The history of the Rolex Daytona has been one of evolution rather than "Eureka!" moments. It is possible to trace the development of these watches from their earliest forms to today's sleek new models. However, vintage Rolex Daytonas are the real collector's market, with some of these incredible timepieces bringing as much as $250,000 at auction.
What is incredibly ironic in the story of the Rolex Daytona is that early models were not at all popular when they first came out. It was not unusual for a Paul Newman watch to go unsold as long as five years at an authorized dealer's shop. Today, those models are among the most sought-after and expensive vintage Rolex watches in the world!
Founder Hans Wilsdorf created Rolex in 1905, a time period when the German and American automobile industries were becoming important. Little could he have known how intimately his company would one day become with auto racing, a sport that was not even imagined at the time!
The Daytona represents the pinnacle of the marriage between Rolex and racing. How it got to that point, however, makes an interesting story in itself.
The story really begins with a very famous auto racer, Sir Malcom Campbell, also known as The Speed King. In his Blue Bird race cars, Sir Malcom Campbell set many land-speed records both in Europe and at a racetrack in a little-known Florida city called Daytona Beach. He set many of these records driving on the beach sand, rather than a traditional track.
Sir Malcolm Campbell's exploits caught the attention of Hans Wilsdorf who wanted Campbell as the Rolex Ambassador. While the first Rolex Ambassador is generally said to be Mercedes Glietze, Ambassador Malcom Campbell soon eclipsed her in scope, appearing on behalf of Rolex for years. The company even produced a Malcolm Campbell Rolex model in honor of the iconic racecar driver.
A second important figure in the Rolex Daytona story is William France, Sr., another racer with a love for the Daytona beaches. Willliam France grew up racing his family's Model T Ford rather than going to school, and moved to Daytona in 1935. When Malcolm Campbell left for the Bonneville Salt Flats, France was responsible for taking over and managing the racetrack as well as making and breaking new racing records there. He continued the Rolex tradition as well the legend of fantastic racing.
We have not wandered as far as it may seem from the Rolex Daytona. The evolution of the Daytona Speedway in many ways reflects the love Rolex has always had for the sport. By the 1960s, Rolex was inextricably linked with the Daytona raceway, worn by such legendary racers as Junior Johnson and, of course, Paul Newman.
The Rolex Daytona did not start out as the Daytona. Instead, the 1955 version, the Reference 6234, was labeled the "Rolex Chronograph." This is the first recognizable version of the watch that would come to be known as the Daytona, and it is estimated that only 500 were made each year between 1955 and 1961.
In many ways, the Rolex Chronograph is recognizable as the forefather of the modern Daytona. While it requires manual winding, the look and feel have not changed much when compared to today's Daytona.
In 1953, Rolex registered the name "Cosmograph" and placed it on a 1956 watch. The name was to come to be used frequently in the 1960s in place of Chronograph. The Cosmograph designation continued to appear through the early 1980s both with and without the word "Daytona" on the dial.
By 1962, it was clear that the popularity of Daytona racing was not a "flash in the pan," so Rolex continued to capitalize on that popularity by using the "Daytona" designation on its watches. Incredibly, the name "Daytona" was actually a second choice; the 1964 Rolex Chronograph was to be named the "Le Mans," according to an advertisement from that time period. Whether Rolex was unable to obtain naming rights or simply decided to make the switch, the "Le Mans" designation disappeared quickly and was replaced uniformly by "Daytona." The first appearance of Daytona that is officially acknowledged is in 1965.
Ironically, the original Daytona was not popular, despite the endorsement of celebrities like Paul Newman. Newman became the most well-recognized person to ever wear the Daytona, and today Paul Newman models are highly-sought collector's items.
Newman reportedly wore his Daytona every day of his life from 1972 until 2008. The watch eventually became so popular that a second model was issued in 1988 using a Zenith "El Primero" modified winding movement. Original Daytona watches featured a four-digit model number, but later models used a five-digit reference. A third series, introduced in 2000, has a Rolex movement and features a six-digit reference.
In order to be considered a "Paul Newman" Daytona, the watch must be a Reference 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264 or 6265. The sub-dials must have block markers instead of lines, and must have crosshairs across the sub-dials that meet at the center. The seconds sub-dial is placed at 9 and is marked 15, 30, 45 and 60. The dial of a Paul Newman watch originally came in four color combinations. Since the early 1970s, the watch has not been produced, so it has become a rare collector's item. Recently, a rare steel 6264 model sold for more than $1 million at an auction.
Since the Paul Newman era, there have been other versions of the Daytona that are not as popular. However, the Daytona has remained a mainstay, along with the Submariner, that represents Rolex's solidity, strength and ability to bring these qualities to beautiful, fashionable timepieces. Today's Daytona is represented by Tom Kristensen, bringing full circle the Daytona connection to racing. Modern Daytona watches are certified self-winding watches with chronograph functions, and continue to represent the rare merger of form and function that defines all Rolex products.