The story of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is a story almost dominated by its movements.
Launched in 1963 and powered by a manually wound caliber from Swiss ébauche manufacturer Valjoux, the original Daytona marked possibly the closest Rolex have ever come to experiencing failure. With the buying public well used to the convenience of automatic winding by then, thanks largely to the Perpetual movements pioneered by Rolex themselves some thirty years before, having to wind a watch yourself every day seemed a definite step back to a less advanced era. Couple that with the evolutionary leap forward of the newly arrived quartz movements, and the Daytona was looking like a quaint relic before it was even released.
As such, models that now sell to collectors for sums that read like phone numbers did nothing but take up space in dealers’ showrooms for years at a time. It clung on desperately, the black sheep of the family, for 25 years, when a change of engine set it on the path to its current status as the ultimate chronograph and the most desirable watch in the world.
The El Primero
Watchmakers were well aware of the need for an automatic chronograph movement for decades before a viable example made it to market. While many deemed it an impossible task, due mainly to the finances needed to develop the necessary technology, several firms decided to form alliances to pool their resources and expertise, and two competing groups appeared.
The debate over which conglomerate actually won the prize for the first self winding chronograph has raged since 1969, when the coalition including Breitling, Hamilton and Heuer among others presented the Caliber 11 in March of that year, while the one made up of Zenith and Movado launched theirs in September, named the El Primero.
While it would seem obvious that the Caliber 11 won by a six month nose, Zenith claimed victory as the makers of the first fully integrated movement, as opposed to the Breitling group’s chronograph module.
It is perhaps a matter of semantics, but regardless of who emerged victorious, the deed was done. The automatic chronograph movement had arrived.
The Zenith Daytona
Sadly, it had arrived just in time for the quartz crisis, which had reached catastrophic levels by the early seventies, and forced Zenith to shut down production of the El Primero in 1972.
Faring better than most throughout the electronic onslaught from Japan and America, they were able to reintroduce it fifteen years later, where it proved itself as the most reliable and accurate mechanical chronograph movement in the industry.
It was really only a matter of time then before the call came from the other side of the Alps in Geneva, with Rolex looking to bring their Daytona into the modern era with its first automatic caliber. That call came at the end of the eighties, and their partnership with Zenith lasted for 12 years.
The Rolex Cal. 4030
Of course, with this being Rolex, it wasn’t quite as simple as shoehorning the El Primero into the Daytona’s case, sending it on its way and hoping for the best. As they had done with the previous Valjoux movement, the company’s legions of engineers stripped the mechanism down to its bare plate, removing parts they deemed unnecessary and replacing others that didn’t meet the sort of exacting standards that Rolex had spent several generations developing.
By the time they had finished, the El Primero had been through around 200 modifications and more than half of its original components had been swapped for those judged more suitable. It also had a new name; the Cal. 4030.
Of the myriad changes, the most significant was the drop in frequency. The Zenith movement arrived at Rolex’s door with a beat of 36,000vph and left at a more stately 28,800vph, matching the rest of the brand’s lineup. It’s the balance speed that gives the trademark sweep to the seconds hand, while also ensuring the caliber’s components receive less wear and tear and a longer time between services. (It was in direct contrast to the Valjoux movement, which Rolex had raised from 18,000vph to 21,600vph).
In addition, the date complication was removed and a new escapement was fitted featuring a much larger, free sprung Glucydur balance wheel and Microstella regulating screws and, crucially, a Breguet overcoil replaced the flat hairspring of the El Primero. It was the setup Rolex had perfected with their second generation of the 1500 series in the 1960s, the basic elements of which are still used across their range today.
The Cal. 4030 at Work
The first Daytona to exploit this brand new and extensively reengineered movement was unleashed, with immaculate timing, in 1988. The ref. 16520 burst into life at the end of a decade of unabashed hedonism, with previously unheard of levels of wealth driving the novelty of luxury watch collecting to frenzied heights.
An immediate success, Rolex found themselves unable to keep up with demand for their flagship chronograph, hampered as they were by their reliance on an outsourced caliber. As waiting lists began to stretch off into years, wannabe owners started hunting round for the discontinued, manually wound models, and soon, both the old and new watches were being stockpiled by canny dealers and sold to impatient queue jumpers for up to double their retail price.
However, the ref. 16520 represented more than just a change of movement. Its case ballooned in size from 37mm to 40mm, keeping it in line with the rest of Rolex’s professional range. Crown guards made an appearance for the first time, as did a sapphire crystal, and the engraved tachymeter bezel was made wider, with its scale rising to display increments up to 400 mph.
The dials, too, went through a mini revolution. The matte and metallic surfaces of previous iterations were now lacquered and glossy, and the applied white gold hour markers were filled with lume—first Tritium, then Luminova and Superluminova by the end of the production run. The emblematic sub dials gained a thin outer border in a contrasting color, giving the whole façade an extra presence that lifted the watch out of its natural home of the race track and landed it firmly in its new role as status symbol.
With its complete transformation in popularity, from the ugly duckling that couldn’t be given away to the hottest ticket in horology, Rolex released their Zenith Daytona (as it was to become unofficially known) in a raft of different variations. Soon, precious metal versions, festooned on dial and bezel with gemstones of every description, were changing hands for outrageous amounts.
But while a Daytona was far more likely to be worn as a statement piece rather than as a tool for its originally intended purpose, which can be said about most of its sports stable mates, it was and still is one of the most capable watches ever made.
Like the majority of chronograph movements, the Cal. 4030 was equipped with a column wheel and horizontal clutch. The Daytona would have to wait until the replacement 4130 appeared in 2000 to adopt the vertical coupling system that eliminated the backlash on the stopwatch’s seconds hand. Even so, with the basic architecture of the El Primero, and the genius of Rolex’s microengineers, the Zenith movement proved itself incredibly accurate and of an almost bombproof resilience.
For its time, it was the best of the best, and it is a testament to Zenith that the El Primero is still being manufactured now. As for the legendary Rolex timepiece it powered for over a decade, it is the one credited with making the vintage watch market what it is today.
Spectacularly successful though it was, it became the last model in the catalog to be powered by a third party movement. The new millennium saw the brand go completely self-sufficient for every single element that went inside every one of their watches.
While the El Primero had lived up to its name as the first ever automatic chronograph movement, the Zenith had reached its peak.