The History of the Rolex Daytona: A Legendary Timepiece

history of the rolex daytona

A couple of days ago, I shared a blog post about the entire story of Rolex, starting from when Hans Wilsdorf created it in London in 1905, to its rise as the top watch brand in the world. Today, let's chat about the history of the Rolex Daytona.

The Rolex Daytona is one of the most iconic and sought-after luxury timepieces in the world. Its rich history, which spans over half a century, tells the story of innovation, style, and a strong connection to the world of motorsports.

Today, Rolex Daytona is the second most popular watch after the Rolex Submariner.

The most popular watches
As of Jan 2024

1930s-1950s: Pre-Daytona Era

Sir Malcolm Campbell

The intertwined history of Rolex and motor racing is exemplified by the brand's relationship with Sir Malcolm Campbell, the "King of Speed." This connection is set against the backdrop of Daytona Beach, Florida, often considered the cradle of motor racing. The first car races on Daytona Beach's hard-packed sand were held in 1902, laying the foundation for what many regard as the dawn of motor racing.

Rolex's involvement with Sir Malcolm Campbell took a significant turn in 1931. After setting numerous speed records at Daytona Beach during the 1930s, Campbell penned a letter to Rolex, expressing his admiration for the watch's performance. In his letter, Campbell acknowledged the Rolex Oyster's precision and durability, especially under the rigorous conditions of his record-breaking runs.

Sir Malcolm Campbell
Sir Malcolm Campbell. Source: Rolex
Rolex advertisement in the London Charivari magazine in 1930, featuring Sir Malcolm Campbell
Rolex advertisement in the London Charivari magazine in 1930, featuring Sir Malcolm Campbell's thank-you letter to Rolex. Source: Rolex

Rolex and its founder, Hans Wilsdorf, were really amazed by Sir Malcolm Campbell's big accomplishments and his way of living. They thought he perfectly showed what Rolex is all about, so he became the very first true Rolex Ambassador. 

While it's true that Mercedes Glietze was the first person to represent Rolex, her role was mainly for a single event or achievement. On the other hand, Sir Malcolm Campbell worked with Rolex for a much longer time. Rolex even created a special watch model named after him, showing how important he was to the brand.

Sir Malcolm Campbell kept breaking world speed records one after the other. Below, we can see the 1935 program from Daytona Beach, Florida, featuring him on the cover.

The Daytona Beach Florida Program 1935 with Sir Malcolm Campbell on the Cover
The Daytona Beach Florida Program 1935 with Sir Malcolm Campbell on the Cover. Source: Rolex

Sir Malcolm Campbell kept breaking world speed records one after the other. Below, we can see the 1935 program from Daytona Beach, Florida, featuring him on the cover.

The Roots of the Rolex Daytona

The history of the Rolex Daytona starts way back in the 1930s to 1950s. Back then, Rolex was just beginning to create what would become one of its most famous watches. In 1920, they made their first simple chronograph watches, like the reference 2303, showing they were getting interested in making watches that could time races.

Rolex's big step into racing came in the 1930s when they teamed up with Sir Malcolm Campbell, a famous British race car driver. He broke lots of speed records and raced a lot on Daytona Beach in Florida. This connection between Rolex and racing started to grow strong.

In the 1940s, Rolex made even better chronograph watches that could time things super accurately. But the 1950s were really special because that's when Rolex made two important watch models, the reference 6034 and 6234. 

People now call these the "pre-Daytona" watches because they were like a sneak peek of the Daytona. They had three little dials on the face and looked really classy and useful.

Rolex Pre-Daytona ref. 6234. Source: Antiquorum
Rolex Pre-Daytona ref. 6234. Source: Antiquorum

These "pre-Daytona" watches were a big step toward making the actual Daytona watch. They showed Rolex could mix good looks with handy features, making a watch that wasn't just great for racers but also for anyone who loved cool watches. So, when we look at the shiny Rolex Daytona today, we're seeing a watch that has a lot of history, starting from these early days of racing and watchmaking.

One of the first Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234 with tachometer and telemeter scales
One of the first Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234 with tachometer and telemeter scales. Source:
Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234 with black dial and baton indexes
Rolex Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234 with black dial and baton indexes. Source:

The History of the Rolex Daytona - The Daytona International Speedway in 1959

Daytona International Speedway in 1959
Daytona International Speedway in 1959

The Daytona International Speedway, a landmark in the world of motorsport, was constructed in 1959. This iconic track quickly became renowned for its high-speed races and became a central hub for car racing enthusiasts. Its establishment marked a new era in motorsport, providing a state-of-the-art facility that would host some of the most thrilling and competitive races in the world.

In this vibrant context, the connection between Rolex and the Daytona International Speedway began to take shape. Rolex, already synonymous with precision and excellence, saw an opportunity to align itself with the world of high-performance motor racing. By becoming the official timekeeper in 1962, Rolex not only solidified its presence in this dynamic world but also set the stage for the creation of one of its most iconic timepieces.

1963 - The Birth of Rolex Daytona

The very first Rolex Daytona 6239
The very first Rolex Daytona 6239. Source: Hodinkee.

In 1962, Rolex solidified its bond with the world of motorsports by becoming the official timekeeper of the Daytona International Speedway. This partnership underscored the brand's deep-rooted connection to the racing world.

The following year, this relationship was immortalized when Rolex launched the first Daytona watch, the reference 6239. By inscribing "Daytona" on the dial, Rolex not only celebrated this new alliance but also anchored the watch's identity firmly within the racing domain.

This naming decision was pivotal, reinforcing Rolex's commitment to motorsports and enhancing the Daytona's brand identity as a symbol of speed and precision.

Rolex Daytona 6239
Rolex Daytona 6239. Source: Christie's


History of the Rolex Daytona - The Paul Newman Connection

The most famous person to ever wear a Rolex Daytona was acting legend and race card driver, Paul Newman
The most famous person to ever wear a Rolex Daytona was acting legend and race card driver, Paul Newman. Source: Rolex

One of the most famous Rolex Daytona wearers was the legendary actor and race car driver Paul Newman. Newman's love for racing led him to wear a particular Daytona model, the Reference 6239 with an exotic dial, which later became known as the "Paul Newman Daytona."

The Rolex 6239 with the "Paul Newman" dial is particularly renowned for its striking use of three distinct colors that make it a standout piece. Typically, the dial features a white or cream background, complemented by black sub-dials, creating a stark contrast that enhances readability and aesthetic appeal. The third color, red, is often used for the outer minute track, adding a vibrant touch that highlights the dial's sporty nature. This combination of white (or cream), black, and red not only defines the Paul Newman dial's iconic look but also contributes to its desirability among watch enthusiasts and collectors, making it a symbol of both style and functionality.

The original Paul Newman Rolex Oyster Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239, which Paul Newman himself wore religiously for years, was sold for a record price of $17.8 million at the prestigious New York auction house. It is currently the second most expensive watch sold at auction.

After his 1965 accident, Newman was gifted his Rolex Daytona 6239 by his wife, Joanne Woodward, with the words ‘Drive Carefully Me’ engraved on the back. I mean he wasn’t only an actor but also a racecar driver. The actor was later photographed wearing the watch frequently, including at high-profile races. 

Paul Newman
Paul Newman. Source: Getty Images
Rolex Daytona Paul Newman Dial
Rolex Daytona Paul Newman Dial. Source:Phillips​​

1988 - The Zenith El Primero Movement

The early Daytona models featured a manual-wind Valjoux 72 column-wheel movement, known for its reliability and precision. These early versions are easily identifiable by their exotic dials, which later gained fame as the "Paul Newman" dials, named after the legendary actor and racing enthusiast who famously wore one.

In 1984, Rolex introduced a rare series of the Cosmograph Daytona, featuring gold cases with diamond-encrusted dials and bezels (ref. 6269 with brilliant-cut diamonds and ref. 6270 with baguette-cut diamonds).

Rolex Daytona 16520
Rolex Daytona 16520. Source: WatchProSite

A pivotal moment came in 1988 when Rolex unveiled the new Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona, the 16500 series. This launch introduced three variations: a steel version (ref. 16520), a steel and gold version (ref. 16523), and a gold version (ref. 16528), each boasting several upgrades from their predecessors. The watch's case size was increased to 40 mm, and a durable sapphire crystal replaced the former Plexiglas. The dial, available in black or white, featured a lacquered finish with luminous metal hour markers and contrasting color sub-dials (silver on black and black on white). Another significant change was the introduction of screw-down push-pieces.

However, the most crucial update was the integration of a new automatic movement derived from the esteemed Zenith El Primero 400 caliber, renowned as one of the finest automatic chronograph movements. Rolex modified this movement extensively to meet Daytona's standards and enhance reliability, including reducing the vibration rate from 36,000 to 28,800 VpH, removing the date function, and introducing a new escapement and balance wheel, resulting in the Calibre 4030. This marked the first time a Daytona housed an automatic chronograph movement.

RCalibre 4030
Source: Time and Watches

The Ceramic Bezel Made Its Debut in 2016

Rolex Daytona with a ceramic bezel
Rolex Daytona ​​'Panda' and'Blacktona'

In 2016, Rolex introduced the reference 116500LN, featuring a Cerachrom ceramic bezel. The retail price for this model was around $13,500, but due to high demand and limited availability, secondary market prices soared to over $25,000. As Rolex continues to innovate and release new Daytona models, prices will likely continue to evolve, reflecting the enduring appeal and prestige of this iconic timepiece. 

2023 - The First Daytona with Open Caseback

The new platinum Daytona 2023
The new platinum Daytona 2023

The illustrious Watches and Wonders 2023 in Geneva unveiled a spectacular array of timepieces, capturing the hearts of Rolex enthusiasts worldwide. Amid the excitement, a bittersweet moment emerged as we bid farewell to some exceptional discontinued Rolex models in 2023. These iconic watches left the stage, securing their places in the chronicles of horological history.  

The iconic update is the platinum Daytona to commemorate the model's 60th anniversary. At first glance, it may appear as a little update, but there's more than meets the eye. Flip over the exclusively platinum timepiece to uncover its hidden gem: the brand-new Calibre 4131, proudly displayed beneath a see-through case back, ready for admiration. A new history of the Rolex Daytona was made! 

The Complete List of Rolex Daytona Reference Numbers Since Its Inception

1963 - Reference 6239

In 1963, Rolex released their first Cosmograph watch, called the reference 6239. Now, we know this watch as the Cosmograph Daytona. This particular model was a big step in shaping the Daytona watch we recognize today, especially because it had a special tachymeter scale on the metal ring around the face. At first, Rolex thought about calling this watch "Le-Mans," but they ended up choosing "Daytona" instead. However, the name "Daytona" didn't show up on the watch's face until 1965.

Rolex Daytona 6239
Source: Amsterdam Vintage Watches

1965 - Reference 6240

This particular model was the first waterproof chronograph watch Rolex made, and it had special screw-down buttons. That's why you also see the word "Oyster" on the dial, showing that it's part of Rolex's waterproof watch line.

One of Rolex Daytonas 6240
Source: Hodinkee

1965 - Reference 6241

This model was quite like the 6240, but the difference was that it didn't have screwed-down pushers.

Rolex Daytona 6241
Source: The Watch Guy

1969 - Reference 6262

The Rolex Daytona reference 6262 stands out as one of the rarest Rolex watches ever crafted, mainly because it was produced only in 1970, lasting just one year. Despite its high quality, it wasn't a popular choice at the time, which led to its quick discontinuation. This watch served as a transitional model, bridging the gap between its predecessors and successors. Its brief production run means only a few of these watches exist, making it a highly coveted item among collectors of vintage Rolex timepieces.

Rolex Daytona 6262
Source: Bob's watches

1971 - Reference 6263

The Rolex Daytona 6263 is an iconic vintage timepiece, revered among collectors and watch enthusiasts. Produced from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, this model is known for its robust Oyster case and the use of screw-down pushers that enhance its water resistance. The 6263 stands out with its signature black acrylic bezel and the Valjoux 727 movement, offering improved precision and reliability. Its classic, sporty design, combined with its historical significance and rarity, has made the Daytona 6263 a highly sought-after model in the world of vintage watches.

Rolex Daytona 6263
Source: Rolex Passion Market

1971 - Reference 6264

The Rolex Daytona 6264 is a highly coveted vintage timepiece, known for its rarity and distinctive aesthetic, produced for a brief period in the early 1970s. This model stands out with its "Paul Newman" dial options and features a Valjoux 72 movement, acrylic bezel with a tachymetric scale, and screw-down pushers, embodying a perfect blend of performance and style.

Rolex Daytona 6264
Source: Amsterdam Vintage Watches

 1971 - Reference 6265

Like the 6264 but with screw-down pushers and metal bezel.

Rolex Daytona 6265

 1984 - Reference 6269

The first luxury Daytona ever produced!

The Rolex Daytona 6269 is one of the rarest and most luxurious Daytona models, distinguished by its lavish diamond and yellow gold embellishments. This exquisite timepiece, produced in very limited quantities during the 1980s, features a diamond-set bezel and dial, making it a highly sought-after collectible among watch enthusiasts and collectors.

Rolex Daytona 6269
Source: Golden Time Co

1984 - Reference 6270

Arguably the most expensive Daytona ever made. It is in yellow gold and has a paved dial set with diamonds, and the numerals are in sapphire, the bezel is set with baguette diamonds, and the sub-dials are purple. Only eight pieces were made, all made especially for His Majesty Qaboos bin Said, a ruler of Oman.

Rolex Daytona 6270
Source: Italian Watch Spotter

1988 - Reference 16520

The first automatic Daytona using a modified Zenith El Primero movement.

Rolex Daytona 16520
Source: Monochrome Watches

1988 - Reference 16523

Two-tone version of the 16520

Rolex Daytona 16523
Source: The Watch Collector

1988 - Reference 16528

Solid gold version of the automatic Daytona.

Rolex Daytona 16528
Source: Amsterdam Vintage Watches

1992 - Reference 16518

Leather strap version of the 16528.

Rolex Daytona 16518
Source: The Watch Collectors

1997 - Reference 16519

White gold version with a leather strap.

Rolex Daytona 16519
Source: Buland and Sons EU

2000 - Reference 116520

Introduced with Rolex's in-house movement, the Caliber 4130.

Rolex Daytona 116520
Source: Langedyk Vintage Watches

2000 - Reference 116523

Two-tone steel and gold model.

Rolex Daytona 116523
Source: Amsterdam Vintage Watches

2000 - Reference 116528

Solid gold model.

Rolex Daytona 116528
Source: Carr Watches

2000 - Reference 116509

White gold model.

Rolex Daytona 116509

2004 - Reference 116519

Leather strap and White gold model.

Rolex Daytona 116519
Source: Chrono24

2004 - Reference 116598

Special editions: yellow gold "Rainbow" Daytona.

116598RBOW is the yellow gold Rainbow Daytona, while 116598SACO is the Leopard.

Rolex Daytona 116598

2004 - Reference 116599

The 116599RBOW is the white gold Rainbow Daytona.

Rolex Daytona 116599
Source: Rolex Passion Market

2008 - Reference 116518

Yellow gold with leather strap.

Rolex Daytona 116518

2011 - Reference 116515LN

Rose gold model with a ceramic bezel.

Rolex Daytona 116515LN
Source: Bob's Watches

2011 - Reference 116505

Rose gold model.

Rolex Daytona 116505
Source: Luxury Time NYC

2013 - Reference 116506

Platinum model with an ice blue dial, released for the 50th anniversary.

Rolex Daytona 116506
Source: Bexsonn

2016 - Reference 116500LN

Steel model with a ceramic bezel. The white dial is called 'Panda' while the black dial I would call it 'Blacktona' or the watch community call it the reverse Panda.

Rolex Daytona 116500LN
Source: Fratello Watches

2016 - Reference 116519LN

White gold with ceramic bezel and leather strap.

Rolex Daytona 116519LN
Source: Wind Vintage

2016 - Reference 116508

116508 was launched in 2016 as the very first Daytona to ever feature a green dial it was met with a rather subdued response.

Rolex Daytona 116508
Source: G&G Timepieces

2023 - Reference 126500LN

A slight tweak to the previous model, the 116500LN

Rolex Daytona 126500LN
Source: Monochrome Watches

2023 - Reference 126506

the newly upgraded platinum Cosmograph Daytona with an ice-blue dial to commemorate the model's 60th anniversary. At first glance, it may appear as a little update, but there's more than meets the eye. Flip over the exclusively platinum timepiece to uncover its hidden gem: the brand-new Calibre 4131, proudly displayed beneath a see-through case back, ready for admiration. 

Rolex Daytona 126500LN
Source: Rolex

Celebrities That Have Been Spotted Wearing the Rolex Daytona

The Rolex Daytona's popularity has grown exponentially over the years, with numerous celebrities and high-profile personalities embracing this iconic timepiece. In addition to Paul Newman, whose association with the Daytona significantly contributed to the watch's rise in fame, many other celebrities have been captivated by its timeless style and functionality.

John Mayer, the renowned singer-songwriter and guitarist, is a passionate watch collector and a notable fan of the Rolex Daytona. His love for this particular model has led to the creation of a special edition known as the "John Mayer Daytona." This custom Rolex Daytona features a unique dial design, which combines elements from various vintage Daytona models, showcasing Mayer's appreciation for the watch's history and aesthetics.

Other celebrities who have been spotted wearing the Rolex Daytona include Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Pitt, and Victoria Beckham, to name a few. The watch's appeal transcends different industries and styles, making it a versatile and sought-after timepiece for both casual and formal occasions.

The Rolex Daytona's popularity among celebrities and watch enthusiasts alike has also fueled its demand and value on the secondary market. The waiting lists for some Daytona models can stretch for years, and prices for both vintage and contemporary pieces continue to rise. This enduring appeal, coupled with its rich history and association with motorsports and famous personalities, cements the Rolex Daytona's status as a true horological icon.

John Mayer with Rolex Daytona
John Mayer with Rolex Daytona 'John Mayer' 116508
Mark Wahlberg with Rolex Daytona Rainbow
Mark Wahlberg with Rolex Daytona Rainbow 116595RBOW
Cristiano Ronaldo with Rolex Daytona Rainbow 116598RBOWMOP
Cristiano Ronaldo with Rolex Daytona Rainbow 116598RBOWMOP
Karim Benzema with Rolex Daytona Meteorite Dial
Karim Benzema with Rolex Daytona Meteorite Dial
Neymar Jr. with Rolex Daytona
Neymar Jr. with Rolex Daytona 'Tiger' 116588TBR
Kanye West with Rolex Daytona Black tahitian
Kanye West with Rolex Daytona Black Tahitian 116518



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