Day of the Daytona: Why no other watch in the world is wrapped in such myth and mystique as the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

Alex Doak

True to expectations, the most iconic example of the most iconic wristwatch in history was auctioned last month at a hammer price far exceeding its estimate.

What no one was expecting, however, was quite how massively it exceeded that estimate. Overnight on 26 November at Phillips’ Manhattan saleroom, a ref. 6239 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was sold for $17.75m, including fees.

This 1960s chronograph wasn’t made of gold or platinum – it was plain old stainless steel. It didn’t house any masterful complication – the base calibre was a Valjoux 72 chronograph found in tens of thousands of watches from the period. It didn’t belong to anyone named McQueen, and the caseback was crudely, ungrammatically engraved “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME”.

And yet it was the highlight of an already high-profile sale, out-performing countless works of true haute horlogerie from the world’s greatest manufactures, and effortlessly smashing the wristwatch world record after a bidding war of just 12 minutes (previously held by a $11.1m Patek Philippe sold in the same room last year; a Patek Philippe pocket watch from 1933 still holds the overall “watch” record at a staggering $24.1m).

As you might have already guessed, this was no ordinary Rolex. It was Paul Newman’s very own ‘Paul Newman’ Cosmograph Daytona. The ultimate example of the most collectable Rolex, gifted to the Hollywood star by his wife Joanne Woodward in 1968 when his passion for motorsport really kicked in (hence that engraving).

The blue-eyed star was regularly photographed wearing the chronograph, and it has transpired he owned at least five during his reign as the King of Cool, leading to the model’s eponymous nickname and its establishment as the chicest of vintage wrist accoutrements.

Distinguished by its ‘exotic’ dial markings and ‘mushroom’ pushbuttons, the Paul Newman Daytona was an unpopular model in the 60s and 70s, meaning examples are rare, and good-condition examples with box and papers even rarer, explaining its regular £100,000-plus hammer price for even the most mundane of examples.

This particular one was always going to fetch millions (Phillips’ original ‘in excess of $1,000,000’ estimate seemed pusillanimous from the start) but its fantastic condition guaranteed it, not to mention its copper-bottomed provenance: it was consigned by James Cox, who, while dating Newman’s daughter Nell aged just 13, was casually gifted it by the star when Cox admitted he didn’t already own one.

But believe us, the hype, the hyperbole and crazy figures are all justified. And they’re all what makes the Rolex Daytona so special – an unbridled, and occasionally utterly illogical cult following that would put even the most provenance-packed Pateks to shame.

Introduced in 1963, the very first Daytonas were simply called ‘Cosmograph’. It was not until late 1964 that Rolex decided to align the world’s first dedicated motoring watch with the historic 24-hour race on Florida’s Daytona raceway, near the beach where Malcolm Campbell broke the land-speed record aboard Bluebird in 1933 (wearing a Rolex Oyster wristwatch, incidentally).

It really was a watch fit for the fast lane. Particularly purposeful for racing were the off-coloured registers to the dial – chronographs up to this point used monochromatic dials – and the two-toned nature of the Daytona made for much greater legibility on the move.

The Daytona was also the first chronograph to feature a logarithmic tachymetre scale, used for measuring speed by calculating distances over time. Its calibrations were placed on the bezel of the watch instead of the dial, allowing for larger markers on the dial, again perfectly suiting the Daytona to the racetrack.

One of the Daytona’s lesser-known firsts was the employment of screwdown chronograph pushers – first introduced in 1967 on the reference 6240 Daytona. While slightly tedious to use in a hurry, this development extended Rolex’s claim of making the most waterproof watches on Earth to those models fitted with vulnerable, leaky buttons.

Inside all Daytonas made from 1963 through 1986 were Valjoux 72 calibres – a workhorse movement that was shared by countless lesser manufactures. While it’s the Valjoux 72-based Daytonas that collectors strive for today, the manually wound movement was considered Rolex’s Achilles heel at the time, because it remained the only movement Rolex sourced from the outside – all others were developed and produced completely in-house.

In 1987, however, the Daytona became a self-winding chronograph with the introduction of Rolex calibre 4030. Based on Zenith’s revived El Primero, Rolex heavily modified the movement to fit its own needs, most notably by reducing its high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour down to the more conventional and precise 28,800. It was a robust and significant automatic chronograph for the modern age, and the so-called ‘Zenith Daytona’ was an instant success.

To this day, these watches are eminently collectable in their own right. But it was in 2000 that the Daytona finally became a thoroughbred Rolex, with the introduction of the caliber 4130. The first-ever in-house chronograph movement at Rolex, it’s an achievement that’s never a mean feat, whatever the watchmaker; the stopwatch as a complication is notoriously tricky to engineer into a mechanical movement without draining power reserves and affecting normal timekeeping precision.

The 4130 featured several technical advantages compared to most automatic chronograph. Not only did its architecture incorporate far fewer components than a standard chronograph, upping reliability and robustness, but it still managed to include a slick vertical clutch and prestigious column-wheel co-ordinator mechanism, with a remarkable-for-the-time 72-hour power reserve.

As soon as the new Daytona was announced, both collectors and novices rushed to their local authorised dealers to place their orders. Within a month of its announcement, the stainless-steel Rolex Daytona with in-house 4130 movement had a three-year waiting list – a list that persists to this day. So much so, Rolex is even reluctant to distribute imagery of the steel model to the press, for fear of heightening un-meetable demand.

But, while the modern Daytona is an incredibly fine, well-engineered and (let’s face it) prestigious everyday watch, the incredible demand will always be down to the lore and legend of those vintage Paul Newmans. If you can sweet-talk your way onto your local dealer’s steel-Daytona waiting list, £8,250 not only buys you one hell of a horological bang for your buck, but VIP access to an unbroken heritage. Heritage that no amount of marketing budget could ever buy, let alone invent.

Will you look as cool as Newman did wearing one? No amount of money can buy that, I’m afraid.

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