The History and Development of the Rolex Daytona

Published on Saturday 30th of October 2021
Rolex Watch History

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Rolex in the 1950s had been busy working hard to cement the brand as a maker of watches for professionals, with the Rolex Submariner released in 1954, targeting professional divers. Rolex also partnered with Pan American Airways a year later to produce the Rolex GMT, the epitome of pilots watches, and worked to meet the needs of the scientific community working around electromagnetic fields, when Rolex introduced the Milgauss in 1956. Despite the relative success of these models, Rolex set their sights even higher and aimed for the stars. When US president Kennedy gave his speech in 1962 promising to put man on the moon, Rolex saw an opportunity to complete the set, and add astronauts to the list of professions they catered for.

Rolex had been creating chronographs since the 1940s. Although not a very popular model (only selling around 500 units a year) Rolex gave NASA their chronograph ref. 6238 to be subject to their rigorous tests to determine its suitability for “official qualification for space flight”. As they were so confident in their product, Rolex even branded their next chronograph (ref 6239), the Cosmograph, a name they had started using as early as 1953 to describe a model with a moonphase function (ref 6062). Therefore, what better name to give to the chronograph that was intended for the cosmos. As is now obvious, the Rolex Chronograph ref 6238 was not chosen by NASA to go to space, instead NASA opted for the Omega Speedmaster. This left Rolex with a watch for professionals that the professionals did not want, but the mechanical chronograph soon found its home with another profession.

As the 1960s boomed with huge optimism, motor racing became enjoyable on a global scale, and brought with it glamor and wealth. It was with this new found thrill of speed that Rolex found a new home for its new watch that was in need of a purpose. In 1962, Rolex became the official timekeeper of the Daytona International Speedway, and so the Rolex Cosmograph ref 6239 released in 1963, was hastily rebranded to become the go-to watch of the modern racing driver, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was born.

To keep up with the fast paced outrageous world of motor racing, the now named Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref 6239, was redesigned from the relatively vanilla look of the Rolex Chronographs that it replaced. Rolex moved the tachymeter to the bezel from the dial, giving the watch a bigger, cleaner look. Rolex also gave the option of an alternate ‘exotic’ dial, with its contrasting inverted chronograph subdials for easy reading at high speeds. This dial became known as the ‘Paul Newman’ because the actor/racing driver had a deep affiliation with the watch, and became a fan favourite. Even today the ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona ref 6239 is one of the most collectable watches ever made. Paul Newmans personal Rolex Daytona set a new record for the highest price ever achieved for a wristwatch at auction, selling for an eye watering $15,500,000 in 2017.

The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona as we know it today is the latest of three distinct series of watches. The first generation of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, manufactured from 1963 to 1988, was produced in relatively small quantities, and had 4 digit reference numbers, with the iconic “DAYTONA” branding above the 6 o’clock subdial not being introduced until 1965 on the 6240. This first generation was also only available with manual winding movements, with automatic winding movements not being introduced until the watches second series in 1988.


Pre Ceramic White Dial Rolex Daytona
Pre Ceramic White Dial Rolex Daytona


The second series Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was introduced in 1988. This more modern looking watch featured a sapphire crystal (as opposed to the acrylic used on the first series). This generation of watch also gained 3mm of case size, making it a 40mm redesigned case having the tachymeter engraved into a sleek polished bezel. The series 2 watches all had 5 digit reference numbers. From the year 2000, Rolex started selling its series 3 Cosmograph Daytona, with 6 digit reference numbers, and a more varied choice of dial options, but we did not see a big change in design until 2016, when Rolex released the new, and current model Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.

Rolex Daytona Black Dial 
Rolex Daytona Black Dial 


The version of this third generation of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, the 116500, was introduced at the 2016 Baselworld Watch Fair. However, it was 3 years before then that Rolex had started making waves with the design of what is arguably their most iconic piece. In 2013 Rolex celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with the introduction of a commemorative watch with some new technology. Rolex had been using a scratch resistant ceramic to make the bezels on some of its sports models since the 50th anniversary Rolex GMT Master II in 2005. It was the 50th anniversary piece of the Daytona that was to introduce the new material to the Daytona range, the 116506. The special addition Daytona is available exclusively in platinum, has an ice blue dial, and chocolate brown ceramic bezel. The outside-the-box colour combination and addition of ceramic to a Cosmograph Daytona was unprecedented for Rolex, and paved the way for the latest model, the 116500LN.


Rolex Daytona 18ct Yellow Gold
Rolex Daytona 18ct Yellow Gold


The current Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona (to give it its full name), is available in 904L stainless steel, stainless steel and 18ct yellow gold, 18ct pink gold, 18ct yellow gold, 18ct white gold, and platinum, with a combination of dial, bezel and bracelet choices. From the monochrome 116519LN, with its solid 18ct white gold case, black Oysterflex rubber strap, black ceramic bezel and silver and black dial. To the warm tones of the 116505 with 18ct pink gold case and bracelet, matching bezel, and black and pink dial. However by far the most popular and hardest to acquire watch in the current range of Cosmograph Daytonas is the 116500LN, the classic stainless steel oyster bracelet with polished centre links has 12 links in the full bracelet, and is fitted to a stainless steel case with black ceramic bezel, with a choice of an all-black dial, or white dial with contrasting black rings around the subdials at the 3, 6, and 9 positions. The black on white colour scheme of this dial has earned the nickname the ‘Panda’ dial, and as of January 2021, the most desirable of the two.

As with all current Rolex steel sports watches, the demand for the Cosmograph Daytona 116500LN far outweighs the supply, with many authorised dealers no longer taking names for waiting lists. If you are lucky enough to get your name on a list, you are likely looking at reported lead time of up to 5 years. This of course means that when these models come up for sale on the second hand market they command the highest prices when compared to its RRP in the whole Rolex range.

Author C Lawson

Looking for a pre-owned Rolex Daytona?

Looking for a pre-owned Rolex?


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