Born from Records: The History of the Rolex Daytona

On September 24, 1924, driving a 350-horsepower Sunbeam race car with an 18.3-liter, 12-cylinder airplane engine, Malcolm Campbell reached 146.16 miles-per-hour at Pendine Sands.

It had taken him two prior attempts, both scuttled from faulty timing equipment, but he had set the land-speed record. And it would be the first of nine records he would set. Less than a year later, he shattered the 150-mile-per-hour barrier in the same car. In 1927, he reached 174.224 miles-per-hour. In 1928, he left the south coast of Wales and went to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he defended his record against one Henry Seagrave, who had reached 203.79 miles-per-hour; that February, Campbell bested him by just three miles-per-hour. It was a daring time when the British fought valiantly against their own countrymen, and land-speed records were held for mere months—Campbell lost his record that April, but he would set new records at Daytona four more times.

Image via rolexmagazine.

In 1935, Campbell relocated to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where he would embark on his final, greatest attempt: to be the first person to break 300 miles-per-hour.

“Campbell was so important to the brand that he remains the only person for whom Rolex named a watch.”


During these attempts, he may have been wearing a Rolex Oyster. Maybe not. Nonetheless, as early as 1930, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf had reached out to Campbell and made him one of their first brand ambassadors, and his feats an advertising campaign. “It is keeping perfect time,” a letter apparently written by Campbell states, with typical British understatement, “under somewhat strenuous conditions.”

Hundreds of celebrities, sportsmen, explorers, and otherwise famous people have worn a Rolex, but the brand is not prone to fads—and yet, in these early years, Campbell was so important to the Swiss firm that he remains the only person for whom Rolex named a watch.

Rolex’s first chronograph debuted around this time. The model 2303 was a 34-millimeter, two-register chronograph with a single pusher integrated into the crown. Rolex advertised it as the smallest chronograph in the world. It was a far cry from the classic form, but an innovation nonetheless: a ground-up design, instead of a pocket watch adaptation.

Ref. 2303; image via puccipapaleo.

And when Campbell reached 301.13 miles-per-hour under the broad Utah sky, a 1935 ad quoted him: “The Rolex watch is still keeping perfect time. I was wearing it yesterday when Bluebird exceeded 300 mph.”

Campbell at the wheel of his Bluebird.

Soon after, Rolex presented Campbell with a reference 2508. With two pushers and a tachymeter scale, it bears much more resemblance to the platonic chronographs in our mind. Campbell’s own watch went up for auction in 2014, estimated between 70,000 to 120,000 Euros—which, given the once-iconic status of Campbell, allows one to draw immediate conclusions.

Campbell’s ref. 2508; image via Artcurial.

Rolex also built just twelve examples of the astonishing 4113, its most advanced watch yet upon its debut in 1942: a split-seconds chronograph—Rolex’s biggest at 44 millimeters and a far cry from that tiny 2303. Rolex never sold these to the public but, instead, only handed them out to racing drivers. Subsequently, when they come up publicly, it is an event.

“It is impossible to imagine now, but hushed voices speak of the legend: about how Rolex chronographs gathered dust for years, and how retailers couldn’t give them away.”

Fitting, then, in these early years that Rolex’s chronograph legacy adorned the wrist of someone who went faster than any man had ever traveled on the surface of the Earth. Decades later, Rolex would return to Daytona, but the foundation was already set.

In 1954, Rolex introduced a new chronograph, reference 6234. It had a 17-jewel, manual-wind caliber 72A movement supplied by Valjoux. As the closest precursor to the Daytona, all of the elements were there: three registers in their rightful place, the tachymeter scale around the outside, and the waterproof and anti-magnetic Oyster case.

Rolex Chronograph ref. 6234 “Tri-Color”; image via 10pastten.

It languished at dealers. It is impossible to imagine now, but hushed voices speak of the legend: about how Rolex chronographs gathered dust for years, and how retailers couldn’t give them away. Rolex churned out about 2,450 examples total, averaging about 500 per year, before ending production in 1961.

Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, Lee Petty winning the inaugural Daytona 500. Two years later, Rolex became the track’s official timekeeper. In 1962, it debuted the 6238, the replacement for the 6234. The 6238 took on a modern aesthetic, but it wasn’t the apogee of the modern Daytona. No, the chronograph that became an icon would be the Cosmograph reference 6239. Similarly named, but a world apart.

Shown here is a “tropical” dial Rolex Cosmograph 6239 from 1964; image via HQMilton.

The 6239 was innovative for a number of reasons. It marked Rolex’s first use of contrasting colors, mirroring Heuer’s reintroduced Autavia from a year earlier. That black-and-white “panda” and “reverse-panda” look is hot with collectors today, especially among Rolex devotees, but it took a while for that enthusiasm to kick in. The distinguishing feature was the tachymeter that moved from the dial to the steel bezel, increasing visibility overall. Screw-down pushers, uniquely Daytona, would come later. The movement inside remained a Valjoux 72, what Rolex now called the 72B. The dial read, simply, “COSMOGRAPH.” And it had no name.

With such a prestigious role at Daytona, capitalizing on the motorsports boom would have been straightforward. It’s worth noting that the path had already been paved. That same year, Heuer introduced its Carrera, and in 1957, Omega introduced the Speedmaster—both watches originally themed around racing.

Rolex initially trying out the name “Le Mans” in an ad; image via Rolex forum.

In the race program for the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring, Rolex took out a full-page ad, calling the watch the Le Mans Chronograph. Rolex finally settled on the name Daytona the next year, according to an ad that both set the price at $210 before tax (about $1,600 today) and also proclaimed it the official timepiece of Pan Am. “Motor racing calls for split-second timing,” it reads, with a lack of flourish, “but accurate timing is important in many other aspects of our daily life too.”

“After all, things named Daytona tend to be simple, timeless, and beautiful: the Ferrari, the Triumph, the SEGA game. Why not a watch, too?”

Why are we not bidding on the Rolex Le Mans? Perhaps the naming rights fell through. Perhaps the product planners realized the cash cow of their timekeeping deal—the cash cow that was NASCAR. (In 1965 Tom Wolfe dubbed racer Junior Johnson “The Last American Hero” and introduced the sport to a national level, well beyond the environs where Johnson once ran whiskey.) Perhaps it was the allure of Daytona itself. After all, things named Daytona tend to be simple, timeless, and beautiful: the Ferrari, the Triumph, the SEGA game. Why not a watch, too?

Ref. 6240; image via tempus orologi.

The Daytona received its vaunted screw-down pushers in 1965, with the reference 6240. In the ’70s, the Valjoux movement soldiered on and took on a higher beat rate. When the quartz revolution threatened to do away with all of this mechanical progress, Rolex took action by finally making the Daytona automatic: a Zenith El Primero movement became Rolex’s 4030 in 1988. With it came its biggest design change: a contrasting “halo” ring around each sub-dial. This Zenith-derived 4030 finally gave way in 2000 to the Caliber 4130—a brand-new, in-house chronograph movement, featuring 44 jewels and a 72-hour power reserve.

Rolex 4030.

In 1991, thirty years since it became the track’s official timekeeper, Rolex became the title sponsor of the 24 Hours of Daytona. Every endurance winner receives a steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona, engraved with the enviable phrase “24 Hours Winner” on the back. Chronographs took off sometime in the ’80s, no doubt buoyed by the racing connection, and since then every Daytona comes with a waiting list—three to five years, by some estimates. Win your class at the 24 Hours of Daytona, however, and you won’t have to wait as long.

Paul Newman began his racing career in 1969, when he began training at Watkins Glen for the movie Winning. He loved it. In 1972, he took part in his first professional race, behind the wheel of a Lotus Elan at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway. He placed first.

“In 2016, Eric Clapton’s Daytona broke a record when it sold for $1.4 million. The year after, a Daytona with a rarer-than-rarer “Lemon Dial” sold for $3.7 million . . .”

That same year, his wife Joanne Woodward presented him with a Daytona Reference 6239. It sported an unusual “exotic” dial, as Rolex called it, with chunky sub-dial indices and a cream-on-black panda scheme—a flamboyant (by Rolex standards) departure from the demure two-toned Cosmograph. On the back was engraved: “Drive Carefully Me,” a quiet reminder from Woodward, who would stay married to Newman until the end. Newman would go on to win four SCCA National Championships, second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979, and his class at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1995. In 2006, he won at Lime Rock Park. He was 81.

Image via Phillips.

It took a while for these exotic dials to gain momentum. By some estimates, Rolex produced one Newman per 20 single-tone Daytonas. They retailed at around $200, but ask nicely and you could get one for half price. Imagine that. Occasionally, the matching paperwork of a similar Daytona reveals a sales receipt dated years, if not decades, after the production date.

The momentum finally arrived in the ’80s when Italian and Japanese collectors began to notice. A name goes a long way, and enthusiasts around the world soon noticed the “Paul Newman Daytona.” The Rolex chronograph took off.

Newman with Woodward.

How high did it soar, exactly? Prices began in the four figures in the ’80s, reached $10,000 in the ’90s, and exploded after the millennium. In 2013, a Newman Daytona broke the one million mark. In 2016, Eric Clapton’s Daytona broke a record when it sold for $1.4 million. The year after, a Daytona with a rarer-than-rarer “Lemon Dial” sold for $3.7 million, the second most expensive Rolex ever sold, behind an example owned by the last emperor of Vietnam.

And last June, a man named James Cox surfaced with Paul Newman’s own Daytona, the one engraved and given by Joanne Woodward, once thought to have been among the great lost watches alongside Fidel Castro’s Rolex GMT and Lyndon B. Johnson’s gold Oyster Day-Date. At an auction in October, it shattered multiple records to become the most expensive watch ever sold—that perfect mashup of celebrity provenance, motorsports heritage, and Rolex anything collided, resulting in a $17.75 million objet d’art.

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Hailing from the middle coast of Austin, Texas, Blake Z. Rong is a freelance writer, researcher, one-time podcast host, and occasional automotive journalist. When he was 13, he took apart a quartz watch and forgot how to put it back together again. His love for watches has lingered ever since. He can usually be found on his motorcycle speeding across Texas Hill Country.