The Rolex Daytona: Combining Motorsport and Watches Since 1963

The name was actually originally going to be the Rolex Le Mans.

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As the iconic Rolex 24 at Daytona race is about to kick-off once again, we wanted to take you down the memory lane of the equally iconic Rolex Daytona watch. Its history goes as far back as 1963 when it launched to compete with Omega’s Speedmaster.

Go to any major car show; an official auto show, Cars and Coffee or even the Pebble Beach Concours; and you’re going to see countless Rolex Daytonas adorning the wrists of well-to-do car enthusiasts. For many car enthusiasts, even those that can afford hyper expensive, uber-luxury timepieces, the Rolex Daytona is a must-have. The reason for its prominence among enthusiasts is entirely to do with its motorsport history.

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The Pre-Daytona Watch

The first true Rolex Daytona debuted in 1963, however, the ref. 4500 from the 1940s, now nicknamed “Pre-Daytona”, was the brand’s first motorsport-related chronograph and was even worn by the likes of Enzo Ferrari. After twenty years of evolution, Rolex finally replaced the ref. 4500 with the first Daytona, in 1963. It was launched with a hand-wound Valjoux 72 movement and sported the now-iconic three-dial chronograph design, stick hour/minute hands and an arrow second hand.

Its Name Was Originally Rolex Le Mans

After the success of the ref. 4500 with racing drivers, Rolex made the Daytona with them specifically in mind. It was designed as a chronograph for racing drivers and enthusiasts and its name was even motorsport-inspired, being named after the iconic Daytona International Speedway. The name was actually originally going to be the Rolex Le Mans but the brand’s desire to sell more pieces to Americans pushed the brand to use Daytona instead. Although, the name technically wasn’t given until 1964, though the ’63 is still considered by many to be a Daytona, as it began the reference number.

What was interesting about the first Rolex Daytona, back in its day, was the fact that it changed quite a bit from the ref. 4500 that it replaced. Gone were the monochromatic subdials, with inverse-colored subdials in their place. The tachymeter around the face of the 4500 was moved to the bezel of the Daytona and was also adorned with hash marks. The dial came in either black with white subdials or white (more of a cream-ish) with black subdials. The latter of which is among the prettiest Daytonas of all time. Unfortunately, it the first series Rolex Daytona wasn’t as immediately well received as its predecessor.

When the Daytona first arrived, it was actually met with a lukewarm reception. It’s hard to imagine now, as it’s become immensely popular, but back in the ’60s the original Daytona was a bit of a dud. It wasn’t until film and racing icon Paul Newman began wearing one that it became so popular but that didn’t happen until 1983, twenty years after its initial release.

Paul Newman

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Rolex Daytona

In ’83, Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, bought him the classic white face/black dial Daytona with an engraving on the back, which read “Drive Carefully — Me”. Newman famously wore his Daytona constantly and is seen in countless photos with it on, which is a major reason for its immense popularity. Newman’s specific Daytona has also become an icon of the watch world, due to its value. His watch recently sold at auction for $17.8 million a few years ago, the most expensive watch auction in history at the time.

Now, the Rolex Daytona is synonymous with motorsport. The Rolex 24 at Daytona is a 24-hour endurance race at the iconic Daytona circuit and Rolex works with BMW, among others, in the world of motorsport. So while it wasn’t a home run right outta the gate, the Rolex Daytona has become a staple of the automotive world.

After its eventual success, Rolex released a second series of the Daytona, with an all-new movement and reference number 16520. The first one was hand-wound but the second one (ref. 16520), which debuted in 1988, featured a self-winding automatic movement from Zenith, which is why it’s often referred to as the “Zenith Daytona”.

The Second-Gen Rolex Daytona

For the second-gen ref. 16520 model, the Daytona grew in size from 38mm to 40mm, gained a sapphire crystal, glossy subdials, and luminous hour hands.

While its movement was borrowed from Zenith, it wasn’t just shoehorned into the Daytona. Rolex made a claimed 200 changes to the calibre 400 movement, keeping only 50-percent of its original parts, all of which were done to increase reliability and reduce servicing requirements. In the end, the movement was called the calibre 4030 and actually became the reference point for Rolex’s own in-house, self-winding chronograph movements in the future.

Third-Gen With In-House Movements

The Rolex Daytona: Combining Motorsport and Watches Since 1963
Rolex Daytona Third-Gen

Speaking of future in-house movements, Rolex followed up the ref. 16520 with the ref. 116520 in the year 2000. The third-gen ref. 116520 used an in-house movement, developed entirely by Rolex, called the calibre 4130, clearly a reference to the old 4030. The big news for the calibre 4130 was its unique vertical clutch mechanism that allowed for precise starting and stopping of the second hand, thus making it an excellent stop watch for motorsport enthusiasts.

Aesthetically, Rolex moved the subdials around a bit for the ref. 116520, switching the seconds dial from the 9 o’clock position to the 6 o’clock position. It also gained wider, luminous hour markers, longer lugs and the top of its case was polished, instead of brushed, as it was on previous models.

For car enthusiasts, the Rolex Daytona is a must-have, bucket-list watch. Not only is it dripping with proper motorsport history  — and has adorned the wrists of some very famous and special people — but it’s also beautiful. In today’s modern world of massive watch faces and glittery diamonds, the Daytona’s simplicity is its greatest strength.

Classic three subdials, a simple and legible bezel chunky screw-down crowns all give it a classic, rugged yet luxurious look that’s tough to match. It’s a stunning watch one that all enthusiasts either currently own or aspire to own one day.

This Watches & Cars series is brought to you by TheWatchBox. We teamed up with them to create some sponsored stories on watches and their intersection with cars. If you are interested in adding a Rolex Daytona to your own collection or just looking to find out more about the model, check out our friends over at WatchBox.