When Hans Wilsdorf founded Rolex in 1905, the automotive industry as a whole was still in its infancy. German and American manufacturers were competing for a way to mass produce their cars. Little did he know, his soon-to-be revolutionary brand would become associated with a sport that hadn’t even been imagined yet.
Wilsdorf himself would become infatuated with the high-octane sport of automobile racing and the lifestyle surrounding it. Specifically that of Sir Malcolm Campbell. Known by his peers as the “Speed King,” the British motorist was among the most successful race car drivers during the 1920s and 1930s.
Daytona Beach was the location that hosted the first organized races. It was instrumental in pioneering the sport, attracting competitors, enthusiasts and fans alike. Between 1924 and 1935, the Sir Malcolm Campbell shattered nine land speed records in his iconic Bluebird race car, five of which occurred at Daytona Beach.
The Racing World and the Oyster
What’s more is that he also happened to be an avid wearer of Rolex watches, both on and off the racetrack. During the height of his success and fame in 1931, he wrote a personal thank you note to Rolex’s headquarter. He gushed about the durability and reliability of the Oyster during his races. The lifestyle of Sir Malcolm Campbell during his time in the “speed capital of the world” symbolized that of Rolex. This made him the first official brand ambassador in the early 20th century.
His lavish and fast-paced lifestyle, as well as the attention, caught the eye of William France, who left everything and moved to Daytona with just $100 in his pocket. As Sir Malcolm Campbell and other race car stars of the time left in favor of Bonneville Salt Flats due to the poor quality of the track, France began to lay the foundation of the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR).
In the early days of Daytona, the elongated oval-shaped racecourse partly ran along the bend of the oceanfront along the beach. The smooth, compacted sand was ideal for land speed records and made for an entertaining spectacle. Under France, the popularity of the high-octane sport skyrocketed during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1953, France proposed the creation of what would be dubbed the Daytona International Speedway, moving the racecourse to a permanent asphalt track that could accommodate the large crowds.
Rolex and NASCAR’s Relationship
It was during this time that Rolex capitalized on the movement with the creation of the Rolex Oyster Chronograph. It’s what many consider to be the forefather of the iconic Daytona. Dubbed “Reference 6234,” they released just 500 annually between 1955 and 1961. During that time, Rolex registered the name “Cosmograph.” These so-called “Pre-Daytonas” sold for a measly $200 at the time and had very limited success. Especially since other watch brands had already established themselves as chronograph specialists.
Rolex became the first official timekeeper of the Daytona International Speedway in 1962. The following year, they released the Cosmograph “Reference 6239.” The model was emphatically nicknamed the “Daytona” to cement its affiliation with the now prestigious auto race. Rolex designed the timepiece to meet the demands of the professional drivers. They did so by having a larger tachymeter scale on the bezel that allowed for the precise measurement of speed.
The close relationship between the sport and the brand would begin to culminate with the initial release of the Rolex Daytona Chronograph in 1965. Each timepiece paid homage to the Daytona International Speedway. Each also came equipped with an even larger tachometer engraved on the bezel. One-minute, thirty-minute and 12-hour recorders, 17-jewel movement, sweeping second-hand time to ⅕ of a second and finished off with the iconic Rolex Oyster waterproof stainless steel case.
This watch managed to make its way into the hands of celebrity race car driver Paul Newman. He received it as a gift by his wife Joanne Woodward in 1972. His personal Daytona watch became his favorite accompaniment during races but also off the track. In large part due to Paul Newman as an unofficial ambassador, the Rolex achieved incremental and steady increase in popularity.
The actor was frequently spotted with his Paul Newman Rolex Daytona which he wore every day until his passing in 2008. In 1988, there was enough demand that Rolex released a second iteration, this time featuring a Zenith El Primero modified winding movement. These models were designated with a five-digital reference number.
They continued to push the envelope with the introduction of a third iteration in 2000, designated with a six-digital reference number. The calibre 4130 self-winding movement is still in use today, complete with 44 jewels, 72-hour power reserve, kid shock absorbers and column-wheel switching. The start, stop and reset functions are enabled by pushers that screw down to create a crisp and clear click.
Then and Now
Today the iconic black dial allows for a precise reading of ⅛ second. While the two counters on the dial displayed the lapsed time in hours and minutes. Drivers can map out their track times and tactics without fail. The Daytona also features the brand’s iconic Oyster bracelet which equips the model with the reliable technology. In addition, an impeccable aesthetic that has stood the test of time.
Despite the continued innovation, the legacy of the Rolex Daytona begins and ends with Paul Newman. The limited “Paul Newman” models fetch millions at auction today. They’re instantly recognizable by the block markers instead of lines. Also, one of four contrasting color combinations along the dial’s periphery. The model must be Reference number 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264 or 6265. These haven’t been produced for decades, leaving them to become a rare collector’s item.
Daytona Is Here to Stay
Along with the Submariner, the Rolex Daytona has remained a mainstay among its most iconic of timepieces. The Rolex Daytona, in particular, represents Rolex’s ability to bring reliability and solidity and merge them into a beautiful timepiece.
Rather than a single “eureka” moment, the ascension in popularity and development of the Rolex Daytona was a slow burn. Throughout its 55-year history, there were many years in which the model would sit at an authorized dealer’s shop. It now stands as one of the most sought-after timepieces. It has become associated with some of the sport’s most recognizable icons such as Sir Malcolm Campbell and Paul Newman.
The 55-year history of the Rolex Daytona was a slow burn in its acquisition of popularity and development. The model that would often sit for years at an authorized dealer’s shop now stands as among the most sought-after timepieces ever.
At its core, the Daytona embodies Rolex’s passion for the sport and the racers themselves. While its longevity and rich story is what distinguishes it as a true classic.