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The Complete History of the Rolex Daytona

Characterized by both a slow burn in acquired popularity and development, the actual history of the Rolex Daytona dates back to the Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf’s infatuation with the high-brow racing lifestyle – specifically that of racing legend Sir Malcolm Campbell. Eventually, this racing-and-Rolex partnership culminated in the indirect advocation by racing legend and actor Paul Newman. It’s from here that the self-winding Rolex Daytona would escalate in value over the course of Newman’s career both on the track and the big screen. But what, if anything, sets the Rolex Daytona apart from other timepieces in the Rolex lineup? And how does a watch that originally sold for less than $200 at the time now fetch more than six figures at collector auctions around the world?

The answer is simple really: rarity and a unique backstory. One that we’ll dive into below beginning with the marriage of Rolex and racing, their partnership with influencer through the the development of the Daytona 500, not one but three total iterations of the iconic Rolex Daytona watch that pay homage to life in the fast lane, as well as a storied timepiece adorning the wrist of Newman on a daily basis for decades on end. In true Rolex fashion, it’s a story of influence and lifestyle unmatched by luxury watch brands in the industry.

Rolex & Racing

Years in the Making

Known at the time as “The Speed King,” Sir Malcolm Campbell quickly caught the attention of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf thanks to his continued effort in setting land-speed records in his Blue Bird race cars – frequently traveling to Daytona Beach to do so. It’s here where Wilsdorf believed Campbell symbolized the lifestyle of Rolex – making him the first real brand ambassador in the early 20th century.

Campbell’s lavish and fast-paced lifestyle also caught the attention of William France who, at age 26, moved to Daytona Beach to live at the forefront of this new sport. Through his years in the city that soon became known as the winter hub of American racing, France managed and raced in the first Stock-Car race held in 1936 on the beach itself and Daytona’s oceanfront road. The race was 250 miles long and consisted of 78 laps – France would eventually take over the yearly race in its entirety from 1938-1941. And just seven years later, France would then unify with other drivers, mechanics, and car owners to form a little-known racing company called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).Wilsdorf believed Campbell symbolized the lifestyle of Rolex – making him the first real brand ambassador in the early 20th century.

In response to the growing popularity of NASCAR throughout the late forties and early fifties, Rolex decided to capitalize on this movement through the production of what many consider to be the grandfather of the famed Rolex Daytona: The Rolex Oyster Chronograph. First introduced in 1955, this would be the very watch after which Rolex would base their first Daytona model. Dubbed Reference 6234, the brand would release about 500 of these a year during the production years of 1955-1961 – during which Rolex registered the name “Cosmograph.”

The Rolex Daytona

A Paul Newman Favorite

Such a storied history and close relationship with the racing community would eventually culminate in 1965 with the initial release of the Rolex Daytona Chronograph (ironically initially named the “Le Mans” but for licensing reasons had to be dropped and replaced by “Daytona”) for $210 at the time. Each piece paid homage to the Daytona International Speedway (officially in operation since 1959) and and were built specifically for racecar driver thanks to a larger-than-average tachometer engraved on the bezel, one-minute, 30-minute, and 12-hour recorders, a 17-jewel movement, stainless steel waterproof oyster case, and a sweeping second-hand time to 1/5th of a second. From here, the attractive and utilitarian nature of Rolex’s new chronograph caught the attention of celebrity race car driver Paul Newman who, beginning in 1972, sported the watch – first gifted to him by his wife Joanne Woodward – every day of his life up until his passing in 2008.

Ironically enough, it would be years before the Rolex Daytona would gain such popularity within the collector community. However, slow and steady incremental progress – thanks in part to Newman’s unofficial ambassadorship – led to enough demand that in 1988 Rolex released a second iteration of the Daytona. Now featuring a Zenith El Primero modified winding movement, this new iteration would become designated by a five digit reference number (as opposed to the original four-digit reference).

The Ultimate Rolex Daytona Coffee Book

For an extensive look at the wondrous history and inspiration behind the Rolex Daytona, turn to this exclusive 600-page hand-bound leather anthology of the timepiece. Featuring stunning photography and storytelling techniques, it’s both an informative exposition on the Daytona epoch and a fine example of industrial still life photography.

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Onward and Upward

The Rolex Daytona’s Lasting Legacy

In addition to the second iteration released in 1988, Rolex continued to push the envelope with a third iteration introduced in 2000 that featured a new Rolex movement and now a six-digit reference. The new movement, Caliber 4130, is still in use for today’s Daytona’s – complete with 44 jewels, 72-hour power reserve, Kid shock absorbers, and column wheel switching. Additional modifications are found on the dial face as well, with the running-seconds subdial now at the 6 o’clock position as opposed to the previous 9 o’clock position. Their value has also increased as well, selling for upwards of $12,000 new. In an extreme example, it’s rumored the 50th-anniversary platinum version fetched upwards of $75,000 upon its introduction in 2013.Recently, an original Paul Newman Daytona Rolex (reference 6239) owned and worn by Newman himself sold for $17.75 million

The legacy of the Rolex Daytona, by far and large, lies with the traditional Paul Newman model – characterized predominantly by a white dial complemented by black elapsed-time counters and large art deco numerals. Additional characteristics of the classic Paul Newman Daytona include a specific four-digit reference number, block markers instead of lines on the subdials, running seconds subdial at the 9 o’clock position, and one of four color combinations. The last time we checked, an original Paul Newman Daytona Rolex (reference 6239) owned and worn by Newman himself sold for $17.75 million at the Phillips Bacs & Russo Auction in New York City in October of 2017. That’s a percentage increase of over 8,450,000%.

Best Places to Buy A Vintage Watch

Looking for other vintage timepieces to enhance the collection? This list of the 10 best places to buy a vintage watch online is a great avenue for procuring an iconic timepiece suited for years of additional use.