How Did the Rolex Daytona Go From Flop to Icon?

The Daytona is one of Rolex’s most popular models, but there was a time when Rolex dealers could hardly give them away.

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Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.

Vintage watches are more collectible and visible than ever, with auction reports gracing the pages of mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Actually, when we talk about collectible vintage watches, what we’re really talking about is Rolex and Patek Philippe, because the chasm between the desirability and values of watches from these two brands and the rest couldn’t be larger.

Today, the Daytona is one of Rolex’s most popular models, and no one is surprised when a rare vintage model achieves an astronomical price at auction. This is ironic, because not that long ago, Rolex dealers could hardly give these models away.

While auction prices for the one time flop of a watch were skyrocketing, tales of the infamous wait lists for new models at Rolex authorized dealers swirled among watch collecting circles. Prospective buyers would be lucky to find a dealer with a one-year waitlist, and three- to five-year lists were not uncommon.

Dealers couldn’t get nearly enough stock to satisfy the demand, and Daytonas were often held back for the best customers. It’s not too often that a watch goes from being a sales dud to a piece for which people will wait years (just for the honor of paying full retail price), but that’s what makes the Daytona such a fascinating story.

Rolex had been producing chronographs for decades before the Daytona came along, but two significant aesthetic elements separate the Daytona from its predecessors: the external tachymeter bezel, and a contrasting color scheme for the dial and chronograph registers. Reference 6239, introduced in 1963, kicked off these two features and was the first Rolex Cosmograph.

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The Daytona. Paul Newman’s own ’Paul Newman’ Daytona

Here’s where the naming can get a bit confusing for the uninitiated, so we’ll break it down. “Chronograph” is the generic name for a watch that can time events with a stopwatch function that is separate from the main timekeeping function. “Cosmograph” is the trademarked name that Rolex gives to its chronographs, and “Daytona” is the name of the model line. Legend has it that Rolex chose the Cosmograph name due to the advent of space travel, which had captured the imagination for 1960s society.

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A 6264 ’Lemon Dial’ Daytona circa 1970
Henry Phillips

The inspiration for the Daytona name is more clear-cut. In 1964, Rolex began to sponsor the annual 24 Hours of Daytona race, later renaming it the Rolex 24 at Daytona. By doing this, Rolex had cemented the link between the Cosmograph and motorsports, a link that was later reinforced by spotting the watch on the wrists of famous drivers, and most notably, racing enthusiast and actor Paul Newman.

The Daytona has always been a true sports watch that was meant to be worn and used, even under conditions that the typical chronograph wasn’t designed to endure. The famous Rolex Oyster case provided the watch a water-resistant enclosure that made it safe to use as a daily wearer, free from the fear of a getting caught in a rainstorm or taking a dip in the pool.

In 1965, Rolex released the reference 6240 Daytona, the follow-up the 6239. It remained largely unchanged, with the exception of new screw-down chronograph pushers to improve water-resistance. Gaskets can protect chronograph pushers from water intrusion, but if a pusher is accidentally actuated while submerged, your ship is sunk.

Between 1961 and 1991, the Daytona used a manual-wind movement source from Valjoux/ETA, the venerable Valjoux 72. This movement powered many of the 1960’s and 70’s best chronographs, and by all accounts is an excellent movement. Though its performance and quality is unimpeachable, the movement wasn’t a particularly user-friendly choice for the Daytona. The watch needs to be hand wound every other day to keep it ticking; this isn’t very practical in a watch with a screw-down crown. Couple that with the sudden and quickly overwhelming popularity of quartz watches in the 1970s and it’s clear why these watches didn’t sell.

An early 6240 Daytona, circa 1965.

The most notable of the 6240 references are the "exotic dial" models, known by collectors as “Paul Newman Daytonas,” and the actual watch that led to that name briefly became the most expensive watch ever sold when it hammered at auction for $17,752,500 in 2017.

These models have contrasting dials and chronograph registers like the standard models, though they also have a contrasting minute track around the outer edge of the dial that matches the registers. The minute ring typically has red printing, and the chrono registers have a unique design. These exotic dials were given the Newman moniker after being spotted on the actor’s wrist in photos, and they are now the most collectible of all Daytonas by a mile.

In the 60s and 70s, these watches were the redheaded stepchildren of an already unpopular line, and few were sold. Of course, today this translates into rarity, which when coupled with desirability equals stratospheric prices. It’s hard to touch one for much less than $100,000, and for a gold model, well, if you have to ask you can’t afford it.

A Revamped Rolex Daytona

In 1991 Rolex released a completely revamped Daytona, the reference 16520. The case jumped up from 37mm to a more modern 40mm size, and the contrasting chrono register color scheme was dropped. The Daytona finally switched to an automatic movement, which Rolex sourced from Zenith.

A 16520 "Zenith" Daytona

Zenith was well known for producing excellent chronograph calibers, though Rolex updated the base movements to bring them to their own specifications. The date function was eliminated from the base movement, and the balance’s oscillations rate was slowed down from 36,000 beats per hour to 28,800, necessitating less frequent servicing.

The most recent version includes the 4130 in-house chronograph movement and a ceramic bezel. Getting an in-house movement in 2010 made the Daytona a Rolex inside and out for the first time ever. The Zenith movement was complicated and difficult to service, but the new 4130 caliber was designed from the ground up to be precise, long-lasting and simple to service, with a 72-hour power reserve. Rolex pulled out all the stops for this movement, and included all of the best chronograph features, such as a vertical clutch and column wheel.

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The current Daytona.

The case size remains 40mm, and the metallic disks surrounding each chrono register make the modern model the flashiest steel Daytona yet, but that’s in comparison to its very understated predecessors. With the caliber 4130 movement, the watch offers style, heritage, collectability and fine watchmaking all for a relatively reasonable price (currently $13,150 in steel), so it’s no mystery why the watch is so in demand. Vintage models are essentially unobtanium for those of use without a seven figure net worth, but the automatic Daytonas should be high on every watch lovers’ wish list.


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