A watch born to race. That’s how Rolex describes their track-inspired chronograph timepiece - the Cosmograph. Watch lovers have come to know it simply as the Daytona.
We’re going to explore the history of the Rolex Daytona, including its lackluster beginnings, the Paul Newman era, and its modern day advancements. This is the Rolex Daytona, the drivers’ watch.
In the first half of the 20th century, Rolex didn’t make a successful chronograph. They didn’t make ANY chronograph. Other brands dominated the market, so Rolex focused mainly on three hand models and their Oyster cases, which also were not hot sellers. After World War II, they wanted to introduce a chronograph, so their designers studied the competition and in 1955 released the Reference 6234 chronograph, simply titled “Chronograph.” This watch, as many other Rolex watches at the time, featured a third party movement by Valjoux, the 72, a reliable, manual-winding movement. The Valjoux 72 was popular with many other watchmakers throughout the 20th century. More on that later.
Through the end of the 50s, Rolex only sold about 500 Chronographs a year, not much of a splash in the market overall. But within the growing sport of professional auto racing, the Reference 6234 was sought after. Drivers and crews alike respected its ability to accurately measure lap time as well as the durability of the Oyster case. In fact, Rolex Oyster watches had become somewhat of a trade secret with drivers dating back to the 1930s.
In the 30s, the Daytona 500 was still run partially on the beach, and one of its most prolific winners was Sir Malcom Campbell, who wore an Oyster Rolex on and off the track. In 1931, Sir Malcom Campbell wrote a letter to Rolex thanking them for their watches’ durability. In the same decade, Campbell held the world land speed record several times, and in 1935 became the first person to reach 300mph.
So after decades of underground success, Rolex finally decided to tap further into the thriving sport, and became the official timekeeper of the Daytona 500 race in 1962.
One year later, in 1963, Rolex finally went all in with their racing-geared chronograph, releasing the Reference 6239, a major update to the watch series. It featured more aggressive sport styling, contrasting dial and subdial colors, and a fully engraved tachymeter on the bezel, which no other watchmaker had yet done. To set it even further apart from other chronographs of the time, they borrowed from another popular theme of the 60’s, the space race, and titled the Reference 6239 the “Cosmograph.” Little did they know that this timekeeping device, much like NASA in the same decade, would reach farther heights than ever before.
Sales slowly increased within the periphery of auto racing, so the following year, Rolex officially nicknamed the Cosmograph Reference 6239 the “Daytona,” thereby cementing it in the lexicon of watch enthusiasts. The dial came in two options: black with silver, the “standard” variation, and black with white or cream, the “exotic” variation. A year after that, in 1965, screw-down pushers featuring Rolex’s twinlock gaskets were added, greatly increasing its resistance to moisture.
At the time, Rolex chronographs made prior to 1963’s Reference 6239 were considered substandard compared to the newest iteration. Now in the 21st century, these “Pre-Daytonas” are rare collectors’ items. Very few of the originally $200 watches were made, so their value to watch enthusiasts has grown into the tens of thousands of dollars. Quite an appreciation.
By 1968, the Daytona saw increased sales, but had yet to really break into the general market. All that would change with a simple gift from one movie star to another.
Filming for the racing movie “Winning” took place in 1968 and starred two of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time, Paul Newman, playing professional driver Frank Capua, and Joanne Woodward, as his wife Elora. In the film, Newman’s character wears a Rolex Daytona watch in and out of his formula one racer. The watch was loved so much by Newman that his wife, who happened to be Joanne Woodward, gifted one to him. It was an exotic variation, with a cream dial and black subdials. Engraved on the back was “Drive Carefully Me,” a not so subtle message from a concerned wife to her husband.
“Winning” was released in 1969 and quickly became one of the top-grossing films that year. Not only was the Daytona watch seen throughout the movie, but it also appeared on much of the film’s promotional material sent around the world. This mainstream exposure sparked a rush of sales for the watch, especially in Italy where the film’s popularity complimented the already nationwide popularity of auto racing.
While filming “Winning,” Paul Newman learned to drive formula cars and ended up doing much of the stunt driving for the film. The thrill of racing caught Newman’s attention so fervently that after a couple of years training and rearranging his demanding schedule, Newman started driving professionally on the racing circuit in 1972. Throughout the next two decades, Newman raced and won some not insignificant acclaim in the circuit. And what did he wear on his wrist on and off the track? The Reference 6239 Daytona given to him by his wife. Daytona sales continued to grow and the price continued to rise.
By the mid-1980s, the cream with black version of the Daytona had become synonymous with Paul Newman, so watch collectors started calling that exotic variation the “Paul Newman” Daytona. The rare variant has kept the name to this day.
Around this time, self-winding watches were becoming the standard in modern movements, but for the past 50 years Rolex had been using Valjoux’s manual-winding movement in their chronographs. Due to this change in demand, popularity of the watch dipped, so in 1988, Rolex switched from the manual-winding Valjoux to the self-winding Zenith perpetual El Primero movement. Rolex, ever raising standards, added about 40% of their own components to the El Primero movement, and the Reference 16520 Daytona had been born.
The Reference 16520 featured other significant changes as well, like a sapphire crystal and an increase in case size from 37mm to 40mm. Demand for the updated Daytonas, with the newly named 4030 El Primero movement, skyrocketed. Wait lists for the watch would sometimes reach three years. Demand was high and supply was low, so by this law of economics, the price of a Daytona on the market would sometimes double from $6,000 to $12,000.
The 90s were all about gold, so the first yellow gold Daytona was introduced in 1992, with a white gold version coming in 1997.
The next major change to the watch came in the year 2000. Rolex finally ditched third party movements and implemented their first fully in-house version, the caliber 4130. This totally new movement boasted a 72 hour power reserve and the world’s first “vertical clutch,” which made the inner workings of the watch more robust, longer-lasting, and time-accurate. The new movement was surprisingly simple, containing fewer parts and connections, making it more dependable and easily serviceable. Experienced watchmakers around the world agreed the caliber 4130 movement was the new standard, and is still being used in Daytonas manufactured today.
Subtle changes to the look of the watch made it easier to read, even in low light, and placement of the sub-dials was adjusted. The bracelet also featured a new proprietary deployant clasp.
For the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Daytona Cosmograph, Rolex, in 2013, released a platinum Daytona with a brown bezel made of a new, super-hard ceramic material developed in-house. They called this proprietary material Cerachrom, and began offering it on other Daytona models in 2016.
From humble beginnings as a useful tool for a few early professional drivers, to the defining symbol of style for one of the world’s most famous personalities, to the heights of technological and economic success, the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph has found the perfect balance between practical substance and elegant style, and is sure to evolve in astounding ways well into the 21st century.
Thanks for taking a journey back in time with us here at Everest. We happen to make replacement straps for Daytonas in a variety of materials and styles.