Then and Now: The First Rolex Daytona vs. The Current Rolex Daytona

Continuing our Then and Now series where we compare two models in a specific Rolex collection—the first and the most current—we now turn our attention to the famous Cosmograph Daytona watch. Rolex’s flagship chronograph is particularly remarkable because it went from being one of the brand’s worst selling watch models to the Rolex model that currently holds the record for the most expensive watch ever sold at auction. Plus, the market for both vintage Daytona watches and modern Daytona watches are booming right now—meaning that they both have a place in the hearts of collectors and watch fans. With that, let’s compare the very first Daytona with its most modern iteration.

The First Rolex Daytona

While the very first reference that launched the Daytona line in 1963 was the Rolex Cosmograph ref. 6239, it actually was not named the Daytona just yet. In fact, Rolex first named this particular Cosmograph the “Le Mans” after the famous endurance automobile race in France. However, since Rolex was trying to conquer the American market, the company quickly changed the name to the Cosmograph Daytona the following year in honor of the popular American endurance race (and upcoming Rolex-sponsored event), the 24 Hours at Daytona.

Rolex Daytona 6239

Just like the Submariner was developed for divers and the GMT-Master was built for pilots, Rolex had a specific audience in mind with the Daytona ref. 6239—race car drivers. As such, the Daytona ref. 6239 included the chronograph function to time elapsed events using the duo of pushers on the case. The top pusher starts and stops the chronograph hand on the center of the dial, while the bottom pusher resets it. It’s important to note that the pushers on the Daytona ref. 6239 are not screw-down pushers (those would come on later references) but instead, pump pushers.

Along with the center hour, minutes, and chronograph hands, the dial also housed a trio of subdials for running seconds, a 30-minute register, and a 12-hour register. Furthermore, the inaugural Daytona ref. 6239 also had a tachymetric scale on the bezel to easily calculate average speeds of racing cars.

Rolex Daytona 6239

A Robust Tool Watch

Since it was meant to be a robust tool watch, Rolex built the Daytona ref. 6239 case, bezel, and bracelet in stainless steel (gold versions follow, and platinum versions would come much later on). The Oyster case measured 37mm, the bezel was engraved with the tachymeter scale, and the bracelet was the sporty Oyster design. What’s more, to improve dial legibility, the subdials were in a contrasting color to the main dial—white subdials on black dials and black subdials on silver dials. Of course, similar to other Rolex tools watches of the era, the dial had luminescent tritium accents on the indexes and hands.

Interestingly, under the hood of the Daytona ref. 6239 was not an in-house automatic “perpetual” movement like other Rolex watches of the same period. Instead, it was a manual-wound Valjoux-based chronograph movement with about 48 hours of power reserve.

A Word on the “Paul Newman” Daytona Dials

Rolex Daytona Paul Newman

Early on in the Daytona ref. 6239’s history, Rolex introduced special dials they dubbed “exotic dials.” These particular dials featured a black, white, and red color scheme, Art Deco style numerals on the subdials, and square ends on the subdial indices. They also included 15/30/45/60 numerals on the running seconds register rather than just the 20/40/60 numerals.

These “exotic dials” later became known as “Paul Newman” dials by collectors because the actor himself wore one. Among the vintage Daytona watches available in the market today, it is the “Paul Newman” dials that command the most attention and demand the highest prices.

The Newest Rolex Daytona in Steel

The most current version of the stainless steel Daytona is the Daytona ref. 116500LN, which made its debut in 2016. Yes, Rolex has since released a handful of newer Daytona watches, but they are all precious metal versions and for the purposes of this article, we thought it’d be best to compare apples to apples.

Rolex Daytona 116500LN

It’s difficult to explain to anyone who isn’t entrenched in luxury watches just how much enthusiasm the new Daytona ref. 116500LN caused during its launch. Rolex enthusiasts had been patiently waiting for this exact model for years.

The Daytona ref. 116500LN includes a 40mm Oyster case, enhanced with screw-down chronograph pushers surrounding its screw-down winding crown. (Side note, the Daytona grew to 40mm in 1988 when Rolex introduced the first automatic Daytona watch.) It comes equipped with a matching steel Oyster bracelet and is available with either a white “Panda” dial or black dial. However, the most noteworthy design trait of the Daytona ref. 116500LN is its black Cerachrom ceramic bezel—Rolex’s current go-to material for a good majority of their sports watches.

Rolex Caliber 4130

Up until 2016, the only Daytona watches available with Cerachrom bezels were either in gold or platinum, so the steel and ceramic combination is an intoxicating mix for anyone who loves steel Rolex sports watches. So appealing in fact, that it’s essentially impossible to get your hands on one right at a Rolex boutique since waitlists are years long.

Rolex Caliber 4130

Since 2000, Rolex uses the in-house Calliber 4130 automatic movement with 72 hours of power reserve to power their chronograph watches, including the current Daytona ref. 116500LN. But in 2015, Rolex announced a brand new standard for their movements, boasting an improved accuracy rating of -2/+2 seconds per day and a longer five-year warranty. Therefore, since the Daytona ref. 116500LN came out the following year, the watch falls within these new movement performance parameters.

The Rolex Daytona Evolution, Then and Now

From the initially slow-selling Daytona ref. 6239 to the sold-out-before-they-hit-the-shops Daytona ref. 116500LN, the journey of the Cosmograph Daytona has been exciting as the adrenaline-pumped motorsports the watch takes its inspiration from. Today’s versions of the Daytona are mechanically very different to the first editions of the watch, yet in terms of looks, they are unmistakably decedents of the ref. 6239 that started it all.

Often referred to as the gold standard in luxury chronograph watches, we have no doubts that the Daytona will remain at the top of the podium for the foreseeable future.