The Rolex Daytona

It may have had to wait a long time for its turn in the spotlight, but Rolex’s legendary Cosmograph Daytona is now arguably their most successful creation.

The particular irony is, a watch designed for a life in motorsport remained an abject failure for the first quarter century of its production run due, in the most part, to its engine.

Now, examples both old and new are among the most sought after and desirable timepieces money can buy—and certain versions are practically unattainable at any price.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239

It is the model many experts credit with forging the vintage watch market as we know it today, the one every Rolex collector aspires to own at least one of and, of course, the holder of the record for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold.

The Daytona’s history can be easily divided into thirds, each segment dominated by what was going on inside those elegantly curved but utilitarian cases, and its initial creation and subsequent iconic status can be put down to its association with two men.

The first, Sir Malcolm Campbell, was known as the Speed King. His fearless exploits in breaking land speed records in the 1930s caught the attention of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, and the daredevil lifestyle Campbell led saw him become the brand’s first true ambassador. Although British, he would come to America to race—specifically to Florida, where he would power his Bluebird race car along the endless miles of sand on Daytona Beach.

And the other essential key to the watch’s success lies in the unofficial patronage of one Paul Newman, another man obsessed with the pursuit of speed. It was the Hollywood legend’s dedication to his Daytona, the watch he wore everyday whether racing or not, that gave it the cool factor it so desperately needed and elevated it to its current standing as one of the world’s most famous watches.

Although Rolex had made chronographs before, their forte was still the simple, three-hand models that had first made them famous. Their initial toe-dipping into building pieces bound for the racetrack were relatively half-hearted. Other manufactures had been making them better for longer, and Rolex’s efforts seemed fairly flimsy by comparison.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239

It would take until the 1960s, and the beginning of Andre Heiniger’s era at the helm, before they attacked the problem with any enthusiasm.

Those early Daytona references, being manually-wound mechanical models released at the dawning of the quartz age, lingered on dealers shelves for years, perhaps the closest Rolex has ever come to misjudging the mood of the market. It wasn’t until the late 80s, when the watch received its first automatic movement, that it started its rise to the very top of the horology tree. The so-called Zenith Daytonas proved immensely popular and Rolex, hampered by the fact the caliber was being supplied by a third party, couldn’t build the watch fast enough to keep up with demand. So began both the Daytona’s infamously daunting waiting lists as well as the watch buying public’s fascination with the previous generation.

Rolex Daytona Cosmograph

Since 2000, we are into the third iteration, one with an entirely in-house mechanism, the last of Rolex’s calibers to be brought in under their own roof.

What had been a relative catastrophe for the brand, a watch dealers were known to literally give away as an incentive to customers to buy more popular models, has now come full circle. It is famous enough to be identified by just its title, dropping the name of its maker, the most recognized watch marque in the world.

Below, we will look at how you can and why you should join the Daytona owners club, and take possession of the chronograph against which all others are measured.

Financial

In terms of a range in prices, the Daytona has probably the widest gap between least and most expensive there is. An entry level vintage example, which for the Daytona is usually an early 90s Rolesor model, starts at the $10,000 mark. At the top end (and we’ll discount Paul Newman’s personal watch and its $17.7m price tag here because, well, come on) there are no shortage of similarly exotic-dialed first generation pieces, not worn by the screen legend, that can easily break the half a million barrier.

In between, there are beautiful models that hit just about every price point.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 116520

A five-figure entrance fee for a watch, even one as revered as the Daytona, might seem like a stretch but the good news is, there are very few timepieces anywhere that, at the least, hold their value as well, or at best appreciate quite so significantly.

If you have the budget, investing in an early Daytona is as safe a bet as any in the horology world. The mystique that has grown up around the watch is so great that experts are not seeing any sign of there being a reversal of fortune anytime soon.

Even the more attainable examples, like the two-tone Zenith-powered pieces, could well be on the rise, with bicolor metals coming back into fashion. In short, you would have to be especially unlucky to lose money on a Daytona.

One particular oddity, one that affects a few models in the Rolex stable, is the higher prices collectors will pay for stainless steel models over those in precious metals. While the steel pieces are, technically, cheaper if you were buying brand new, their popularity and Rolex’s policy of strictly limiting the number they produce each year, makes them extremely desirable. Waiting lists for the latest six-digit steel Daytonas from an authorized dealer can run anywhere up to five years; it is a fraction of that for a gold or platinum piece. Therefore, getting your hands on a steel model requires either a great deal of patience, a dealer as a close personal friend or forking out a substantial premium on the pre-owned market.

Whichever option you decide to take, the Daytona has enjoyed an incredible success in the last few decades financially speaking, one that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Options

As a testament to its global fame, Rolex has released far more diverse versions of the Daytona than they have any of the rest of their sports watch ranges.

Available in steel and Rolesor, it has long left behind its robust professional racer’s credentials by being issued in all three flavors of gold (yellow, white and red) along with that least sporty of metals, platinum.

Most commonly found on the elegantly simple Oyster bracelet, it is also one of only two models in the catalog, along with the Yacht-Master, available with Rolex’s take on the rubber strap, known as the Oysterflex.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 116503

The dial options are where things get particularly interesting. The basic setup has stayed relatively untouched throughout the watch’s lifetime—a trio of sub dials arranged at the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions, the majority finished in a contrasting color to the rest of the dial. Hour markers have tended to be simple batons to aid legibility, but you will still find plenty with both Roman and Arabic numerals. However, within that essential structure are enough variations, and variations on those variations, to thrill even the most demanding of watch nerds.

Some, like the Art Deco-inspired ‘exotic’ dials are well known, mainly through their unofficial nickname of the Paul Newman Daytonas. Others, such as the ‘Oyster Sotto’, the ‘inverted 6’ or the ‘Patrizzi’ dials are minute deviations on the main theme that are so rare they can sell for significantly more than a standard example. We will look at these pieces, and other highly collectable references, in more detail later.

There have also been a vast array of colored dials, ranging from the standard monochrome black and white, to more eccentric shades to match any tastes. The Leopard Daytona, for instance, with its luminous animal print face echoed onto its leather strap, and its bezel beset with diamonds and orange sapphires, is as extravagant as the crown has ever gotten.

Some later models have done away with picking out the counters in opposing colors, giving the whole face a more subdued, uniform look. In other words, there is a Daytona out there somewhere to suit you down to the ground.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 116505

The bezel too has seen a number of alternatives over the years. The forerunner to the Daytona, the ref. 6238 (known simply as the Rolex Oyster Chronograph or, to fans, the ‘Pre-Daytona’), had its tachymeter scale printed on the outer edge of its dial. When the first of the actual Daytonas was released, the gauge had been engraved into the surround, leaving the face far less cluttered and more easily readable. The number of divisions has changed too, starting off at 300 units per hour, then later down to 200. Since 1988, it has been raised up to 400.

The material the bezel has been made from has also evolved. Usually forged in the same metal as the rest of the case, early references such as the ref. 6240 from 1965 and the ref. 6264 from 1970 had a black acrylic inlay.

In 2013 Rolex brought out the first of the Cerachrom surrounds on their 50thanniversary platinum piece, a near unbreakable ceramic material that was rolled out across more of the range in 2016.

And finally, another big alteration made in the first few years of the Daytona’s run concerns the chronograph pushers. The original pump pushers were soon replaced by screw down replacements, sealing the watch tighter and increasing its water resistance.

The Sizes

In keeping with the style of the era, the first Daytonas measured 37mm in diameter. For a sports watch, these days it seems conspicuously small, even by Rolex standards, a manufacture that has long shied away from anything too grandiose proportions-wise.

That was the size that saw the Daytona through its initial generation, a run that lasted until it received, at long last, a self-winding caliber at the end of the 1980s.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520

From there, and ever since, it has increased to a more normal but still not particularly huge 40mm. On the wrist, it wears slightly smaller due to the softness of its curves, even with the added bulk offered by its arrangement of crown and pushers. Stand a modern Daytona next to the likes of a contemporary Submariner with its new maxi case, also ostensibly a 40mm piece, and the difference is striking.

Unlike the Datejust or the Day-Date, there is no choice in sizes for the Daytona, and no word from Rolex on there being an increase on the cards anytime soon. But there wasn’t with the Sea-Dweller either when the last version emerged with a case bumped up to 43mm, so who knows what the future holds?

It means the Daytona can easily be worn as a dress watch as well as a tool watch, slipping nicely under a shirt sleeve—the newer models especially being some of the slimmest chronographs around.

One interesting effect of being so conservatively sized is the Daytona, in recent years, has become popular with a female audience, with evermore women taking to its graceful lines and stylish exterior.

Functionality

Whether manually wound or automatic, third party caliber or in-house, each iteration of the Daytona has always been among the most capable chronographs of its time.

With the first two generations, although powered by movements sourced from elsewhere, Rolex still selected the best mechanisms available; the Valjoux 72 and its variants, and Zenith’s legendary El Primero. However, it wasn’t enough for the crown to simply plug these engines straight into the Daytona’s case and hope for the best. Each was extensively reworked to meet the exacting standards Rolex, and its customers, expected. The El Primero especially was stripped to the bare bones, more than half its components either replaced or discarded completely, including the date function, and its frequency dropped from 36,000vph to Rolex’s standard-issue 28,800vph.

The work was all in the name of making the watch, and its chronograph, as accurate and reliable as it was possible to be.

Rolex Caliber 4130

Those three subsidiary dials, set as always in the classic tricompax arrangement, show standard seconds, elapsed minutes up to 30 and elapsed hours up to 12. The large central seconds hand is the stopwatch function, static most of the time, and operated with the pushers when called on to perform. And of course, the engraved bezel markings indicate the average speed, whether you measure in miles or kilometers per hour.

But if the first two calibers in the Daytona were among the best of their age, the one Rolex finally got around to building themselves in 2000 is recognized as perhaps the finest chronograph movement ever made.

The Cal. 4130 is made up of just 201 separate components, the fewest of any modern mechanism and a 60% drop on the outgoing El Primero. It also saw the debut of Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring, the niobium and zirconium alloy that is impervious to magnetic interference and temperature variation and 10 times more shock resistant than more traditional materials. Its self-winding system uses, again for the first time, ceramic ball bearings that increase its efficiency by 68%. But most significantly, it is fitted with a vertical clutch rather than its predecessor’s horizontal one. It is the innovation that eliminates the judder when starting and stopping the chronograph seconds hand that is indicative of more conventional clutches and ensures unrivalled precision in stopwatch timing. It also protects the accuracy of the watch’s usual timekeeping when left running for extended periods.

Although the Daytona has progressed a long way from its original intended home of the racetrack, it hasn’t stopped Rolex from constantly working and reworking its internal machinery to make sure it is as exact as it can be.

There is very little out there not run by electronics that can rival it for sheer virtuosity.

Availability

There are also very few models, by any manufacture, that are as collectable as the Rolex Daytona. As we saw above, the watch runs the price gamut from the reasonably attainable to the utterly incredible, and everywhere in between.

Cost is obviously based on the comparative rarity of the model in question along with its current popularity on the pre-owned market.

Rolex Daytona Two-Tone 16523

The first of the Zenith Daytonas, seeing in the introduction of a self-winding caliber, marks the usual entry point into the club. The ref. 16523 especially, the historically less popular Rolesor model, can be had with a budget that just creeps into five figures. The blend of gold and steel has long been a signature look for Rolex, and many in the know are predicting the reference will experience a price rise in the near future as more collectors turn their attention to Daytona models from the late 80s and early 90s.

Already a big favorite is the all-steel version, the ref. 16520. Again, there are plenty of these available as a vintage purchase, but prices are generally about twice as much as for the two-tone.

Such is the way with watch collecting, and particularly Rolex, it is the manually-winding first generation models, which used to do nothing but gather dust for years on end, that now represent the most sought after and bruisingly expensive editions.

In all, there were eight separate references fitted with hand-wound movements. Of those, the most plentiful and easily found is the ref. 6263, produced from 1971 to 1988—the year the Daytona went through its automatic transformation. Available in steel and both 14k and 18k gold, it also came in a variety of dial colors and featured an acrylic bezel. It ran alongside its sister reference, the ref. 6265, which was fitted with a metal surround. However, just because there is a relatively ample supply of them, this is not the place to go looking for a bargain. You will still need to dig deep to secure either.

Of all eight, the rarest model of them all is open for debate, but it is usually agreed that the shortest production run belongs to the ref. 6262, made from just 1969-1970. Containing a new variant of the Valjoux 72 caliber that upped the frequency from 18,000vph to 21,600vph, the steel editions crop up from time to time, but the gold variants are incredibly difficult to track down.

Which brings us to the minefield of the Paul Newman Daytonas. Six of the Valjoux-run models received Panda dials, what were formally known as ‘exotic’ dials, a black or white face with an outer track that matched the contrasting sub dials and with a distinctive font to its numerals, along with other subtle detailing.

Rolex Daytona Stainless Steel Ref. 6239

They were, if anything, even less popular on their release than the standard models. Today, they are many collectors’ grail watch and some sell for, literally, millions.

For reference, only models 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264 and 6265 were ever fitted with such a dial by Rolex and are legitimate Paul Newmans. It is an important point to make as it is believed there are now more fakes in circulation than the real thing, it being not especially tricky for forgers to take a standard watch, install an exotic dial and sell it for a huge markup. Spotting the real thing versus a counterfeit is an art form in itself and requires some serious research—so if you are in the market for one, be prepared to do your homework.

Among the other especially collectable models of the Daytona are those with the slightest discrepancies to their dials. The ‘Oyster Sotto’, meaning ‘Oyster Underneath’ in Italian, simply has the word ‘Oyster’ below the ‘Cosmograph’ script on its face. Extraordinarily rare, examples very occasionally surface at auction and sell for eye-watering amounts.

Also scarce but nowhere near as expensive are two particular versions of that first of the Zenith Daytonas from 1988. The first has the 6 printed upside down on its 12 hour sub dial, so it looks like a 9. Known colloquially as the ‘Inverted 6’, these dials also had four dash markings between the numerals on its minute totalizer, rather than the more usual three. Whether it was a mistake or not, the ‘defect’ was corrected after a few years, leaving the Inverted 6s a desirable but attainable find.

Rolex Mens Daytona Cosmograph 16520

And the Patrizzi Daytonas were a fleeting number of the steel ref. 16520s, with the black Mark IV dial made between 1994 and 1995. Rolex at the time (but I presume not long after) were using an organic varnish called Zapon which, as it turns out, didn’t provide enough coverage to protect the dial. Over time, the silver outer tracks of the stopwatch counters have oxidized and turned a chocolaty brown as they react to UV light. Even better for collectors, the effects don’t stabilize and continue to change color, making each model unique. Patrizzi dials sell for significantly more than the standard, entry level Daytona.

The Rolex Daytona Timeline

The story began in 1963 with the release of the ref. 6239, a continuation of Rolex’s underwhelmingly received series of chronographs. At first, the name Daytona is nowhere to be seen and the watch carries only the ‘Cosmograph’ designation, a term patented in 1953 and used first on a moonphase model three years later.

Rolex Daytona 1963

For a brief instant, the brand christen their new timepiece the ‘Le Mans’, after the renowned 24-hour motor race, but it is swapped for ‘Daytona’ around 1965 in honor of the Florida Speedway and its own Rolex-sponsored endurance event.

It is powered by the Valjoux 72 movement, renamed the 722 by the time the Rolex engineers have finished tinkering with it—a manually-wound caliber that gives the watch an outdated feel and its sales are muted.

The ref. 6240 is released, again in 1965, featuring screw down pushers for the first time, which gives the new reference a water resistance of 100m rather than the 50m of previous models. The ‘Oyster’ inscription can now be included on the dial.

In 1969, the ref. 6262 takes over, featuring an updated caliber, the Valjoux 727, with an increased frequency of 21,600vph. Strangely, this model and its companion piece with an acrylic bezel, the ref. 6264, revert back to push buttons for the chronograph functions. They are the last models to have this type.

1971 sees the start of the longest running reference of the first generation, the ref. 6263 (and ref. 6265 with the metal bezel). Both are available with a range of dials, but still find it hard to gain an audience.

The following year, Paul Newman is gifted a 1968 ref. 6239 with an exotic dial by his wife Joanne Woodward to mark the start of his motor racing career. On the back is engraved ‘Drive Carefully, Me’. He is photographed wearing it extensively, but the Daytona is still a relative disappointment sales-wise.

In the early 80s, Rolex partner with Swiss brand Zenith and adopt their El Primero movement for the Daytona, arguably the first automatic chronograph caliber. In 1988, the second generation of the watch is unveiled, with the highly modified engine, renamed the Cal. 4030, running the show.

Its release coincides with the new phenomenon of watch collecting and suddenly the Daytona becomes the most desirable timepiece money can’t buy. Rolex are unable to keep up with demand, and waiting lists start to stretch on for years. Interest in the previous, manually-wound models takes off, propelled even further by the association with Newman.

Now hugely successful, the logical next step is for Rolex to produce their own automatic chronograph movement. In 2000, after five years of research and development, the third iteration of the Daytona emerges. The power comes from the brand’s own Cal. 4130, recognized as among the finest calibers of its type ever made.

Aesthetically, the watch looks almost identical to the previous one. The eagle-eyed will have spotted two of the sub dials, the running seconds and the hours counter, have swapped places and all three have been moved up by 7% to accommodate the new movement. The pushers also stand out at exactly 90° rather than at a slight angle as on the Zenith models.

Beyond that, Rolex realized there was nothing else needed to be altered on their once ugly duckling, a watch that has since gone on to become the single most extraordinary rags to riches tale of them all.