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Rolex Daytona: A story of passion and a need for speed

Anna Wu-Chauvineau
Le 20 February 2017

We say that the oldest Greek myths and legends were passed on orally so that they would not be forgotten as the centuries went by. The ancient Greek poet was the one who would never let the flame of these earliest myths die out. Close your eyes and you’ll be able to imagine this man begin his story of Daytona to the youngest around the fire so that they’ll pass it on to their children one day. Ok, maybe not quite…but almost.

The Rolex Daytona is like Coca-Cola, everyone’s heard of it. The reason is simple, the watch is a hit without name and has an extraordinary history marked by exceptional people. Mass has been said, well the introduction of mass at least…

Genesis of the Daytona myth: Rolex « Oyster Chronograph »

The first Rolex chronographs date back to the 1930’s (the reference 4113 in particular), and they are extremely rare to come by. We are talking about a Bi-Compax type chronograph with two subcounters, a second subdial at 9 o’clock, a small 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock. But the first watch that would create the Daytona spirit would be the reference 6234, also known as “Oyster Chronograph.” This fine specimen includes a third subdial at 6 o’clock, acting as a 12-hour totalizer. A first step towards the Daytona we know today, despite the relative discreetness of the subdials.

Rolex Oyster Chronographe pré-Daytona

The 6234 houses a hand-wound movement. This ancestor of the Daytona would be produced between 1955 and 1961.

“Pre-Daytona” Heritage

The beginning of the 1960’s was the birthing ground for Rolex chronographs called “Pre-Daytona.” A watch that would be, above all, At the service of his Majesty… worn by George Lazenby (aka James Bond in 1969). We’re looking at the Rolex Chronograph reference 6238.

The hour markers are different as well as the subdials (12-hour totalizer at 6 o’clock doesn’t show intermediary indicators every half hour but every hour). What’s more, the « units per hour » indicator we see on the bezel of the Daytona is found here on the dial itself. Certain references (the 6236 in particular) offers a triple date.

A myth is born

Let’s begin with a paradox. In 1963, Rolex launches its first model, that we would love calling it “Daytona,” but alas, no. In reality it’s the Rolex Chronograph “Le Mans.” Yes, city of the famous car race “24 heures.”

Rolex Chronograph advertisement "Le Mans" from 1964

Source: www.rolexmagazine.com

No worries, Rolex quickly goes back on this decision and presents the Rolex Daytona in 1964. It’s important to underline that this reference 6239, released in 1963, has everything of a Daytona, except the name.

So where did it come from, this divine inspiration that gave birth to the Daytona? Auto racing, absolutely, but most of all big celebrity names that brought a whole lot of stardust to the race tracks. Does Sir Malcolm Campbell ring any bells? Born in 1885, he embodied auto racing magnificently and demonstrated it numerous times on the Daytona Beach race track in Florida with record speed (482 km/h in 1935), especially on sand.

Sir Malcolm Campbell

Rolex used this watch for numerous advertisements in the 1930’s to pave the way for the Oyster, tough enough for any situation. Daytona was truly “the place to be” for race car drivers and gearheads of the 1930’s, similar to Nascar today. Junior Johnson (more than 50 victories at Nascar, before managing his own racers) would win the Daytona 500 in 1960 with a Rolex Zephyr at the wrist. The presence of Rolex in this circle is undeniable, and none of this is news.

Daytona Passion

Rolex Cosmographe Daytona - Paul Newman

1963. The watch is among us, without the iconic name however. This one is named “Cosmograph.” The indicators are on the bezel, and the subcounters are of a different color on the dial, opposite from the usual layout. To see if you are in presence of an early Daytona, check to see if the mention “Swiss” has been marked twice at 6 o’clock (under the subcounter and under the railroad minute-track). For purists of detail, you’ll notice a fine horizontal line below “Cosmograph” on the first models of Daytona.

Paul Newman - Rolex Daytona

1964 and 1965 saw the birth of the Rolex Daytona. A new generation of 6239 models appeared. It’s my duty then to talk about Paul Newman. How is it that this watch took on this name? Simply because this blue-eyed Hollywood legend, one of the rare actors that could’ve stolen Steve McQueen’s nickname “King of Cool,” was a genuine aficionado and owned no less than five timepieces. An urban legend tells that Newman wore one during the shooting of the movie Winning, in which he plays a race car driver, thus creating the myth. I don’t think so. A more plausible theory reveals that Rolex would’ve sponsored a number of biographies of the actor, books in which he’s shown wearing this iconic piece on many occasions. These books would’ve incited the mania around the reference we know of today as the “Paul Newman.”

Rolex Cosmographe Daytona - Paul Newman

What makes a Daytona a Paul Newman? The dial. Take a good hard look. And especially at those small Art Deco-style squares inside the subcounters at the end of certain markers. Even if the font used for the numerals is different. Several references 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263 (The Holy Grail, in a “Panda” layout), 6264, 6265 have a « Paul Newman » dial. Also with the pushers (screwed in or not), the bezel (black or not), the movement (Valjoux 722 or 727), or if the mention “Daytona” exists at 6 o’clock or not. But let’s not get lost right away in all the details. We must remain concise and accurate. Hold on, I’m going to take a pill first…

Among the multiple variations of Daytona models, some are more rare than others, and they’re all different, like the reference 6240 “Solo” for example. No other mention than Rolex, hence the name and a minimalist layout. The black bezel and the screwed down pushers were clear signs of what was to follow…

Daytona longevity

It’s only in 1988 that Daytona made a major change and switched to an automatic movement. The reason? The quartz crisis, and the weariness of many for the self-winding movement mostly. It’s the first reference 16520 that uses the Zenith movement (caliber 400, El Primero), obviously reworked by Rolex to add a better escapement, remove the date function, and reduce the number of turns (from 36’000 to 28’800). This reference 16520 would last from 1988 to 2000, before Rolex began manufacturing its own movement.

Clearly, the changes are numerous and differs from the vintage model everyone wants. The case and certain internal elements of the dial were clearly not made in the same sense, especially the massive crown shouldering as well as the diameter that jumped to 40mm from 37mm. Moreover, from the year 2000, the small second subdial would be found at 6 o’clock instead of the usual 9 o’clock spot.

Rolex Daytona Or Jaune cadran nacre

The 16520 was an incredible success with enthusiasts and collectors, allowing Rolex to play with the great demand. This is still true today given all the wonderful waiting lists that exist. Patience is a virtue…

A great number of collectors in 2013 shed a tear when, for Daytona’s 5th anniversary, not even a nod from the manufacturer. Instead, a Daytona with a blue dial and brown ceramic bezel. Nothing to get carried away with, especially with a ticket price at more than 70,000€ (forgot one detail, the watch is made with platinum), it can have that “cold shower” effect on many. This reference remains nevertheless a prestigious watch…

Rolex Cosmographe Daytona - Platinum

The last variation that came to replace the 116520 is the 116500LN, released in 2016. This new model will change our perception of the Daytona yet again. Finally, the return of a black bezel made with highly-resistant cerachrom, and above all the nice finishing of the dial. Lacquered dials, white or black, the return of a red line of text that sits on the small second subdial at 6 o’clock and a pretty black-on-white or white-on-black contrast for the three counters, which without actually being “Panda” clearly borrow the same concept for clarity in the dial.

As you may have noticed, important changes are what made the chronograph what it is today, and its success hasn’t faded. We almost want to say that no matter what variations are initiated by Rolex, especially on these iconic models, the enthusiasts will follow… and they must be right. They know the history of the brand, and the big names that help build and continues to build the saga. They know the impressive quality of all the timepieces and the flame of excitement it arouses. Yes, the demand is high and the waiting lists are flaring up everywhere. Yes, it’s an investment, whether we’re talking about the new, the second-hand or the vintage, but the happiness to look at a Daytona bloom on one’s wrist and share our adventures is priceless. This is the legend to pass on, like the ancient Greek poet, and attempt to enlighten the younger generations.