Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 6263
With Paul Newman's Daytona recently selling for $17.8 million, it's hard to believe that anything with the words 'Rolex', 'Daytona' and 'vintage' in it could possibly be anything other than a sought-after collector's item. It may surprise you, however, to learn that the vintage Rolex Daytona was actually one of the most unpopular ranges Rolex has ever made.
Watch our video review of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 6263
Up until the late 1950s, the chronograph watch was a bit of nomad. Dive watches were for divers, pilot's watches for pilots, and so on. But chronographs weren't really for anyone in particular, at least not until Jack Heuer managed to persuade friend and racing driver Jo Siffert to flog his chronograph watches up and down the Formula 1 paddock. That helped to seal the chronograph's ultimate destiny as a driver's watch—but for the Daytona, there was another stop along the way first.
In 1957, something remarkable happened: the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Overnight, the vast expanse beyond the horizon changed from the feared unknown to the next great conquest. When the Soviets followed up their streak of record-breaking firsts by making Yuri Gagarin the first man in space, NASA stepped up a gear, and so began the epic race to the moon that dominated the sixties.
Rolex, meanwhile, whose sales of its 6234 chronograph were flagging, took the opportunity in 1963 to carve a niche for the chronograph watch by also setting its sights on the moon. The change was dramatic, with the brand's chronograph watch growing in size, getting a bold, simple dial redesign with contrasting sub-dials, and—most importantly—having the tachymeter moved from the dial to the bezel for clearer operation.
The Daytona was a hugely unpopular watch in its time
Sound familiar? That's because Omega had done exactly the same thing with its own chronograph six years earlier. And in case you don't think Rolex actually intended its 6239 chronograph to end up flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions, this was several years before the watch was even called 'Daytona'. It was simply badged 'Cosmograph', which is literally the name given to the science of exploring the universe. This, from a company that picks such on-the-nose titles as 'Submariner' and 'Explorer'—the intention is pretty clear.
Unfortunately for Rolex, astronaut Wally Schirra had already worn a Speedmaster on his 1962 Mercury-Atlas 8 mission, and with favourable performance from the Omega during testing, Rolex didn't get the gig. In response to Omega receiving the official NASA seal of approval in 1965, Rolex rebadged its Cosmograph almost there and then, with the single, bright red word appearing on the dial that read, 'Daytona'.
Hedging its bets, Rolex had, in light of NASA's decision, turned its attention to the burgeoning racing crowd following the second world war, and was a major sponsor of the land speed records set by Sir Malcolm Campbell. Known as the 'Speed King'—a name used on later Rolex watches—Sir Campbell tore up the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, as he sought to achieve higher and higher velocities. Meanwhile, as prohibition was repealed, liquor runners repurposed their tuned vehicles—originally used for outrunning the police—into racing cars, and so NASCAR and the Daytona 500 was born, with Rolex a major sponsor. Given TAG Heuer's—then known as just 'Heuer'—motorsport dominance, however, qualifying the Cosmograph as the 'Daytona' was a real tail-between-the-legs moment for Rolex.
The 'Daytona' moniker came several years after the initial release
Again, in case you don't quite believe that Rolex would change tack like this with what is now probably its most famous watch, here's something else to think about. 1965 was the first year Rolex released any marketing material relating what was then still called the Cosmograph to motor racing. In fact, a little later on that year—but before the name 'Daytona' was settled upon—Rolex published an advert calling the Cosmograph the 'Le Mans' after the famous 24-hour race in France.
So, the languishing Daytona struggled to find a home, and with Heuer making big strides in the motorsport world, the Daytona was getting left behind. The so-called 'Paul Newman' exotic dialled version of the Daytona was even less popular, with stories told of retailers dropping them on the floor and dragging them back out from underneath the counter with their shoes. If only they'd known.
Truth be told, Rolex itself wasn't hugely popular back then either. Against brands like Omega, Heuer and Breitling—founded in 1848, 1860 and 1884 respectively—Rolex was considered a bit of a young pretender, having only been in business since 1905. It wasn't until the advent of the quartz crisis and the rise of the watch collector afterwards that people really began to understand what big strides Rolex made to the industry despite its young age. Think of them as something of a 20th century Tesla.
The design elements took inspiration from Omega's 1957 Speedmaster
Hype to one side, let's take the gloves off and have a look at the Daytona to see what it really is. This is the very last of this shape, the 6239, and is the closest of its generation to what we currently think of as the Daytona. Side by side with the current 116500 LN, we can see the evolution clearly. There's the clean dial with its black and white contrast, the straight, simple hands, the external tachymeter and the screw-down pushers, which were introduced around the mid-sixties, presumably as part of a brand exercise to figure out what the Daytona was actually supposed to be.
Inside we'll see what Rolex called the calibre 722, which is quite simply a modified off-the-shelf Valjoux 72. This isn't unusual—almost all the manufacturers of the time used this movement for their manually-wound chronographs. However, while other brands like Heuer, Breitling and Zenith worked on their own self-winding chronograph movements in the late sixties, Rolex continued to use this manual movement, and did so well into the next decade.
A modified Valjoux 72 manual wind movement takes care of power duties
Considering it was Rolex that produced the first automatic watch with a 'Perpetual' winding rotor—one that could travel a full 360 degrees—it seems cautious of the brand to ignore the onset of automatic chronographs for so long. It wasn't until 2000 that Rolex finally committed to producing an in-house chronograph, the calibre 4130. Even when Rolex moved from the old shape Daytona to the new shape with the 1988 16520, the movement came from Zenith—a variant of the El Primero developed way back in 1969. It was clear that, at that point, the brand still wasn't fully committed to its chronograph offering.
You can understand why Rolex has taken so long to bring the Daytona into line with the rest of its models; it's a watch that's been on the back foot for most of its existence, never really sitting comfortably in the brand's line-up. And while the vintage design looks good to us today, its Speedmaster-inspired boldness was a bit of a leap in the sixties, making it a tricky sell without the kind of heritage and reputation Omega had. While this made it hugely unpopular in its youth, that has only increased its value through rarity today. It's a strange one, because the Daytona doesn't really stand out as one of Rolex's great achievements or game-changing developments—more as a memento of the fact that even the very best have to start from somewhere.
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