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Bob’s Watches Presents: The History of the Rolex Daytona

December 4, 2018

BY Paul Altieri

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Hey everybody, and welcome to the Bob’s Watches video series. If you’ve been watching our other videos, you probably already suspected this one was coming. It’s time for another history lesson, and today’s is a big one. Today, we’re talking all things Rolex Daytona – from its rocky start in the market, to its evolution into an icon and its record-shattering performance in the present-day vintage watch market. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s jump right into it, shall we?

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The Rolex Daytona History

Technically, the Rolex Daytona started its life under a different name in 1963, when the brand unveiled the Cosmograph reference 6239. An evolution of its sibling the 6238, the new model moved its tachymeter scale out onto its steel bezel, and received contrasting subials – black on silver, and white on black depending on the variant – but it didn’t initially receive its Daytona nameplate. First launched without any nomenclature, the following year the Daytona was actually sold under the name Le Mans. At this point Rolex chronographs were a bit of a tough sell. It’s widely believed that the name change to Daytona was made specifically to give the piece a bit of an American connection as well as to build greater awareness of the brand’s sponsorship of the 24h at Daytona Race, which is something they began involvement in as of 1962. Either way, the name Daytona first appeared on the dial in 1964 under the word Cosmograph, migrating to the top of the 6 o’clock subdial in 1967 where it has remained ever since. 

Just a year later, another iconic addition was made to the Daytona in the form of its screw-down pushers. The reference 6240 was the first example to boast this feature, as well as the first Daytona to feature the word Oyster on its dial. Designed with function first, screwing down its chronograph pushers helped improve the Daytona’s water resistance. Alongside its tachymeter bezel and placement of the Daytona logo, these three details are the core design cues that have remained a part of the chronograph’s essence right up to the present day.

Rolex Daytona History

This is the actual Paul Newman that sold for 17 million back in 2017.

Say Hello to the Paul Newman

During the production run of the 6239 we were also introduced to the unique and now much-loved “exotic dials” that ended up carrying forward to a number of other vintage references over the years. These dials were produced by the dial manufacturer Singer, also known for their work with Heuer of the same era. Thanks to well-documented wear and ownership by the legendary Paul Newman, these exotic dials eventually came to be known as “Paul Newman Daytonas” somewhere in the 80s, and have become significantly more desirable than their comparable standard dial siblings. Though sales figures have always been high, the sale of Paul Newman’s personal Daytona 6239 for over 17 million dollars in October of 2017 helped further bolster the market for these watches. It’s estimated that only one in every 20 or so vintage Daytonas was sold with a Paul Newman dial, so that scarcity only further fuels the higher demand.

Rolex Daytona History

The Rolex Daytona 16520 is a beautiful transitional watch used by Rolex.

It’s time to fast forward a bit to the first real major change in the production of the Daytona – the arrival of a self-winding caliber. Being manually wound was the achilles heel of the Daytona throughout the Quartz crisis, and frankly the brand took their time converting to an automatic caliber. The change arrived in 1988 with the Daytona reference 16520, and it was just one of many updates of the new model. Its case grew to its present 40mm diameter, its dial configuration shifted to the form it still carries to this day, subdials with contrasting timing tracks rather than fully contrasting subdials, as well as the migration from acrylic to sapphire for its crystal. Getting back to the caliber, this era is what became known as the “Zenith Daytona”, as its caliber is based on the Zenith El Primero calibre 400, though only half of its components were still from the Zenith supplied base, and it was modified to run at a slower 4hz frequency rather than the 5hz, or 36,000 vibrations per hour of the El Primero. This marked the era of Rolex bringing the Daytona up to, and effectively surpassing modern standard, however it did not feature an in-house manufacture caliber, meaning the brand had yet another benchmark to aim for. 

Rolex Daytona History

With new updates, Rolex continually changes the game.

Modern Times

12 years later, Rolex laid this last benchmark to rest, as they unveiled the Daytona 116520, featuring an all-new in-house caliber. The fully integrated Rolex chronograph caliber 4130 was, and still is a masterfully executed movement, designed with future serviceability and longevity in mind, which these days is somewhat rare in watchmaking. Its vertical clutch, used to operate the chronograph, is entirely serviceable. By reconfiguring its subdials, moving the hour and minute chronograph counters to the 3 and 6 o’clock positions, its gear-train became a touch less complex, meaning a larger mainspring barrel with a power reserve of 72 hours could be fitted. All told, the arrival of the 116520 was another play by Rolex to remind the competition that the powerhouse was still at the top of its game. 

Rolex Daytona History

This is the latest and greatest references that debuted in 2016.

The last change to hit the Rolex Daytona was a modest and effectively superficial one compared to the other changes we’ve covered, but the reference 116500LN is still absolutely worth noting here. Much like there was a long wait for self-winding, and another long wait for an in-house chronograph caliber, Rolex made its collectors and enthusiasts wait for a ceramic bezel a little too long. After all, the Cerachrom bezel landed on the GMT-Master ii in 2007, and yet the Daytona’s ceramic bezel took until 2016. Either way, it was clearly a popular item on arrival, as it once again fuelled massive waitlists at retailers, and to this day still commands a premium over retail on the secondary market. Visually speaking, it’s hard not to love the new ceramic bezel design when compared steel sibling, but it then comes down to a matter of whether or not you’re willing to stomach the long wait and steep premium to acquire one of your own. 

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