Rolex Daytona vs Zenith El Primero
The Rolex Daytona comes up a lot on this channel, and for obvious reasons: it's one of the best-known watches ever made, from perhaps the best-known watchmaker in the world. It's also the last Rolex to ever use a movement that hails from outside of the Rolex family—the calibre 4030, based on Zenith's El Primero 400. That was in the Daytona 16520, the model that gave us this new, sleek and oh-so popular shape. 1988 it came out, and it's become very collectible since Rolex discontinued the calibre 4030 in favour of the in-house 4130. Why then, should you want one when you can quite simply walk into a shop now and buy a Zenith El Primero straight from Zenith for a fraction of the price?
Watch our video review of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 16520 versus the Zenith Chronomaster El Primero 03.2150.400/69.C713
Let's break this down in stages: first, why would you want a calibre 4030 over the newer 4130? After all, the 4130 is an all-Rolex chronograph movement that makes several huge design advances over the El Primero: the 4130's vertical clutch, for example—replacing the El Primero's lateral clutch—makes chronograph starts smooth and precise without the skip associated with lateral clutches; the power reserve of the 4130 was increased from 54 to 72 hours; the construction of the 4130 uses 20% less parts, arranged in a more service-friendly manner; and the winding mechanism of the 4130 is 68% more efficient.
The 1988 Daytona 16520 came equipped with a Zenith El Primero movement
That's all very well and good, but here's the thing: we all know that the appeal of a watch doesn't necessarily relate to cold, hard logic. The El Primero-based 4030 may have over three times as many types of screws and a mainspring that requires the complete dismantling of the movement to remove, but ... it's history. Coming off the back of the hugely unsuccessful 6263, which was powered by the dated Valjoux 72, the Daytona 16520 was the mark in the sand in Rolex's changing fortunes. And, one day, the 4130 will be history too.
Would you choose a Zenith with the same movement over the Rolex?
The El Primero itself is of course steeped in heritage. It was the world's first integrated automatic chronograph movement, following a close second to the modular Calibre 11 from the Heuer-Breitling-Hamilton partnership for the first automatic chronograph ever. By integrated, I mean that the El Primero was built in its entirety to be a chronograph, while the Calibre 11 was a chronograph module added to an automatic movement.
Perhaps Zenith went a little overboard with the design of the El Primero, giving it a high beat and sandwiching the movement in chronograph parts—inevitably making it tricky to service—but it was a showcase in engineering excellence versus the Calibre 11's sensible-but-less-exotic approach—and that's what made it great.
The Zenith Daytona has become a collectible watch amongst Rolex aficionados
Rolex, however, didn't simply drop in the El Primero as it was out of the box—over 50% of its parts were thrown in the bin and replaced with Rolex's own. First, the date function was scrapped, keeping the clean look the Daytona is known for. Then, the escapement was ditched, replaced with a larger, free-sprung balance with Breguet overcoil for greater accuracy. A weighted, free-sprung balance like this, ridded of its regulator, is much harder to set, but offers greater stability once it is—a testament to Rolex's pursuit of performance.
The multi-coloured, overlapping sub-dials of the Zenith are hugely popular, too
For practicality reasons, Rolex then reduced the beat from 36,000 beats per hour to 28,800, partially to reduce wear and increase service intervals, and partly to increase the power reserve by four hours. A handful of other parts all over the movement were also swapped out to ones Rolex presumably believed offered better performance. Lastly, and for good measure, Rolex then applied a better finish—perlage, polishing, graining—and swapped out the rotor weight reversing wheels for its famous red units.
At this stage, it's hard to say if the 4030 is, in balance, more in-house than not. The sheer quantity of changes and the vast difference between the 4030 and the fully in-house 4130 demonstrates that Rolex was never truly happy with the El Primero. The company was late to the game with the 16520 after a shaky run with its Valjoux 72-powered precursor, hot off the back of the industry-crippling quartz crisis, and that suggests that the 16520 was up against it with the budget. Who'd want to invest in a brand-new chronograph movement less than a decade after the mechanical watch market was knocked on its behind?
Rolex removed 50% of the El Primero movement and replaced it with new parts
So, what of Zenith's El Primero, then? It's the original, always will be. But, aside from a few trick silicon parts here and there, it hasn't moved the game on much since it lost by a nose to the Calibre 11 in 1969. And here's the thing: for something to be truly recognised as historic, it needs to be surpassed, and for Rolex, that's by the 4130. When you own a 16520, you own a slice of history that has a beginning and an end. But the El Primero's story? It's still open-ended.
The El Primero will always be the original, and holds a place in the history books
What this means, really, is that—aside from a few mechanical differences—Zenith's El Primero is no different to the 16520. On paper, that is. And for you, the Daytona may, quite simply, hold no appeal. After all, the Zenith is a stunning design driven by the pursuit of engineering excellence and built by a brand that has near-on half a century of heritage on Rolex. But while Zenith rests on its laurels, Rolex moved ahead—first with the 4030 and then with the 4130. As a brand, looking back and seeing the trail you've carved out behind you, which would you rather see? A path, straight and true, or one that goes around in circles?
Looking for a Rolex watch? Click here to shop now
Looking for a Zenith watch? Click here to shop now
Other watches you may be interested in: Rolex Daytona 116500 LN Rolex Daytona 116520 Rolex Daytona 116509 Rolex Daytona 116506 Rolex Daytona 116505