If there’s ever been a story of zero to hero, it’s that of the Rolex Daytona. Unloved and unwanted, selling barely 500 units annually in its formative years, the Rolex Daytona has grown to become one of the most coveted watches of all time, commanding year-long waiting lists and astonishing residuals. The question is, how did that happen? This is the journey that turned Rolex’s loser of a David into a hulking great Goliath.
The Sixties was the decade of the sports chronograph. Jack Heuer’s appointment as CEO of Heuer guided the launch of the Autavia in 1962 and the Carrera in 1963. Omega’s Speedmaster was among the first to the game, introduced at the tail end of the Fifties. But the chronograph was no new invention; seen as early as 1816 in Louis Moinet’s astronomical pocket watch, and in smaller wristwatch form at the beginning of the 20th century, the chronograph was old news. In fact, Rolex itself had been making chronograph watches since the 1930s. What had changed, though, was time itself – post war, the Sixties boomed with wealth and glamour, and with it came speed. Motor racing, the sport of gentlemen, was now enjoyable on a global scale, and it was that thrill of speed that attracted a new breed of timekeepers: the sports chronograph.
Chronograph watches up until then — even Rolex’s own — were styled with reserved, subtle taste, but that was no fit for the roaring engines and gleaming paint of the world’s fastest racing machines. Jack Heuer knew what he was doing; early on, he set his sights on the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1, tasking friend and racing driver Jo Siffert to distribute his watches among the paddock, earning Heuer the title of first non-motorsport sponsor in F1. Omega, however, had set its sights on even faster machinery; with Kennedy’s 1962 speech delivering the promise of putting man on the moon, there was another prize to be had: becoming the official watch of NASA.
When Rolex released it’s first sporty chronograph in 1963, the ref. 6239, it too had its eyes turned to the stars. Reviving a name previously used for the ref. 6062 moonphase (a complication that defines the literal meaning of cosmography, the general study of the universe), the new chronograph was called “Cosmograph.” Like Omega’s Speedmaster, it was large, tough, and clear, precisely what was required for use in space. It was the right move for Rolex; the Fifties had defined Rolex as a manufacturer of watches for professionals, the Submariner, GMT-Master, and Milgauss all fulfilling a dedicated role for a specific profession. Having NASA select the Rolex Cosmograph to be the watch taken to the moon would be the full house.
But it wasn’t to be. The Rolex Daytona did not perform as well as Omega’s Speedmaster during NASA’s testing, plus astronaut Walter Schirra had already proven the Omega’s suitability when he took his own aboard Sigma 7 for the pre-Apollo Mercury-Atlas 8 mission. Rolex had missed out on the big one, and it needed to regroup. Heuer was doing well with motorsport, and Rolex had connections there too. F1 was taken – and would remain so until 2013, when Rolex finally secured sponsorship rights – but there were others. The solution came in 1964 with the emergence of one of America’s greatest racing series: NASCAR.
The history of NASCAR is well publicised: during the American alcohol prohibition of the Twenties and Thirties, bootleggers tuned their cars to outrun police, leaving a swathe of drivers and cars with not much to do once the prohibition was lifted. The former bootleggers met at a beach in Florida to race instead, at a site used for the record-breaking speed runs of the Forties. That place was Daytona. As the sport grew, so did its popularity, with drivers such as Rolex-sponsored Junior Johnson drawing crowds from across Florida. Eventually, demand was great enough to build the Daytona International Speedway, and that came just in time for Rolex to rebrand the Cosmograph and take it in a new direction.
Looking back, it’s almost possible to see the panic at Rolex HQ at the loss of the NASA contract; the Rolex Cosmograph was a sales flop, and the biggest opportunity to make something of it had gone. In a rush to give the Rolex Cosmograph purpose, a mix of advertising material was printed that, right up until the last minute, left the future of this failing sports chronograph hanging in the balance. The 24 Heures du Mans race (also now sponsored by Rolex), a world-famous challenge of motorsport endurance, very nearly took it with the stillborn Rolex Le Mans, but it was the track in Florida (that now hosts the 24 Hours of Daytona which is – surprise, surprise – also sponsored by Rolex) that finally won over. The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was born.
But the story doesn’t end there. The Rolex Daytona still struggled to sell, the quartz revolution of the 1970s doing nothing to help. It was the rebirth of the watch industry that swept Rolex into the upper echelons of watchmaking, riding on the wave of a surging interest in vintage rarities, and with it came the 1988 ref. 16520. Housing a heavily modified Zenith El Primero movement, it was the first automatic Rolex chronograph (late to the game, at some nineteen years after Heuer’s Calibre 11), and it took the world by storm. As collectors began to amass vintage Rolexes and the Rolex name became ever more desirable, so too did the products it made. When the Rolex Daytona entered the 2000s, and with it the introduction of the in-house calibre 4130 for the ref. 116520, waiting lists had grown to such proportions that Rolex could no longer produce enough watches to fulfill demand.
There have been three different manufacturers supplying movements for the Rolex Daytona to date: Valjoux, Zenith, and of course, Rolex themselves. All the four-digit reference Rolex Daytonas (6239 through to 6265 in steel and 6270 in gold with diamonds) used a variation of the Valjoux cal. 72, the go-to chronograph movement of the time for many brands, including Heuer and Breitling (Omega opted for the Lemania chronograph for the Speedmaster).
The Valjoux 72, a hand-wound, reliable movement that had been in existence in earlier forms since 1914, was an affordable and accessible choice for Rolex to power its chronographs (including the earlier Chronograph ref. 6238). It was almost unheard of for a watchmaker to make its own chronographs, with even the mighty Patek Philippe sourcing its chronograph tickers elsewhere. To give some kind of idea of the funding required to develop a chronograph movement, the 1969 Calibre 11 – the world’s first automatic chronograph movement – took a joint effort from four big-name watchmakers to get off the ground.
But Rolex was not content with fitting its watches with off-the-shelf movements, and so it had the Valjoux 72 modified with a custom-spec Microstella variable inertia balance wheel, which allows greater ability to fine-tune accuracy; and a Breguet overcoil, which maintains amplitude as the mainspring winds down. Rolex called this modified movement the cal. 722 (and in some cases, the cal. 72B).
In 1967, the Valjoux 72 was further modified by Rolex to become the cal. 722-1. This time, Rolex adapted the shape of the hour recorder conveyor to provide smoother engagement of the hour wheel. The final version of Rolex’s modified Valjoux 72 came in 1969 in the form of the cal. 727, which upped the beat from 18,000 vph to a more accurate (but conversely more power-hungry) 21,600 vph.
Once the supply of Valjoux 72 movements dried up with its discontinuation in 1974 (to be replaced by the automatic Valjoux 7750), Rolex decided to look elsewhere for a movement for the new-look ref. 16520. It just so happened that, in the mid-Eighties, former watchmaking legend Zenith was starting to get back on its feet. A deal was struck, and it was the El Primero that found its way into the new era of Rolex Daytona chronographs — but not without a few modifications first, of course.
The changes made to turn the high-beat El Primero into the Rolex cal. 4030 were extensive. First was the reduction of the beat from 36,000 vph to a more sedate 28,800 vph to allow the use of liquid lubrication, which would normally be flung off at the higher speed. Also added was the Microstellar balance and Breguet overcoil, plus a completely new auto-winding mechanism complete with vertical clutch assembly for smoother engagement of the chronograph.
It was in the year 2000 that Rolex finally produced a chronograph movement of its own, the first since the 1930s. Three quarters of a century had given Rolex’s designers the knowledge to build a better chronograph than had ever been used before in a Rolex watch, and that chronograph was the cal. 4130. Built from the ground up, the cal. 4130 introduced efficiencies in both operation and maintenance, reducing part-count over the outgoing cal. 4030 by 20%, freeing up space for a larger mainspring, thus increasing the power reserve by eighteen hours. The simplified design also allows for easier servicing, with many major components replaceable in-situ. But the biggest change was the relocation of the running seconds hand to the six o’clock sub-dial from the nine – it’s easy to imagine the old position bugging the designers at Rolex for decades.
Rolex has never been the kind of company that makes rash design decisions (okay, maybe it did with the Explorer II ref. 1655), and the Rolex Daytona is no different. With two predominant designs in its half-century lifespan, it has been more a matter of evolution rather than revolution for the famous sports chronograph.
Starting with the ref. 6239, the Rolex Daytona (sans “Daytona” branding at this stage) introduced a handful of key features that differentiated it from the more sedate ref. 6268 Chronograph that predated it. The first was the transition of the tachymeter from the dial to the bezel, giving the watch a cleaner, bigger feel, and the second was the addition of inverted chronograph sub-dials, providing a high-contrast look for easy reading. An alternate “exotic” dial was also available, commonly known as the “Paul Newman” because of the actor’s affiliation with the piece. This distinctive design, characterised by its distinct outer track and sub-dial markers, has become a firm favourite among collectors, and was available as an option up until the ref. 6265.
The word “Daytona” finally appeared in 1965 (the year NASA awarded the Omega Speedmaster with official flight-qualified status), as did the ref. 6241, a variation of the ref. 6239 with a black Bakelite bezel. In that same year appeared the ref. 6240, with the word “Oyster” on the dial to compliment new screw-down pushers. The ref. 6240 was short-lived, soon replaced by the ref. 6262 and ref. 6264 in 1969, which carried the updated cal. 727 but still had the non screw-down pushers. Then came the ref. 6263 and ref. 6265 in 1971, which reintroduced the screw-down pushers and “Oyster” branding. Of course, it was the 1980s that enjoyed the refs. 6269 and 6270, both resplendent in 18kt yellow gold and studded with diamonds.
There appears to be very little visual difference between the 1988 ref. 16520 and the 2000 ref. 116520, save for dial marker size, sub-dial spacing, and repositioning of the running seconds hand. Small differences across the ref. 16520 and 116520 dials can be found on closer inspection, with five variants known for the ref. 16520 and five known so far for the ref. 116520. These variations consist of font changes, hand thickness changes, and luminous paint colour changes.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Back in the Sixties, Rolex struggled to move just a few hundred Rolex Daytonas through its stores every year, with only around 5% being “exotic”-dialled examples. Today, those exotics are worth the most, commanding prices way into the hundreds of thousands. That’s for a watch that originally sold for $210, the equivalent of $1,600 today. Standard dial versions are cheaper, but not cheap: anything from the pre-“Daytona” ref. 6239 to the last examples of the ref. 6265 will cost around $40,000, while the gold-and-diamonds refs. 6269 and 6270 fetch auction prices into the millions. The lucky few that had an early Rolex Daytona tucked away for the better part of half a century have certainly won the jackpot; it’s hard to believe that many of these priceless timepieces sat in retailers’ windows for as long as a decade.
Smaller budgets are still catered for, however, with the up-and-coming Zenith-powered ref. 16520 starting to generate a following of its own. With the ref. 116520 replacing it in 2000, the 1988 revamp is starting down the road to collector’s paradise, and makes a safe bet for investors looking to get a healthy return in a few decades time (although not perhaps at the scale early vintage examples enjoyed). It’s a solid investment in steel, particularly with the rare dial defect known as the “Patrizzi” dial, which turned the sub-dial rings brown, and adds around 25% to the standard ref. 16520 price. There are no exotic dials for the refs. 16520 and 116520, unfortunately.
Generally speaking, any pre-owned Rolex Daytona purchase will increase in value for the foreseeable future; in the last five years, the stainless steel ref. 116520 has had a whopping 30% added to its RRP. Unsurprisingly, models in precious metals don’t benefit quite as much in the residuals department, and garish variants such as the ref. 116519 Beach and the ref. 116598 SACO “Leopard” fare especially poorly, but these are the exceptions. Collector interest centres predominately around the stainless steel iterations, and that’s where the best investments lie.
It’s easy to suggest that the Rolex Daytona has somewhat fallen on its feet given its underwhelming early performance that should have seen it consigned to the pages of history, but a broader view demonstrates that Rolex has been particularly clever in generating a lot of its own luck over the years. Sure, the NASA gig didn’t pan out, but a savvy reaction and consistent output certainly won the brand the long game. Omega’s Speedmaster might have gone to the moon, but when it comes down to the bottom line, the art of selling watches, it’s Rolex with the queues out the door.Andrew Morgan is a watch expert and editor at Watchfinder.co.uk.