and disabled Elaine Sampson (Bacall) wants to find out what happened if only to catch him stepping out on her. Harper also meets Sampson’s daughter from another marriage, Miranda (played by a very kittenish Pamela Tiffin) and her boyfriend and Sampson’s private pilot, Alan Taggert (Wagner), who also happens to be the last person to see Sampson before he went missing at the LA airport after ordering a limo. By searching Sampson’s private bungalow Harper finds a picture of faded starlet Fay Estabrook (Winters), whom he tracks down and finds to be overweight and alcoholic. Harper gets her drunk to pump her for info and from Fay’s web of strange connections he’s led to even more unseemly characters such as the nightclub singer and junkie Betty Fraley (Harris), Fay’s vicious husband Troy (Webber) and the bogus holy man Claude (the one-of-a-kind Martin). Deeper crimes are uncovered including kidnapping, human trafficking and even murder and no one is entirely what they seem.
If that all sounds complicated it is. True to the Ross MacDonald style there are a lot of characters to keep track of and a lot of plot twists to follow and throw the audience off balance. Harper uses his wits more than his fists to move the case forward, though he is more than capable in either hand-to-hand combat or with a gun. He’s a step above the local police and he doesn’t mind letting them know it to their face. He takes more than a few beatings and serious risks to his life but, like all great detectives, is compelled to stay on the case and see it through no matter were it may lead. As personified by Paul Newman, Harper is never grim but always wise-cracking, quick witted, effortlessly masculine with a appropriately sardonic take on his gray-shaded word and the people in it. It’s one of Newman’s subtly great performances in that it comes across so effortlessly, as though Harper were just a second skin he was slipping on, and ranks right up there with Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (another Goldman screenplay) and The Sting for moving Newman away from the “angry young man” stereotype of his earlier career — a sort of alternative Brando — and into the persona of the affably cynical, world wise, wise-cracking and sometimes reluctant hero that served him and us as theater-goers so well. The direction is crisp and manages to fit in all its twists and turns in a highly enjoyable and never draggy 2 hours. And of course the brilliant screenplay does justice to MacDonald’s original novel even elevating the humor somewhat to keep the dialogue fast and clever, rife with sharp ripostes and cutting lines. It’s tough and violent enough without being exploitative and it’s one of those movies where everything just seems to hum along like a well-oiled machine with just enough oddness and ingenuity to prevent it from being an exercise in formula or slickness. In short, if you’re a Paul Newman fan and crime thriller fan and you haven’t seen Harper yet what are you waiting for? It’s a mid-60s knockout and you are going to love it.
Just a couple of quick asides: Legend has it that the character was changed from the original Archer to Harper because Newman liked H names and thought they were lucky (see Hud, Hombre, The Hustler, etc). Other sources say that because the producers only has the rights to The Moving Target and no other MacDonald works at that time they didn’t want to use Archer. In fact another Harper/Archer movie was made nearly 10 years later with Newman reprising his role and playing alongside his wife Joanne Woodward in TheDrowning Pool (1975). The location was shifted from MacDonald’s beloved coastal California to New Orleans and while the plot was equally byzantine if not more so and the cast of characters just as compelling the film plays a lot more seriously and almost has a grim feel to it. Not a bad thriller by any means but definitely not the nimble, witty masterpiece that the original Harper is. It’s also worth mentioning that the original Archer books themselves are definitely worthy of a read. They are a major cut above most detective fiction and MacDonald earns his high praise as the natural successor to Raymond Chandler as a superlative writer of hard-boiled crime fiction with his Lew Archer grabbing the baton from Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe and ably running with it.
I blame that damn Volkswagen commercial with the nice old Irish lady and her family. Or maybe it’s a hangover from a certain Vermont senator’s 2016 campaign. But Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” has been absolutely stuck in my head for weeks now. And so I’m going to inflict it on you, as well, in an attempt to exorcise it from my ear canal
Obviously it’s a gorgeous 1960s classic redolent of complex youthful emotions, lyrics that effortlessly paint a detailed and profoundly human mise en scène and lifted skyward by those patented soaring S&G harmonies. There’s even a very George Harrison-like guitar sound in there rendered instead by Larry Knechtel’s Hammond organ, as well as Hal Blaine’s thundering drums, giving what could otherwise be a straight forward folk ballad complexity, texture and heft. Essentially it’s a perfect single where the words seamlessly dovetail with the music — “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” — and one that profoundly captures the troubled, fraying zeitgeist of 1968 America. I just hope that by finally posting it I’ll be rid of this masterpiece in my mind’s ear for a while. Sorry if it infects you in the process but it has to be done!
Kicking off summer and this most patriotic month I have a real sparkler of a vintage watch on offer — a beautiful pink gold capped C-shape Constellation. Dating from circa 1966 this Mad Men-esque beauty features Omega’s bold, sweeping lug design that ushered in a new stylistic era for their flagship Constellation line. And this pink gold capped version is surely one of the more uncommon iterations.
Furnished on its ultra-rare matching pink plated brick link bracelet, this Connie makes a stunning and refined impression on the wrist. Best of all all its various collector elements match perfectly: solid 14k pink gold smooth bezel, correct pink crown, solid pink gold Observatory medallion on the back, pink dial furniture and even a pink tension ring on the Omega-signed acrylic crystal! That sort of originality is pretty hard to come across in a 50-year-old watch.
This Connie also features its original and beautiful silver non-luminous dial and matching non-luminous stick hands. I am big fan of this elegantly slim, almost minimalist dial and hands combo and I think once you strap it on you will be, too. To make matters even sweeter, the exceptional 561 Chronometer caliber was serviced recently and so is ready for years’ more faithful service to its new owner. Accuracy, rarity and uniquely classy style all at an eminently reasonable price — what more could you ask for in a vintage dress watch?
Up for sale this month is this uncommon late 1960s Omega ref. 145.020 Seamaster “Soccer Timer” chronograph with beautiful original cream-white dial featuring high contrast red/black sub registers and an inner fixed Tachymeter ring. While it was originally believed that these chronos were manufactured for use in yachting regattas the accepted wisdom now is that they were designed for soccer trainers and referees with the addition to the minute register of a figure for 45 minutes, the length of a football half. Either way, it is an awesome looking watch and in fact the dial design was so striking and distinctive that recently Omega reissued some modern versions of it.
This fantastic and ultra-cool Soccer Timer features sharp chamfers and essentially perfect sunburst satin finish on top of the large 40mm case. Even better, though, is the gorgeous original creamy-white Omega Tritium dial featuring a finely articulated dark gray minute track and red/black sub-registers, with the oversized minute counter specially marked to easily read 45-minute intervals. The dial has a delightful textured matte finish, shows very few signs of age and all Tritium lume plots are present and have acquired a pleasing patina. The bold matching hour and minute hands and fluorescent orange chrono sweep seconds just complete what is simply a terrifically pleasing and unique original Omega Seamaster Soccer Timer layout in top condition.
Under the hood is the redoubtable Omega manual-wind caliber 861, the same workhorse as found in their famed Moonwatch after they phased out the legendary cal. 321. With a 27 million serial number dating it to circa 1968 and looking very bright and pristine, this classic chrono movement had a complete service at Omega UK in 2013 and so is running like a champ, with all timekeeping and chronograph functions operating flawlessly.
When you look at how the prices of vintage mechanical chronos have skyrocketed in the past few years, the Omega Soccer Timer remains a premium piece that is still reasonably affordable for both the aspiring or experienced collector. If anything, a beautiful example like this one has got upside potential once people figure out it’s a better quality watch than many others currently in its price range. For style, functionality and pure funky cool you can’t go wrong with this beautiful cream dial Soccer Timer. You’re sure to be noticed in the best possible way.
Well here’s something you don’t find every day: a 55-year-old watch with its original boxes and papers! But that’s the case with this classic gold-capped vintage 1961 Omega Constellation that I’m offering this month. Not only is it in truly Excellent and unmolested vintage condition with no signs of polish, an all-original non-luminous crosshair dial and its original plated Beads of Rice bracelet but it’s also accompanied by its original double box-set and matching guarantee papers. And that turns an already cool vintage watch into collector grade just like that.
Under the hood is the fantastic Omega automatic caliber 561, arguably part of the best family of mass-produced movements in the history of horology. It features 24-jewels, a semi-quickset date function and has 5 positional adjustments and one for temperature. This fine tuning enabled the 561 to pass its time-keeping tests with flying colors and that’s why it was such a successful movement for Omega’s flagship line, the always Chronometer-rated Constellation.
Take affordability, elegance and mechanical precision along with classic early-60s Gerald Genta-designed vintage style and add then hard to find pieces of original provenance and you’ve got a special package for the discerning collector. That this Connie has survived for so long in such great original condition and still is paired with its factory packaging and paperwork is nothing short of magical. At least that’s the way I look at these sort of wonderful vintage watch finds. And if you’re reading this I bet you do, too.
In the 1960s, AM pop radio was king. FM wasn’t wide spread or heavily commercialized yet — most car and portable radios didn’t even have Frequency Modulation — and the majority of FM’s content was talk and Jazz, with some avant garde college stations breaking new ground by playing true alternative music like the Velvet Undergorund. But if you wanted to hear the hits you’d hear them on AM. While it’s easy to think that only heavyweights like Cream, Hendrix, The Doors and The Byrds were getting all the airplay two of the biggest AM chart toppers of that pop friendly-era were The Grass Roots and The Rascals.
I’d Wait a Million Years – The Grass Roots
The Grass Roots were a prototypical LA band: a good looking and interchangeable bunch of non-threatening white guys who could write a little, play a little but mostly sing very well while letting professional session musicians handle the recording dates and a master producer and songwriting team create their “sound.” On vinyl they were often backed up by that famous group of anonymous studio aces, The Wrecking Crew. But unlike other truly ersatz acts like The Association and The Monkees, The Grass Roots could really Rock when called upon with the commitment that makes for great Blue-Eyed Soul and pop rock. Sure, their music was heavily produced and the band members wound up coming and going at a dizzying pace — their only real mainstay was bassist/singer Rob Grill who wound up owning the band’s name and kept the Grass Roots going until his death in 2011. But under their nod-and-a-wink hippy moniker and backed by the remarkable West Coast songwriting team of PF Sloan and Steve Barri (of “Secret Agent Man” fame) and that great ultra-pop producer/Svengali Lou Adler (Mammas & the Papas, Carole King) and his Dunhill Records label, the Grass Roots cranked out some the seminal hits of the 60s.
Foremost among them is the great “Let’s Live For Today”. Released in 1967 at the height of the Summer of Love, “Live for Today” seemed to capture the youth explosion at its most optimistic, literally proclaiming carpe diem in 2:47 of dramatically arranged, beautifully constructed near-perfection. If it wasn’t “A Day In the Life” or “Good Vibrations”, well, not much else was either and “Let’s Live For Today”s yearning, passionate optimism and chiming but slightly wobbly, almost Eastern guitar notes — not to mention that great shouted “1-2-3-4!” bridge — signaled generational change and renunciation of establishment expectations in the guise of a plaintive love song. It brought the band major success, charting at #8 and selling over a million copies, and it’s simply a great pop record redolent of 60s zeitgeist that still holds up very well.
Midnight Confessions – The Grass Roots
Though not an album band due to their somewhat manufactured, ad hoc structure the Grass Roots had another smash with the beautifully produced and well-arranged “Midnight Confessions,” a typical hopeless love song elevated to super-hooky greatness by a swirling Hammond organ, a walking bass line and some innovative time shifts by the percussion. It deservedly reached #5 on the pop charts late in 1968.
Temptation Eyes – The Grass Roots
1969 saw them score another big hit standing out from a lot of middling material with the intense “Wait a Million Years” and its through-line of insistent electronic beep, dramatic horns and propulsive rhythms. Amidst much band reshuffling the ‘Roots had one more really good song in them, 1970’s “Temptation Eyes”, a solid straight-ahead rocker that was definitely consistent with their overall sound and contribution to the Rock canon. While they’d have even more success with 1971’s “Sooner or Later” and “Two Divided By Love”, those songs are pretty weak sauce with an inescapably cloying Wonder Bread mushiness that does the band no credit. It’s no wonder that they soon petered out and onto the oldies circuit. But their best songs still hold up really well and are a pleasure to listen to. By definition a 60s band, The Grass Roots nevertheless seem prescient in predicting the pop direction of similar acts like The Raspberries, Three Dog Night and Atlanta Rhythm Section.
The Rascals might be viewed as the mirror image of a band like the Grass Roots. Although they charted just as frequently on AM radio during the 60s and their music was also an integral part of the pop soundscape of the era, the Rascals (originally the Young Rascals) were not a West Coast studio creation at all, despite the excellent production and sophisticated arrangements of their best singles. The Rascals hailed from back east in New Jersey and were a real band with four longstanding members who wrote and performed their own material: Felix Caviellieri on keyboard and vocals, the band’s linchpin, Eddie Bregati on vocals and percussion, Gene Cornish on guitar and Dino Danelli on drums. With three of their members having already honed their chops in the band Joey Dee and the Starlighters, The Young Rascals came out of the shoot ready to rock with two reasonably successful hits, the pleasingly raw “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965) and the propulsive, all-time great party anthem “Good Lovin'” (1966).
Good Lovin’ – The Young Rascals
Already the authenticity of the vocals and more rough-hewn, organic excellence of the musicianship declare that the Rascals are not going to be just another sweet sounding pop band with only one or two hits. With an attack owing more to garage bands like the Standells and The Outsiders than to the highly polished sheen of LA’s “West Coast Sound,” but also with more than a casual nod to the British Invasion, the Rascals made the case that East Coast Rock ‘n Roll would not go gently into that good, super-sweet AM radio night.
Which is not to say that the Rascals were radical or confrontational in any overt way. They weren’t musical revolutinaries like Love or social rabble rousers like Jefferson Airplane. But neither were they bubblegum pop. The Rascals were grittier Blue-Eyed Soul with an authentic, intuitive feel for a non-condescending, non-homogenized version of that sub-genre that so many other white acts just couldn’t match. They kept up the good work in 1967 with the Bacharach-like “How Can I be Sure” (covered to even better effect by Dusty Springfield for my money), the surprisingly soulful ode to love and good times, “Groovin'”, a #1 chart-topper, and its fraternal twin single, 1968’s “A Beautiful Morning.”
A Beautiful Morning – The Rascals
Those last two lush and ostensibly happy singles cleverly utilize hints of Latin percussion and feature Cavaliere’s wonderfully evocative, emotionally complex vocals, turning what could easily be pop tripe into something lasting, universal and great. The Rascals were also dedicated participants in their tumultuous times, taking a stand on racial segregation by not accepting bookings on segregated, all-white bills. And when Martin Kuther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 it seemed only fitting that they’d be releasing a single that made the case for peace, tolerance and brotherhood, “People Got To Be Free.”
The Rascals peaked early and wouldn’t last much into the 70s, failing to find chart success when they tried to be more ambitious than the 3-minute single and ventured into longer-form tracks incorporating psychedelia, Eastern philosophy and jazz fusion (though for true aficionados the later recordings are still worth a listen, as the musicianship is always excellent). Nonetheless, as a band that wrote & performed almost all of their own material, they were undoubtedly a more serious, substantial Rock band than The Grass Roots despite sharing a similar timeline of success, no argument. As if to prove the point, The Rascals were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. But for pure listening pleasure, both The Rascals and The Grass Roots still deliver the thrills and hooks of a beautifully fresh pop sound that resonates all the way from the late 1960s to today, whether you’re listening via AM, FM or WiFi.
The Greatest has left us. Muhammad Ali passed away late Friday evening, succumbing to a severe respiratory infection after years of struggling with boxing-induced Parkinson’s. The great fighter and one of the most iconic and polarizing figures of the 20th Century was 74. The New York Times obit is here.
It’s easy to forget that, as Ali gradually transformed in his years after the ring into a sweet natured shadow of his former fiery self, what a wonderfully brash and divisive figure he was in the prime of his remarkable boxing career. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali spent his formative years in that racially divided Southern city, becoming a champion amateur fighter and winning gold as a light heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics. You’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable symbiosis between personality and decade, as Ali became one of the most compelling and archetypal figures of the tumultuous 1960s, joining luminaries like the Beatles, the Kennedys and the NASA astronauts among the towering figures of that time. After his gold medal triumph, Ali returned home to open racism in his hometown but also a consortium of white businessmen dedicated to promoting his career. He discovered a bastardized version of Islam, patented his trademark rhyming patter and eventually earned a title shot against the heavily-favored Sonny Liston. In what would go down as one of the great upsets in boxing history, the lightning fast Cassius Clay floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, driving the hulking Sonny Liston to quit in the 7th round, having punched himself out trying to keep up with the precocious youngster. As he roared to a bemused Howard Cossell, Ali truly had “shook up the world!”
The iconic first-round knockout from the second Ali-Liston fight.
He would continue to shake it up. The very next day he announced his intention to rid himself of his “slave name” thanks to the advice of his new friend and mentor Malcom X and a few weeks later he was forevermore Muhammad Ali. Already alienated by his brashness, for much of white America this bewildering and unsettling transformation was a bridge too far and Ali would come to be loathed by many as a malcontent, an “uppity Negro” with a big mouth. Even more defining and defiant, in 1966 Ali was made eligible for the draft for the escalating war in Vietnam but was clear in his reluctance to fight, saying “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” When drafted in 1967, he refused to serve. He was subsequently denied conscientious-objector status and convicted of draft evasion, lost his boxing titles and was banned from the sport. Ali lost more than 3 prime years in the ring and probably millions of dollars for standing up for his principles and not to fight in what he saw as an unjust war against poor people in a poor far away country. Again, this made him a hero to many in the emerging counterculture and anti-war movement and a pariah to more conservative Americans who steadfastly believed in “my country right or wrong.” But whatever one thought of Ali’s stance on the war, one had to give it to the Champ that he had the courage not only to talk the talk but also walk the walk.
After seeing his case go all the way to the Supreme Court in 1971 and having his conviction overturned there due to the draft board’s arbitrary refusal to consider his conscientious-objector status, Ali pivoted from that moral victory and returned to his violent and lucrative vocation. He resumed his career with a series of tune-up fights in anticipation of a title shot against the fearsome Philadelphian southpaw, George Frazier. The eventual trio of Ali-Frazier fights would become some of the most compelling in boxing history, a worldwide obsession and a racial psychodrama between the handsome, light-skinned and eloquent Ali and the darker, more rugged and plain spoken Frazier. Ironically, Ali became the hero to Black America even as he taunted Frazier for looking like a “gorilla,” while Frazier drew the support of working class whites who wanted the uppity, draft dodging Ali put in his proper place.
Ali lost an epic and punishing 15-rounder to Frazier in March of 1971, suffering a broken jaw but hanging on to the end in what was called simply “The Fight.” Despite the loss The Champ was clearly back. He fought brilliantly in more than a dozen more contests, including beating Frazier in a rematch in 1974. That set him up for the legendary “Rumble In The Jungle” in Zaire to try to regain his title against the imposing knockout specialist George Foreman, who had pummeled Frasier to grab the championship belt. We may think of Foreman as a smiling, grandfatherly presence now hawking his grill on TV but in 1974 he was as serious as a heart attack. Many feared that Ali would be injured against the overpowering Foreman. But as he had done against Liston all those years ago, only taking it to an even more highly polished level, Ali “rope-a-doped” his way through 7 rounds, staying just at the outside of Foreman’s punches by dancing and using the springy ropes to duck, dodge and evade the worst of the bigger man’s punishing blows, often absorbing them with his elbows and shoulders. By the 8th round Foreman was gassed and Ali used an ultra-fast combination to chop Foreman down like a mighty oak. Ali was once again The Champ and the way that he had seduced most of the African continent and turned them against the sullen Foreman with his charisma, coaxing them into giving him the psychological boost of their unbridled affection — “Ali bomaye!” — was arguably one of the most brilliant acts of gamesmanship ever seen in sports. Not only was Ali one of the most gifted athletes of his time but he was clearly also one of the wiliest.
But no boxer can last forever no matter how blessed or brilliant. Ali fought Frazier for a third and final time in 1975, the oppressively hot “Thrilla in Manila,” with the fighters doling out punishment to each other. Ali won on a TKO in the 4th round when Frazier’s eye closed but it’s safe to say that both men would carry the effects of their legendary trilogy of no quarter asked hand-to-hand-combat for the rest of their lives. In ’78 he lost and then regained his title to Leon Spinks but then in 1980 his old sparring partner Larry Holmes battered the noticeably slowing Ali into submission to take his title away for the last time. Ali closed out his career, already with signs of slurred speech and some tremor, with an ignominious defeat to journeyman Trevor Berbick in 1981. For most of Ali’s millions of admirers and even many of his detractors, the end of Ali’s boxing career, belated as it was, came as a welcome relief. It was simply too painful to watch the once-great warrior fight any more.
Of course it was already too late and the damage to Ali’s brain had been done. But for the remainder of his life, Ali became one of the great retired athletes of his time, right up there in terms of activism and charity with Jackie Robinson. Remaining a devout but now-mainstream Muslim, Ali did Herculean work for charity and traveled the world working for good causes. As his physical capacities diminished, one still had the sense of that agile mind floating like a butterfly slyly behind the slow-blinking eyes and the trembling hands. His rough edges were smoothed off, the controversies largely forgotten and he became something like an American legend, a beneficent but remote presence, there always around us but somehow elusive and receding. In our mind’s eye we saw one of the most vibrant athletes ever to grace the ring with personality as magnetic as any movie or rock star, nicknamed “The Lip” for his upstart self-promotional pronouncements. But in his long, last chapter Ali was a slow-moving man of peace and few words making impactful but dwindling appearances like that of his touching torch lighting at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. It was as if his prodigious energies had been well and truly spent, leaving him running on dwindling reserve power inside his prison of a body until this last, final moment of release.
But too often we obsess over a person’s sad last days and those tend to take on disproportionate significance compared to the entirety of their lives. In the two decades of his prime and the time of his greatest impact on sports, on the nation and on the world, Muhammad Ali was both pretty and a baaad man, a beautiful, graceful athlete and proud black man, a speaker of hard truths and always of his own mind, a genius inside the ring and out. He was one of the greatest boxers of all time in the latter part of a century where boxing was one of the marquee sports. At a time when we’re often unable to name the current world champion amongst all the different belts and mediocre pugilists, it’s hard to recall just how big a deal being Heavyweight Champion of the World was back then, every bit as big as being the College Football Champion, the Super Bowl winner or the victor in the World Series. People lived and breathed boxing and Ali was the successor to other legendary heavyweights like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. But he was so much more than just a boxer. Ali dovetailed so beautifully with the emerging zeitgeist of Black Power, Sports as Entertainment and Sports as Symbolism that if you wrote him as a character you’d never get away with it — he would’ve been too outrageous, too perfectly well-spoken, poised and self-assured, too victorious. But Muhammad Ali was just that perfect a fit for his tumultuous times even with his flaws taken into account. Love him or hate him, you could never ignore him. He was a titan of sport, pop culture and, in fact, social change. His message, implied or stated bluntly, was Yes We Can to African-Americans and religious minorities, to the poor, the Third World and the downtrodden. When James Brown wrote “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!” he might’ve written it with Ali in mind. Ali gave hope, light and heat to the world. As the Spanish say, he was simply muy hombre and to conceive of anyone being quite like him again in an age where athletes rarely go out on a limb for fear of alienating their sponsors seems impossible. His echo lives on in a million boasts and taunts on the court and in the field and in the ring. But everyone else is imitating him and their predictions and preening seems more like ritualized kabuki than those of true conviction and zest for the battle. Ali nearly always delivered on what he promised and by doing so he was able to make pronouncements about issues far beyond a simple sporting event. With his mouth and his mind, his brains and his guts, his speed and his strength and his unwavering sense of self, Muhammad Ali really did shake up the world. And the world’s been vibrating from the aftershocks of his impact ever since.
Grateful thanks for this article go to timlua and HQ Milton for kindly contributing their dials and data. Thank you, gentlemen! I’m also especially indebted to the great collector & Man’s Fine Life contributor Beaumont Miller II, not only for sharing his watch photos but also for his invaluable insights about the “Neat Fonts” dial, its place in matte dial chronology and particularly his excellent observations on its similarity to the mid-1960s gilt Sub dials. My heartfelt appreciation for sharing your expertise, my friend — couldn’t have done this without you!
One of the things that makes collecting vintage watches so interesting, and Vintage Rolex in particular, is trying to decode the subtle changes that took place in ostensibly “identical” watches those many years ago. We see evolutions in movements, in cases but most intriguingly we see variations in dial layouts and typography. And just when you think you’ve figured out a dial sequence and its logical chronology, something else out of the ordinary comes along and makes you look at things with fresh eyes.
timlua’s 5512 from the VRF Dial Archive — the watch that put me on the hunt.
Such is the case with what I call the “Neat Fonts” matte meters-first 5512 dial. I first saw this interesting dial several years ago, when a Vintage Rolex Forum member named timlua submitted his mid-1960s 5512 for the Dial Archive. I knew I had to have one… and it took me 8 more years to hunt one down. As you can clearly see and what struck me right away, the printing on this dial is not at all like what we normally see on the first generation of matte meters-first 551x dials.
A standard matte meters-first dial — courtesy HQ Milton
Those first gen matte dials for the Submariner have always had a particularly “first draft” quality to my eye, with rather scraggly fonts and slightly uneven printing. And it makes sense that Singer, undertaking their first try at this new matte-style of dial manufacture and departing their tried and true gilt/gloss method of dial printing, might have had some teething issues with their printing techniques. But not so the “Neat Fonts” 5512 dial. You can already see the clean typography that would become a hallmark of the later 1960s and early 1970s Singer dials: nicely proportioned, flat-ish bottom Coronet with a small “mouth”; SUBMARINER text very clean with a distinctive snake-like “S”; and the depth rating pretty level with minimal jump to the numbers and open 6s.
In fact, the “Neat Fonts” dial does not resemble the Mark I meters-first Sub dials at all. It actually resembles the pre-Bart gilt/gloss dials of the middle 1960s with their high standards of printing and execution. So much so that aside from the application of the SWISS – T<25 you might even think that Singer used the same dial dye for the process. Perhaps they did after figuring out how to utilize that gilt-era dye/tampon, which featured a reverse printing method, and apply it to the paint-on-top method of the matte dials. But more likely they returned to it as a template for the new matte-style dye and that is why they are so similar if not quite identical.
It also shares some characteristics with the Mark III Red Submariner dial, particularly the fonts for the depth rating, the SCOC text and the odd little feature of the dash in the “SWISS – T<25” not quite being centered over the “30” tick.
Making this iteration even more interesting is that unlike just about every no-date Sub Rolex ever made, the “Neat Fonts” dial is always to the best of my knowledge found only in 5512s and never 5513s. Continue reading →