The Rolex Daytona
Sir Malcom Campbell, the Daytona International Speedway e the origins of world's most desired chronograph.
Last night I was having dinner with a couple of friends and, as we started talking luxury watches, the main topic soon became the Rolex Daytona. Not any chronograph from any brand, but the Daytona. I believe this circumstance also derives from being Italian and living in Italy, where Rolex is the luxury watch par excellence, and the Rolex Daytona is often an enthusiast's primary choice.
Its history is rich and fascinating, and the collection's link to motor racing is rooted in the first half of the 20th century, decades before any other watch brand had ever appeared in a paddock.
1903 - 1935: the origins of the Rolex Daytona: Daytona Beach, and the challenge between Sir Malcolm Campbell and Sir Henry Segrave.
How many of you are aware of how the Rolex Daytona came up? If you are familiar with my posts regarding Rolex, including a recent one where I compare the brand against a Japanese contender for the very first time, you'll find out that I repeatedly underline the brand's motto: "Every Rolex tells a story." That motto is proof positive that Rolex has long since gone well beyond being merely a luxury watch brand to be a luxury icon instead.
It seems a Rolex was the first timepiece to officially wrap around a driver's wrist during a speed record attempt, and the Rolex Daytona was a nod to Daytona Beach that has been, between 1903 and 1935, the venue of world-famous speed record attempts. On this hard sand-made soil, Americans and Europeans competed, but two contenders were first-page news: Sir Malcolm Campbell and Sir Henry Segrave.
Both British, rich and ambitious, Campbell and Segrave fought against each-other several times at Daytona Beach, a proving ground more suitable for high-speed racing than the British racetrack of Brooklands, in their quest for exceeding the 300km/h threshold. The cars and motorbikes that compete nowadays at Bonneville draw their inspiration from the aircraft-engine powered vehicles engineered by these two English gentlemen.
Segrave won the first competition, by setting a 328km/h speed record onboard its Sunbeam Mystery S, in 1928 Campbell clinched victory by exceeding 333km/h aboard the Bluebird. The following year Segrave raised the bar, and achieved a stunning 372km/h aboard the Golden Arrow, thus earning the New York Times' headlines. Unfortunately, he tragically lost his life in 1930 during a boat speed record attempt, and Campbell became the undisputed pioneer of high-speed racing.
With the Bluebird IV and V, Sir Malcolm Campbell set a record of 253mph (407km/h) in 1932 and 276mph (445km/h) in 1935, respectively. Since 1930, Sir Malcolm Campbell used to daily wear a Rolex, thus confirming Campbell as the first international, and spontaneous, ambassador for Rolex. In those days, the Rolex Daytona was not existing, the first Cosmograph will appear only in 1963, but the brand was already associated with Daytona, and this paved the way for the chronograph to become legendary.
1936-1959: the evolution of Daytona Beach, the rise of Bonneville, and the roots of the Rolex Daytona.
As these prototypes kept increasing their top speed, consider the Bluebird V had a 2.300HP aircraft-derived engine under its long hood, Daytona Beach’s surface was not hard enough to guarantee full power delivery, and Bonneville soon replaced Daytona as the preferred location for high-speed die-hard fans.
Daytona Beach evolves by converting itself into a racetrack. That is the dawn of the NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Racing) championship, but soon this land strip on the ocean waterfront begins to deteriorate as a result of stock cars’ power slides; that’s why the president of NASCAR, William France Sr, plans to build a standard racetrack, that officially opened in 1959. Again, the Rolex Daytona is a long way off, but the legend of Daytona has begun, and Rolex keeps being connected to Daytona.
1959 - 2016: please welcome the Daytona International Speedway and the first-ever Rolex Daytona.
Back then, the Daytona International Speedway was a breakthrough: 5.73km long, it featured 12 turns, 2 of which inclined at an outrageous 31° to allow drivers reach high speeds while cornering without being rolled out due to centrifugal force.
William France Sr also created a standard track inside the trio-oval shaped external one, to attract more and more professional race drivers to Daytona. The legend of the Rolex Daytona is about to begin, and Daytona laid the foundations.
The above-pictured advertisement (source: www.thewatchology.com) shows William France Sr along with his Rolex Zephyr Oyster Perpetual while he’s talking to celebrity Paul Whiteman; it further highlights why Rolex was and still is ahead of the competition: it pioneers communication like nobody else does and has established a unique relationship with its ambassadors from day one: they choose the brand, and not the other way round. If you look closer, in the lower right-hand side of the advertisement, the Pan-Am logo reaffirms another iconic partnership signed by Rolex.
What looks bizarre instead, is that no other brand joined the party, and ever competed with Rolex in such a fast-growing American business that was and still is unmatched from a business perspective. Rolex had no competitors along the way.
1963: the Rolex Cosmograph, the father of the Rolex Daytona, debuts. Meanwhile, the Daytona 24 transforms itself into the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Since the Daytona Continental’s first edition, the race winner was awarded a Rolex watch. When the Rolex Cosmograph debuted in 1963, that prize was not any Rolex, anymore, but a Rolex Cosmograph instead, a sports chronograph whose name soon became Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, and finally Rolex Daytona.
The Rolex Daytona was spotted on race drivers’ wrist, and became a widely acclaimed celebrity, years before Rolex eventually partnered with the competition, to become an official sponsor to the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race, in 1992. That agreement formally certified what had been achieved already: Hollywood stars and race drivers too, like Paul Newman, were daily wearing their Rolex Daytona during the race and out.
The first-ever Rolex Cosmograph, reference 6239, appeared in 1963, as an evolution to reference 6238, the so-called Rolex Pre-Daytona. From an aesthetic standpoint, the most significant change over the previous version was the shift of the tachymeter scale from the chapter ring onto the bezel, along with the introduction of panda and reversed panda dial lay-outs.
The first Cosmograph yet confirms a Rolex Daytona’s distinctive feature: the bezel is slightly larger than anywhere else, and the tachymetric scale is super-legible.
This area is where Rolex will first and foremost concentrate its efforts to improve readability further and make it a distinctive element. Often imitated, but never equaled.
Square shaped indexes inside each register, a red seconds scale, and a red bold “Daytona” wording on the dial are the key attributes of Paul Newman’s most-loved wristwatch and the above variant, unanimously regarded today as the Rolex Paul Newman Daytona.
1965: the Rolex Daytona evolves and welcomes chronograph screw-down push-buttons and a black bezel.
The upcoming new Rolex Daytona reference 6340 (and its siblings) introduces significant innovations: the standard chronograph buttons are replaced by screw-down buttons, that guarantee water resistance and prevent any unwanted start of the chronograph. A black plexiglass inlay with engraved tachymetric scale replaces the steel bezel.
From a technical perspective, the 1965 Rolex Daytona is the first-ever chronometer-certified Daytona, and it also comes in 18-carat gold for the first time; Gold Daytonas, both vintage and modern, are as popular as their steel-made counterparts. Reference 6240 opens a product cycle that will eventually end in 1988, and so does the story of the manually-wound Rolex Daytona. Here is an example of a Rolex Daytona 6240 on sale.
1988: here comes the first automatic Rolex Daytona along with an entirely new design.
1988 marks the beginning of a new chapter, with the Rolex Daytona receiving a major update and living up to most people expectations, as they look for a modern chronograph equally refined aesthetically and mechanically. One step at a time: this is the first-ever automatic Daytona. Since Rolex has no chronograph movement in-house, opts for the best they can outsource, and equips its Daytona with a re-engineered Zenith El Primero movement: frequency is lowered to 28,800 vibrations per hour to improve long-term reliability, the balance wheel has a variable inertia and is produced in-house, and is coupled to a Breguet spring-coil, and adopts the patented Perpetual winding mechanism. Last but not least, the Rolex caliber 4030 is a COSC-certified chronometer.
Rolex is thus laying the foundations to build its chronograph movement, the caliber 4130. The game-changer here is the thoroughly-redesigned case and bezel: the former grows from 36mm to a more popular 40mm, to include a wide bezel that is a modern Daytona’s hallmark. It is wide, in steel and tapered, showcasing an up-to-400-unit engraved tachymetric scale. The Rolex Daytona 16520 is the forerunner of the modern Rolex Daytona, and its style still wins over the current steel version with the ceramic bezel to most watch aficionados, other than including a long list of extremely sought-after releases, like the Rolex Daytona Patrizzi, for example.
2000: the Rolex caliber 4130 replaces the 4030, the style is tweaked.
The Rolex Daytona 16520 is by far the most successful Daytona to date, Rolex has found its way to the ultimate chronograph. I have personally never loved the tachymetric scale engraved onto the polished steel bezel, but we know style is a subjective matter, however there’s no doubt it offers superior readability, further improved with the introduction of the ceramic bezel. Among the all-time Daytona’s pros is that Rolex never added a date window, thus preserving the overall balance and avoiding to make a chronograph born for race competitions look less credible and too commercial.
The year 2000 is a landmark: Rolex introduces its first in-house automatic chronograph movement, the caliber 4130, whose engineering aims at efficiency, better serviceability, an improved maximum power reserve of up to 72 hours and much more. The “Daytona” lettering is also engraved on the winding rotor. As a result of the new design, the register layout changes, the seconds counter shifts from the nine o’clock position to the six o’clock position and the two horizontal counters are no longer aligned with the hour and minute hands but moved slightly higher.
2016: the Rolex Daytona in steel comes with a Cerachrom bezel.
In 2008 Rolex launched Cerachrom, its patented ceramic bezel and in 2016, it replaced a stainless steel Rolex Daytona's bezel with a Cerachrom black bezel. The Cerachrom bezel appears on a Daytona in 2011 for the first time; it equips a new generation of gold Daytonas, namely the Rolex Daytona Everose Gold 18 carats reference 116515LN, featuring Arabic numerals, chocolate dial, and a leather strap.
Next, the ceramic bezel appeared on the top-of-the-line Rolex Daytona in platinum, featuring a brown disc with contrasting white numerals and indexes. With the Cerachrom bezel, the numerals are also arranged along a circumference, and this design trick makes the dial plus bezel combo look larger than ever before.
The cone-shaped bezel coupled to the above numerals displacement gives a whole new premium personality to the Daytona, that works pretty well, in my opinion, on the Everose Rolex Daytona as well as on the platinum Rolex Daytona.
Since 2016 onwards, we have reviewed the current Rolex Daytona twice, in either the steel or gold versions, all showcasing a Cerachrom bezel, mated to a steel bracelet or an Oyserflex strap. You can dig into our articles by clicking right here, respectively:
- Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona Steel and Cerachrom
- Rolex Daytona Gold and Ceramic with Oysterflex bracelet
So we will keep adding new reviews along the way, including for example the Rolex Daytona in yellow gold and green Wimbledon dial (reference 116508) or the Rolex Daytona in white gold and blue dial (116509). If we consider the product references that adopt a metal bezel, I believe the two most exciting and reasonably priced Rolex Daytona, are the variants made in Rolesor, like the reference 116503 for example. Often underrated, the Rolex Daytona 116503 is among the few Rolex Daytona to have not increased market price in comparison to list price and, if Rolex decides all of a sudden to phase it out, be sure its price will skyrocket.
The Rolex Daytona's current ambassadors.
Paul Newman was perhaps the most famous ambassador of Rolex and the Rolex Daytona's par excellence. Today, the list of Rolex's official ambassadors is long and includes current and former race drivers who race or have raced in multiple championships. Rolex is a global partner of the Formula 1 world championship, but is also partnering with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Goodwood Revival, the Monterey Classic Car Week and, last but not least, the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Among his current ambassadors is former Formula 1 driver Mark Webber and former 2016 Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg, while endurance race champion Tom Kristensen is the brand's longstanding ambassador in the modern era; they all join another Rolex Daytona's iconic ambassador: Sir Jackie Stewart. For further information about the Rolex Daytona, please visit the official Rolex website.
(Photo credit: Horbiter®'s proprietary photo-shooting, courtesy of Rolex, Google)
Gaetano C @Horbiter®