Rolex Daytona: History of a fabled watch

A partnership of speed – How Rolex and the Daytona watch has become synonymous with motorsport.

Join any of the big online watch forums and one thing you can be guaranteed is that you will see and read a lot about the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. One of the most collectable and coveted watch models in the world, much of the posting is of the “gee whiz, would you look at this beauty” nature, without much history or context about how this time-piece became so iconic in the world of watchmaking. Well, we’re here to help.

As with Sir Jackie Stewart and his longstanding relationship with Rolex, the independent brand’s connection with motorsports goes back a long way. And its origins also coincide with the beginning of the Daytona legend.

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The launch of the Rolex Daytona in 1963 certainly marked the most significant cornerstone in the alliance between the Swiss marque and the high-octane sport but it was the automotive adventures of a much earlier racer that firmly established this in-delible link, cementing them as partners in speed long before the Space Race of the mid-’50s and indeed the early days of rocketry.

In the mid-1930s, the average cruising speed of passenger planes was between 140 to 200 mph (225km/h to 350km/h), but on land, British car enthusiast Malcolm Campbell was pushing the limits of possibility with his futuristic Bluebird cars, which were powered by aircraft engines.

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Sir Malcolm broke nine land speed records between 1924 and 1935, three at Pendine Sands in Wales and five at Daytona Beach in Florida, widely considered the birthplace of speed – a centre for automotive racing since 1903.

During the 1920s, Campbell and his rival, fellow Englishman Henry Segrave (later Sir Henry), continued to raise the bar, each outdoing the other with greater speeds along Daytona’s famous stretch of sand. But after Segrave’s untimely death in 1930, it was Campbell who became the uncontested king of speed. In 1935, he was crowned the world’s fastest man, breaking the 300mphbarrier at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

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Throughout all of these high-risk exploits, his watch of choice was a Rolex. Sir Malcolm became Rolex’s first ambassador; he featured in their advertisements and in true gentlemanly style refused to accept a fee in return for his endorsement of the brand.

The Campbell and Rolex rapport threw a spotlight on the romance and glamour of auto racing but more importantly, it highlighted its commitment to science and innovation. For the watchmaker, this was a perfect fit and it was a bond that proved to be unbreakable by the 1960s, a time of great significance and excitement in the history of motorsport.

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The Daytona International Speedway was inaugurated in 1959 and the first Daytona Continental (known as the Rolex 24 At Daytona since 1992) took place there in February 1962. Meanwhile, at the 24 Hours of LeMans, the world’s oldest endurance motor racing competition, the fight for the podium was intensifying. Ferrari dominated the first half of the decade while Ford stole the glory in the second. Teams were developing faster and faster cars thanks to rapid advances in technology and design – the introduction of rear car engines, smaller steering wheels, and the invention of the mono-coque chassis made of new composite materials borrowed from the aerospace industry are just a few of the developments that changed the course of racing history during this era.

In 1963, Rolex matched this innovation with a timepiece built with racing drivers in mind, the Cosmograph Daytona, then simply called the Cosmograph (and briefly named ‘Le Mans’).The watch became an icon of 20th century design and new editions still command long waiting lists. At the root of this enduring popularity, is the Daytona’s unrivalled and robust functionality as a professional tool watch, which in the early 1960s was nothing short of revolutionary. Everything about the Daytona’s design – its tough waterproof/dustproof Oyster case, bold contrasting dial for easy reading and practical tachymetric scale on the bezel for calculating average speed – was tailor-made to meet the demands of the sport; hence its geographically-inspired name, synonymous with endurance and stamina.

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Winners of the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the 24 Hours of LeMans (where Rolex has been Official Partner and Timepiece since 2001) are rewarded with a Cosmograph Daytona, a tradition that has been in place since the 1960s. Former F1 hero and recent Rolex Testimonee, Mark Webber, explains this honour in straightforward terms. “I promise that there is not a single racing driver that doesn’t like Rolex. When [you’re awarded] a Rolex at Le Mans 24 Hours or at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, every driver talks about it. It’s a symbol of your victory and that’s something very unique.”

A photograph from 1963 highlights Webber’s point: it shows Mexican driver Pedro Rodriguez de la Vega gazing proudly at his brand new Rolex awarded to him at the Daytona Continental (as the race was then called) after driving his Ferrari to victory. He’s surrounded by family and friends, including a young boy who’s equally enamoured with the prize. Rodriguez’s trophy is in the foreground but all eyes are on the little green box.

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The concept of achievement is indeed another compelling factor behind the Daytona’s timeless appeal. Put another way, there’s an aura of empowerment and fulfilment associated with those who have triumphed in motorsport. By virtue of their skill, courage and competitive spirit, drivers are often seen as idols – and who wouldn’t want to wear the same watch as their racing hero? Or indeed the same watch favoured by Hollywood legend and auto racing enthusiast Paul Newman, whose own Daytona was characterized by a black-on-white “exotic dial” with red seconds markings. Vintage editions of the Daytona Paul Newman are highly sought after and the actor’s own model famously sold at auction for $17.8 million last year.

Interestingly, only a few F1 and endurance drivers wear a watch when they are competing – Sir Jackie Stewart never did for fear of injuring his wrist but in those days, driving gloves weren’t as shielding as they are today. In fact, Stewart’s good luck ritual was to hand manager Ken Tyrrell his Rolex just before climbing inside the cockpit ahead of every race. Modern advances in protective clothing (biometric gloves that monitor the driver’s health while in the cars have just been introduced to F1) mean that the choice between a “dressed” wrist and watch-free wrist is now simply down to personal preference; although some believe in scrupulously keeping weight to a minimum within the cockpit in order to maximize lap time, and that means no watch and no jewellery.

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While the Daytona may no longer be an indispensable timing tool for pro drivers, the watch’s mechanical virtuosity has evolved in tandem with the amplified power and capabilities of motorsport engines, whilst remaining true to its original form. In 1988, the Cosmograph Daytona became self-winding with COSC certification; its diameter increased to 40mm and its tachymeter scale was engraved with a 400-units per hour scale to record greater speeds. In 2000, its design was refined once again and the timepiece was fitted with its first in-house 4130calibre, is high-performance/high-precision movement is way ahead of its time and continues its role as the ultra-sophisticated micromechanical engine that powers all-new Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watches.

In 2015, Rolex introduced the Superlative Chronometer Certification – a testing system that goes far beyond the standards required of a normal chronometer. This means that the watch is precise to -2/+2 seconds a day, a benchmark that is represented by the little green seal attached to a cord that comes with every one of its watches. Aesthetic changes to the Cosmograph have occurred stealthily, which is a testament to its timeless design – one significant innovation was the addition of a Cerachrom bezel in black ceramic in 2016, which replaced the engraved metal bezel. A waterproof, corrosion-resistant and virtually scratch-proof piece of tech, and one made with posterity in mind.