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Rolex Daytona; at first an unlikely superstar

When talking about the most popular watch brands in the world, even the general public knows that Rolex wins this contest, and watch dealers know by how big of a...

When talking about the most popular watch brands in the world, even the general public knows that Rolex wins this contest, and watch dealers know by how big of a lead. The Rolex Submariner probably takes the title of the brand’s most widely desired model on the market today. At the same time most dealers would agree that the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona not only easily takes second place, but that it is quite possibly the most talked about, written about, and obsessed over watch on earth. Despite this top tier status, Rolex’s racing did not start out a superstar. It was in fact quite the opposite. In this article we will take a look at the history of Rolex’s racing watch, and how it went from a relatively obscure slow seller to one of the most desirable watches of all time; with the routinely breaking records in skyrocketing prices that come with this status. Because of an exceptionally extensive history filled with details and models there will be three parts to this Daytona series. The conclusion of the story will be an interesting look into the top 3 best performing Rolex watches of the last five years.

Early racing and early marketing

That the genius of Hans Wildorf isn’t limited to him revolutionizing wristwatches in the technical sense; it is well known that his vision as a marketeer brought his brand under the public’s attention in never seen before ways. During the same time that Wildorf was making strides in the technological advancements of his Rolex watches, the automotive industry was doing the same by rapidly turning cars from motorized carriages into the symbol of progress and status they are today. Limits were pushed, records were broken, and much of it happened at Daytona Beach, Florida. Wildorf knew this was a place where Rolex belonged. In the beginning of the 1930s He quickly joined forces with Sir Malcolm Campbell; the man that broke the world land speed record five times on the track. Daytona Beach would evolve into the Daytona International Speedway, and start hosting the up until today most prestigious race in NASCAR with its Daytona 500.

Daytona Beach Road Course
Daytona became the world capital of speed

Campbell would always wear a Rolex around his wrist, and was featured in various magazine and newspaper ads for Rolex. The funny thing was that he didn’t wear a chronograph but the early Oyster models. Chronograph comes from the Greek words “chrons” and “graphis” which together mean “writing of time.” As most dealers know, a chronograph can be used to measure elapsed time by a single or two separate pushers to start and stop the sweeping second’s hand; ideal for accurately measuring lap times while racing a car around a track.

Early Rolex Chronographs

From 1937 Rolex produced its first chronograph wristwatch with a single push button on the side to start, stop and reset a separate second hand. The brand used Valjoux movements in these watches. But it was in 1955 that Rolex introduced The Rolex Oyster Chronograph reference 6234; a manual-wind chronograph in an Oyster case that many consider a precursor of the Daytona.

Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234
One of the first Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234 with tachometer and telemeter scales
Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234
A Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234 with black dial and baton indexes

The Rolex Daytona had a father

The second series of the reference 6238 is called the Pre-Daytona by many collectors. It introduces a more modern style baton hands, faceted hour markers and monochromatic dials (silver, black and ardoise). The telemeter scale was removed while the tachometer scale was still on the dial. But maybe the most important new feature was Rolex customizing close to 40% of the Valjoux calibre 72 chronograph movement into the 72 B, and later 722 ( 1965-1967).

Daytona Rolex Chronograph ref. 6238
Pre-Daytona Rolex Chronograph ref. 6238 with black dial
Rolex “Pre-Daytona” Chronograph ref. 6238
Rolex “Pre-Daytona” Chronograph ref. 6238

This silver dialed father of the Daytona was worn by Australian actor George Lazenby during his only Bond performance in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was not yet an ‘Oyster’ and did not have a screw-down crown or buttons.

Rolex Calibre 722
Calibre 722

From the cosmos to Le Mans with a landing in Daytona

In 1963 Rolex introduced its first Cosmograph model. This reference 6239 chronograph had a very distinctive characteristic in that it was the first Rolex chronograph where the tachometer scale was engraved on the metal bezel. This was done to enhance the legibility of the dial while driving at very high speeds.  Available in black with silver counters or in silver with black counters. At first the bezel graduated up to 300 units per hour. This was later changed to 200 units per hour.

1963 Rolex Cosmograph ref. 6239
1963 Rolex Cosmograph ref. 6239 with silver dial and black counters

Funnily enough, the watch was initially named after the most famous endurance race in Europe called Le Mans. This was never printed on the dial though and only appeared in a few ads. In 1965 the name Daytona finally appeared on the dial and the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was born. How the brand already introduced a new model the next year will be covered in the second part of this series; as will be the reasons why the Daytona was rather unpopular the first years, who was responsible for huge turn around.


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