Few watches have attracted a mythology like that of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. Named for a city in Florida known as the capital of speed, it is arguably more famous than the motor racing which takes place there. In common with perhaps only the Submariner and the Speedmaster, it has attained a status that even lets it drop the name of its illustrious maker.

The only conventional chronograph made by Rolex for the last 54 years, its latest version always carries a lengthy waiting list, and vintage models have become both the bedrock and the brightest stars of the auction market.

The History And Heritage Of The Rolex Daytona

Launched in 1963, the Daytona – like the Heuer Carrera and Omega Speedmaster – was aiming to tap into the rising popularity of motor racing (remember this is long before the Speedmaster went into space). Rolex had produced a handful of chronographs before, but they belonged to the previous generation, with thin, elegant hands, Arabic numerals and in less substantial cases. At the start of the sixties, the sports chronograph was born.

And… it was a bit of a flop. Dealers habitually offered attractive discounts on Daytonas, and far fewer were made than competing watches.

“We tend to think of Rolex as a very focused and decisive firm,” says James Dowling, Rolex historian, author and collector. “This wasn’t the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was often indecision about model names. The Submariner was almost called the Rolex Skin Diver and some watches found their way to the market with dials so marked; similarly, the Rolex Daytona was originally planned to be called the Le Mans.

“When I bought my first Rolex in the late 1970s (a 1675 GMT), I enquired about a discount and the salesman responded, ‘Sorry sir, we don’t discount Rolex, but if you want one of the Daytonas, I can give you 20 per cent off’.”

All that began to change when a certain Mr Paul Newman, a talented racing driver as well as Hollywood star, took to wearing one. In fact, he barely took his off.

Paul Newman made the Rolex Daytona iconicPaul Newman helped make the Rolex Daytona iconic

From the outset, the Daytona was powered by a movement sourced elsewhere – as was the norm in those days. The Valjoux 72 was a well-made and reliable hand-wound chronograph calibre, with a column wheel controller and lateral clutch. Automatic chronographs hit the watch market in 1969, but Rolex stuck by the manual Valjoux, making the occasional upgrade, until 1988 when it decided the time was right to go automatic.

Rolex sourced El Primero chronograph movements from Zenith, detuning its trademark high frequency down to 28,800vph (and saving Zenith’s bacon with the steady business that was to come). This also marked the most significant redesign of the Daytona since its inception; it gained crown guards, a thicker steel bezel, new typefaces and subdials. The Daytona’s popularity really begins here – the market was on the way back after the Quartz Crisis and today’s notion of a luxury watch emerged.

In 2000 Rolex at long last introduced its own in-house chronograph movement, the calibre 4130. Mindful of its reputation, Rolex made sure that it boasted unbeatable specifications for anything else in the sports chronograph sector – daily accuracy of +/-2 seconds – as well as a 72-hour power reserve and fewer components than most standard chronographs.

Why The Waiting List?

The Rolex Daytona in stainless steel is one of very few watches to come with a long waiting list; easily a year or two, and that’s if the dealer knows you, you put your name down the day it was released and your middle name is “lucky”.

“The phenomenon of the waiting list has been built up over decades, and started in 1988 when Rolex fitted its Cosmograph with an automatic movement,” says Justin Koullapis, co-founder of WatchClub. “The waiting list started to grow because Rolex was sourcing movements from Zenith and there was a shortage of them.”

These days, it’s carefully managed marketing, with global annual production limited to a few thousand. Such is its icon status – and investment potential – that for some, the wait is worth it; others will either go elsewhere or cough up substantially more to buy from a (non-Rolex-approved) re-seller.

“Gold and platinum Rolex Daytona models sell well, but they are not hard to come by,” says Koullapis. “The real waiting list is for the stainless-steel models.”

The Money

The Rolex Daytona in steel, with the ceramic bezel as introduced in 2016 (also known as reference 116500LN), has a list price of £9,100 and features a white or black dial. If you are buying from an approved dealer, expect to put down up to 50 per cent as a deposit.

Of course, there are numerous other flavours of Rolex Daytona: it can be had in yellow, rose or white gold, as well as platinum, and as of Baselworld 2017, the gold models now come on an Oysterflex rubber strap as well as the full weight of a gold bracelet. The platinum Cosmograph Daytona retails at £54,300 at the time of writing (officially price on request); exchange rates being what they are, Rolex has taken to increasing prices at least annually.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona With Oysterflex BraceletRolex Cosmograph Daytona With Oysterflex BraceletRolex Cosmograph Daytona With Oysterflex BraceletRolex Cosmograph Daytona With Oysterflex BraceletThe new Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona 2017

If you venture into the pre-owned or vintage watch market (the difference being mainly age; “vintage” being no younger than roughly 25 years ago) then expect to part with at least £9,000 for a watch in decent condition from a less desirable era (say, the early 2000s). From there on upwards, the sky is the limit.

New model 116500LNs are trading for £14,000 or more, and there really is no such thing as an undesirable Daytona from the Valjoux era, 1963-1988. An “ordinary” Paul Newman is going to run north of £50,000, while the best pieces comfortably break six figures. At auction, where the creme de la creme surfaces, the record is currently held by a yellow gold Paul Newman (one of just three) which sold at Phillips auction house earlier this year for $3.7m.

“The best starting point for a collector would be the Ref:6239 Daytona non Exotic dial variety,” says Paul Maudsley, UK watch director for Phillips. “This model is the classic Daytona with contrasting dial variations and the look equally as good on a bracelet or strap.”

The good news is that – so far – Rolex Daytonas have held their value or appreciated significantly. Buying now might feel like coming in at the top of the market, and past performance is no indicator of future success, as the banks tell us, but experts see no sign of prices going into reverse any time soon. Braver buyers might feel like taking a chance on the hitherto less expensive references, particularly from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Owning A Rolex Daytona

How To Wear It

Let’s look ahead to your Daytona ownership and bask in its reflected glory. You would be forgiven for wearing it morning and night, to boardroom, bedroom and ballroom, but no-one wants to be a bore about it. Assuming we’re talking the steel Daytona here (style advice for the yellow gold and brown dial is a whole different ball game), what’s your best look?

You can get away with wearing it with a suit – helped by the 40mm diameter – but it’s not a watch for formal occasions and you’d be best advised to keep the bracelet well-fitting. Nothing nice about that hanging-down-the-back-of-your-hand look.

Where the Daytona will shine is – happily – nearly everywhere else. As a Rolex Oyster on a steel bracelet it is sufficiently bombproof to wear knocking about on the weekend, and it will be in its element in the mainstream minefield that is smart-casual.

How to wear a Rolex Daytona watchHow to wear a Rolex Daytona watchHow to wear a Rolex Daytona watchHow to wear a Rolex Daytona watch

Maintenance

Despite its aura of greatness, the Daytona is not immune to wear and tear, and you will need to care for it like any other mechanical watch. Rolex watches come with an unbeatable guarantee, but you should still check it in for a service every five years or so. That won’t come cheap – but by now that shouldn’t be a shock. Expect to pay around £450 for the basic service, more if it needs work doing, and brace yourself for being parted from it for several months if it has to head back to Switzerland.

While that’s happening, your local dealer should be able to offer you something else to wear in the meantime – assuming you bought it through them in the first place. The good news about servicing for you as a Rolex owner is that as of 2015 the brand extended its warranty from 2 to 5 years; if you bought a Daytona between 2013 and 2015 the warranty was retrospectively increased by a year.

Not that you should expect much to go wrong with a Daytona, unless you subject it to unusual punishment. Rolex’s build quality is peerless, and the addition of the ceramic bezel only makes the Daytona tougher. The steel is high-grade 904L and the watch is water-resistant to 100m – just remember to screw down the chronograph pushers.

Servicing your Rolex watchServicing your Rolex watchServicing your Rolex watchServicing your Rolex watch

How To Buy A Rolex Daytona

We’ve already touched on buying a new Rolex Daytona – to summarise, be extremely persistent and patient. Be careful paying top dollar to skip the waiting list; there’s a chance it might be a fake and even if it’s not, make sure you can really trust the seller.

Online, don’t be afraid to ask for more high resolution pictures, and get the serial number (you can check it against registers of lost and stolen watches).

If you’re buying second-hand, a recent model should come with all the paperwork. As they get older this will become less likely and more highly prized.

A good starting place to browse online is Chrono24, a marketplace for approved sellers, both trade and private, with reasonably good buyer protection and screening against fake watches.

How To Buy Vintage

If the new Daytona isn’t your bag, or you can’t bear the wait, consider going old-school. A vintage Daytona, as well as a great investment, is unquestionably cool.

The single best piece of advice when buying vintage is “buy the seller”. Trust is everything – if something looks too good to be true, it always always is. “I would buy one online from a reputable auction house or dealer, but I would be very cautious in buying one from what you would call a total stranger,” says Maudsley. “But that would be the same on any object of significant value.”

If you are buying online, make sure it’s a reputable retailer by asking around on forums such as vintagerolexforum.com or social media. Do your homework and make sure you know what serial number range your target watch should fall into, as well as other details like the typography of the Rolex logo – it has changed down the years. There is a lot of money to be made in fake Rolexes, so the fraudsters are accomplished at their art. Scrutinise the dial (the majority of the value lies in its condition and authenticity) and if in doubt, seek out second, third and fourth opinions. In the rabbit warren that is Rolex collecting, there is no such thing as too much information.

ROLEX DAYTONA 16520ROLEX DAYTONA 116518ROLEX DAYTONA 116519

The Best Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Iterations

So which are the exact models of Rolex Daytona that you should be looking at? Leaving aside the idea of bagging a Paul Newman, here are six of the best from down the years.

Ref. 16520

Undoubtedly a collector favourite, which is reflected in the prices, the 16520 is the original steel automatic Daytona. There are more of them out there than the manual models that came before, and values are probably still on the way up.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Watch - Ref 16520

Ref. 6263

The 6263 was in production from 1971 to 1988, and comes in a wide range of metals and dial configurations. If you have your heart set on a pre-Zenith, manual winding Daytona, a 6263 is probably going to be the easiest to find – but bear in mind there is no such thing as an “undervalued” Daytona.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Watch - Ref 6263

Ref. 16523

The steel and yellow gold iteration of the “Zenith” Daytona, this has historically been less sought-after than its all-steel cousin in the vintage market. But bi-metal watches are back in fashion, and as collectors begin to turn their attention to the 1980s and early 1990s, these could be on the rise.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Watch - Ref 16523

Ref. 116520

The most recent stainless steel Rolex Daytona but one, the 116520 has now been replaced by the 2016 model (116500LN). Admittedly, that will have led to a bit of a spike in prices, as the end of production means a finite number are out there, but on the flip side there will be many who were on the waiting list that will now have turned their attention to the new one. At a glance, it’s very nearly the same watch.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Watch - Ref 116520

Ref. 116509 (pre-2017)

If there is such a thing as the stealth-wealth Daytona, this is it – at least, from the modern era. Easily mistaken for steel, this is 100 per cent white gold, giving you all the wrist presence with none of the brashness of yellow or rose gold bracelets. The telltale feature is the Arabic numerals, which together with the black and red “racing” subdials make for a punchy combination.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Watch - Ref 116509

Ref. 116500LN

We could hardly miss the reigning Daytona off this list: today’s model might be hard to get hold of but they are out there. The big change is the addition of a ceramic bezel, and the big decision is black dial or white dial; each gives a distinctly different character to the watch. Ultimately, though, most fans would bite your arm off for either.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Watch - Ref 116500LN

Alternatives To The Rolex Daytona

If, after all this, you’re not quite sure a Daytona is for you, the good news is that it is far from the only show in town. Assuming the money burning a hole in your pocket is destined to go on one watch, and that it should be an automatic chronograph with a top rate movement, where else could you go?

Breitling

One chronograph with nearly as much cachet, an equally compelling history and ample build quality is the Breitling Navitimer. It has an in-house chronograph movement, the calibre B01, and a largely untouched design – although the slide rule-style telemetric scales are something of a Marmite element. You can certainly spend Daytona money on a Navitimer but the good news is you don’t need to: the one you want is the 43mm classic, which goes for £6,750.

Buy Now: £6,750.00

Breitling Navitimer 01 Mens Watch

IWC

In a similar vein, you could head to IWC. The newest Ingenieur range includes some handsome chronographs, if you still want a dose of petrol with your watch. The entry-level piece, oddly enough, is a limited edition – the Edition 125 at £6,450 – then there’s the standard Ingenieur Chronograph at £7,250 or the Chronograph Sport, which costs £9,850 and comes with a funky lightning strike seconds hand.

However, you would likely be better off sidestepping that confusing set of prices and going straight for the Portugieser Chronograph (£6,550): it’s not so similar to a Daytona in looks but is unarguably one of the great chronograph designs and a solid investment.

Buy Now: £6,550.00

IWC 40.9mm Portugieser Chronograph watch

Blancpain

If you’re prepared to break five figures and fancy something that – whisper it – betters the Rolex for technical touches while retaining a link to the past, how about the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe chronograph? It’s a flyback, meaning you can more easily time consecutive events, features a ceramic case and is water resistant to 300m. Yours for £12,490.

Buy Now: £12,490.00

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Chronograph Watch

Zenith

Lastly, you could do a lot worse than look to Rolex’s one-time supplier of movements. Zenith’s El Primero is still going strong, and your Daytona budget would give you the pick of the range. There’s a model for everyone these days (and some that might not be for anyone) but we’d recommend the smart new panda dial variants in black ceramic, currently retailing at £7,200.

Buy Now: £7,200.00

Zenith El primero 36,000 VPH