Rolex Cosmograph Daytona – A Chronograph Born To Race

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona embodies a history marked by a passion for speed and motor sport. Created by Rolex in 1963, this model born for racing has established an extraordinary track record in the world of motor sport thanks to its reliability and performance. Known simply as the “Daytona”, the watch has risen to the rank of an icon as one of the best known chronographs in the world.

Before lending its name to one of Rolex’s most emblematic models, the city of Daytona Beach in Florida – with its famous long, straight beach, and sand packed as hard as cement – forged its own legend as the capital of land speed records from 1903. The name Daytona also epitomizes the historic ties that bind Rolex and automobile racing, whether in endurance or speed.

Daytona Beach
Daytona Beach

From 1903 to 1935, the hard-packed sand at Daytona Beach became famous worldwide as the perfect place to beat land speed records. No fewer than 80 official records were set there, 14 of which were for the fastest speed in the world. A sign that long stood at the location of the “measured mile” listed several of the most famous feats of the time. They included those of William K. Vanderbilt in 1904, who at 92 mph (148 km/h) set the first world record at Daytona, and Barney Oldfield, who became the king of speed in 1910 after reaching 131 mph (210 km/h) in 1910 with his Lightning Benz.

Ralph DePalma, one of the greatest race drivers of his time, set a new world record at the wheel of his powerful 12-cylinder Packard in 1919 at 149 mph (240 km/h) – a record that would stand unbeaten for more than 10 years. Then came the era of the two most formidable rivals in the history of the conquest of speed: Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave.

These two wealthy Englishmen, who would later both be knighted by King George V for their speed records, began to compete against each other in the 1920s on the Brook-lands racetrack in England, opened in 1907 as the first purpose-built racing circuit in the world. When their ever more powerful cars became too fast for the concrete oval at Brooklands, they turned to beaches, first at Pendine Sands and Southport in England, then inevitably, at Daytona. Each one built a vehicle in secret capable of exceeding 200 mph (321 km/h), a speed reached only by aeroplanes at the time.

Their cars, constructed for racing in a straight line on the beach, were equipped with aircraft engines. Segrave won the first Daytona encounter in 1927 driving his Sunbeam Mystery S, reaching 203 mph (328 km/h). This was the first record certified according to international standards, by calculating the average speed of two runs in opposite directions on a measured mile in order to compensate for the wind.

Campbell raised the bar the following year with Bluebird– the name he gave to all his cars – at 207 mph (333 km/h). In 1929 Henry Segrave took the lead again at 231 mph (372 km/h) with his new race car Golden Arrow, a world record that earned him his knighthood and a place on the front page of The New York Times. Tragically, he died a year later in an accident while trying to break the record for speed on water.

Campbell then became the uncontested king of speed, beating his own world records in Daytona year after year with ever more powerful versions of Bluebird. His exploits attracted thousands of people, as well as the press from all over the world, to Daytona Beach. In March 1935, aiming for 300 mph (482 km/h), he hit 330 mph (531 km/h) on his first pass – the highest speed ever reached in Daytona – but problems on the run in the opposite direction reduced the average speed of his official record to 276 mph (445 km/h). This was the last record set on the beach in Daytona.

Daytona Beach, 1935: Sir Malcolm Campbell’s World Land Speed Record attempt on the beach at Daytona at the wheel of his Bluebird
Daytona Beach, 1935: Sir Malcolm Campbell’s World Land Speed Record attempt on the beach at Daytona at the wheel of his Bluebird

Campbell’s disappointment prompted him to test a new site, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In September of the same year, he succeeded in meeting the challenge and set his ultimate official record at 301 mph (485 km/h). Since 1930, Campbell had been wearing a Rolex Oyster, the watch on his wrist during the exploit. In advertisements at the time, he attested to its exceptional resistance to shocks and vibrations. Thus, the first Rolex Testimonee in motor sport was already closely tied to Daytona.

Sir Malcolm Campbell with His Bluebird V
Sir Malcolm Campbell with His Bluebird V

After the attempts to set land speed records moved to Utah, the beach in Daytona did not end its romance with motor sport. As of 1936, it hosted races unlike any others in the world, allowing Daytona to maintain its status in automobile racing. Soon came the golden age of stock car races on an oval track, half of which was on the beach and half on a narrow road parallel to the ocean.

From 1937, this unlikely racetrack also attracted the 200-mile American motorcycle champion ship, which became a classic under the name Daytona 200. The races on the beach were extremely spectacular and were followed by hundreds of spectators. Wooden grandstands were erected alongside the turns on the sand where some competitors became bogged down, when they did not end up in the ocean.

From this tradition NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Racing) was born in 1948 in Daytona. Today NASCAR races are held in the four corners of the United States in what has become one of the categories of motor racing most followed by the American public. That same year, the Speed Weeks created in Daytona in the early 20th century were reborn.

For two weeks, generally in the Florida sun in February, the beach in Daytona once more became the nerve centre of automobile sport in the United States. A measured mile on the beach again allowed the organization of speed contests, in which all makes of American cars and prestigious European sports car brands took part in order to promote their most recent models.

The cars accelerated over several kilometres to reach the highest possible speed as they arrived at the measured mile. These competitions were also open to the public; each driver was allowed to try to set an officially certified speed record in his own car. Epic motorcycle and car races on the famous Daytona Beach–Road Course, between road and beach at low tide, were the highlight of the Speed Weeks.

Legend has it that a large number of the best drivers had been involved in contraband alcohol traditionally distilled in the Appalachian mountains in the south-eastern United States (Georgia, North and South Carolina in particular) and were highly experienced racers for being well practised in evading the federal agents who regularly chased after them.

In the mid-1950s, urban development and the deterioration of the sand began to threaten competitions on the beach. The president and founder of NASCAR, William France, Sr, launched an ambitious construction project for a permanent, hard-surface racetrack for the speed races. The Daytona International Speedway was inaugurated in 1959 to perpetuate Daytona’s unique heritage and worldwide fame.

Daytona International Speedway
Daytona International Speedway

When it was inaugurated in 1959, the Daytona International Speedway was the fastest racing circuit in the United States, and one of the first Super Speedways in the world. The tri-oval shape and the dimensions of the 2.5-mile (4 km) circuit still impress anyone who enters the grounds. Its unusual design is all about speed with 31-degree banking in the turns, more than 10 metres high at its tallest point.

The high banking allows cars to approach the turns at great speed without skidding off the track due to centrifugal force, and offers spectators a good view of the race from any seat in the grandstands. The construction work presented major engineering challenges, notably to pave the track surface. Project engineer Charles Moneypenny developed a unique technique for laying asphalt in the banked turns. The paving machines were connected to bulldozers anchored at the top of the turns to allow them to work on the slope. This patented technique would later be used to build other racetracks.

The design of the Daytona International Speedway is special in other ways. From the beginning its founder, William France, Sr, wanted to make the new track more than just the most important venue for NASCAR races. He also wanted it to be an international benchmark. And the way to attract the best racing drivers in the world to Daytona was to organize races in the category considered, at the time, the elite in motor sport: sports cars. William France, Sr, invented a revolutionary concept by building a road racing course on the infield of the giant speedway to host sports car and motorcycle races, combining a classic track and a unique oval with banked turns.

This innovative approach brought about the race that would become the Rolex 24 At Daytona®, one of the most prestigious endurance races in the world alongside the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It gave the American racetrack its international status. The first edition of the race, under the name “Daytona Continental”, took place in 1962, one year before the launch of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. The race and the watch were practically contemporaries and their destinies would soon become inextricably linked.

William France, Sr, a great admirer of Sir Malcolm Campbell, also wore a Rolex. He appeared in an advertisement for the brand in the early 1960s mentioning Rolex as the Official Timepiece of the Daytona International Speedway. From the first editions of the Daytona Continental, the winners have received a Rolex watch in addition to the trophy. At the launch of the Cosmograph, designed for racing drivers, the watch naturally became the supreme prize awarded to the champion. And not long afterwards, to emphasize the brand’s connection to the American racetrack, Rolex named the model the Cosmograph Daytona.

In 1992, Rolex became Title Sponsor of the 24 Hours of Daytona, making official an association that had already become legendary. Ever since then it has been called the Rolex 24 At Daytona®. The longest and most prestigious race in the United States, this event marks the opening of the international motor sport season and is known by everyone as “The Rolex”. Crowds traditionally abandon the grandstands to occupy the vast space in the infield in a particularly festive atmosphere. In 2012, this legendary race celebrated its 50th anniversary in style.

The anniversary edition was marked by a record attendance and an epic finish. The winning team won with a lead of only 5 seconds after 24 hours of close racing, precision timed by the official Rolex clock near the finish line. By the end, the winners had covered a distance of 2,672 miles (4,300 kilometres), equivalent to driving across the United States between New York and Los Angeles.

Rolex 24 At Daytona

Captivating, spectacular and extremely demanding, the Rolex 24 At Daytona® is, besides the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the only sports car race in the world to test the ultimate limits of man and machine in a twice round-the-clock format.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watch is one of the most emblematic creations in the history of watchmaking.

In 1963, Rolex launched a new-generation chronograph, the Cosmograph, dedicated to racing drivers. The singular name invented by Rolex immediately marked it out as a very different new model. The chronograph counter s stood out clearly on the dial thanks to their strongly contrasting colour, black on a light-coloured dial or a light colour on a black dial. The tachymetric scale – that allows average speeds over a given distance to be measured using the chronograph seconds hand – was moved from the dial to the bezel.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 1963
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 1963

Dictated by functional considerations, these features made the chronograph far more legible – one of the challenges of the time. They also gave the watch a technical and sporty look, making it instantly recognizable and placed the Cosmograph firmly among the Professional watches, a category created by Rolex 10 years earlier, in 1953, with models such as the Explorer dedicated to explorers and mountaineers, or the Submariner specially designed for deep-sea diving.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, Paul Newman Dial
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, Paul Newman Dial

New dials were introduced, expanding the range in the early years. One special version would become famous as the so-called “Paul Newman” dial, since the renowned American film star – who was also a racing driver and an icon of masculine style – regularly wore a Daytona with that particular dial.

Its design increased legibility of the chronograph functions under difficult race conditions. It was characterized by the printed seconds track around the dial on a band of the same contrasting colour as the three counters. The graduations, in certain cases, were inscribed in red. The counters themselves were differentiated by squares on the markers for easier reading of tracked time.

The Cosmograph was part of a long Rolex tradition. The brand launched its first chronographs with counters in 1933, which were often equipped with other functions on the dial such as a tachymetric scale for measuring speed, a telemetric scale to track distance, or a pulsometer to measure heart rate. The first chronograph equipped with a waterproof Oyster case appeared in 1939.

From its launch, the Cosmograph also featured the Oyster case invented by Rolex in 1926 – robust and waterproof thanks to the screw-down case back and winding crown – as well as a solid metal bracelet. The watch had a manually wound mechanical movement reputed for its reliability and precision. No brand had yet been able to overcome the technical hurdle of producing a self-winding chronograph.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 1965
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 1965

The Cosmograph evolved in 1965 with the launch of a version that introduced screw-down chronograph pushers instead of the pump pushers found on the original model. The screw-down pushers brought the finishing touch to the Oyster concept, preventing the pushers from being manipulated accidentally and protecting from the risk of water entering the case.

As testimony to its reinforced waterproofness, the name “Oyster” was inscribed on all the dials in addition to “Cosmograph”. Another new feature came in the form of a black Plexiglas insert for the tachymetric bezel. The white graduations increased legibility yet again.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

An additional inscription – Daytona – appeared on some dials during the new Rolex chronograph’s early years. Initially limited to watches for the US market, it was most probably added at the request of the Rolex affiliate in the United States to mark the brand’s link, as Official Timepiece, with the Daytona International Speedway in Florida, and to anchor the model in the world of motor racing. The name gradually began to appear on every Cosmograph dial, finally taking on its current curved shape in red lettering above the counter at 6 o’clock.

Rolex’s chronograph, the Oyster Cosmograph Daytona, also became available in an 18 ct yellow gold version, certified as a chronometer. And the gold versions additionally bore the famous phrase “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” on their dial, a rare achievement for a chronograph.

Despite the arrival of quartz movements in the 1960s–1970s, Rolex remained faithful to the mechanical watch and to the Cosmograph Daytona, preparing its future evolution. In 1988, the Daytona became self-winding. The brand opted for a quality, commercially available chronograph movement, which it then significantly modified to meet its own requirements, replacing more than 50 per cent of the components with parts specifically designed for its movements.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 1988
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 1988

The resulting new calibre 4030 included, among other features, a Rolex “heart” – an oscillator with a variable inertia balance wheel, Microstella regulating nuts and a hairspring with a Breguet overcoil – as well as a self-winding module with a Perpetual rotor invented by the brand in 1931. The movement was systematically submitted for official COSC certification to receive the designation of chronometer, attesting to its superior precision. All versions of the new model featured the phrase “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” on their dial as well as “Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona”.

The update went far beyond technical features. The redesigned aesthetics increased the diameter of the Oyster case from 36 to 40 mm and included shoulders to protect the crown. The tachymetric bezel in metal was made wider and engraved with a 400-unit graduated scale. New hands, new hour markers, new counters within banded circles: the dial was modernized, while preserving its inimitable style and its signature “Daytona” in red letters.

The new model met with great success, owing to a surge of renewed interest during the early 1990s for mechanical watches generally and chronographs in particular – a phenomenon to which the Daytona itself very probably contributed. It was seen on the wrists of a number of personalities, not only in the racing world, but also in political and economic circles and in the arts. Leading on from this, the model’s rarity on the market only fuelled its desirability and created a demand unprecedented in watchmaking history, and which has not slackened in more than 25 years.

As a backdrop to the launch of an entirely new interpretation of the Cosmograph Daytona, it is difficult to imagine an event more symbolic than entering a new millennium. The new model introduced by Rolex in the year 2000 – like the first Cosmograph in its time – embodied the chronograph of the future.

Its aesthetics remained deliberately faithful to the codes of the 1988 Cosmograph Daytona, refining the already iconic and distinctive design of the original, and its subtle strong lines and perfect ergonomics. In 1963 the Rolex chronograph had innovated with radically new aesthetics that enhanced the legibility of its functions. However, the innovations in the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona for the new millennium essentially lie inside the case.

The model has a new-generation self-winding chronograph movement – calibre 4130 – entirely designed and manufactured in-house. A masterpiece of engineering and micromechanics, replete with innovative and patented technical solutions, this high-performance movement has set a new standard for luxury self-winding chronographs in terms of robustness, reliability, efficiency and precision, as well as for ease of maintenance.

Rolex Calibre 4130
Calibre 4130

Calibre 4130’s performance stems particularly from the use of a vertical clutch to activate the chronograph function, instead of the traditional lateral clutch. This novel solution functions on the principle of two discs one above the other, which work together by direct friction contact, and offers significant advantages: extremely precise starting and stopping of the perfectly smooth-running chronograph seconds hand as soon as the pusher is pressed; and the ability of the chronograph to function for long periods of time without impacting on the precision of the watch.

With calibre 4130, Rolex engineers managed to reduce the number of components for the chronograph mechanism by 60 per cent, thereby enhancing its reliability. They particularly simplified the minute and hour counter systems – traditionally two distinct mechanisms situated on each side of the movement – by integrating them into a single module judiciously placed on one side of the movement with an off-centre clutch.

This patented solution reduces from five to one the number of adjustments by excentric screws required to regulate the chronograph. It also saves space, making it possible to house a larger mainspring and thereby extend the power reserve to 72 hours, instead of the previous 50. The mainspring, the powerhouse of the watch, can be replaced without needing to disassemble the whole movement. The independent self-winding module is easily removed to access the barrel.

Additionally, the self-winding mechanism benefits from substantially enhanced bidirectional winding efficiency, notably thanks to the rotor’s mounting on a ball bearing and to a system of new-generation reversing wheels.The oscillator, the strategic heart of the watch and guarantor of its precision, also took advantage of telling innovations.

A larger balance wheel, equipped with the Rolex micrometric regulating system via Microstella nuts, contributes to the movement’s precision. In keeping with the architecture of Rolex calibres, it is held in place by a traversing balance bridge, fixed at both sides to improve resistance to shocks and vibrations. But one of the most spectacular developments introduced on the oscillator of the new Cosmograph Daytona is the Parachrom hairspring.

Developed, patented and entirely manufactured by Rolex in an alloy of niobium, zirconium and oxygen, the Parachrom hairspring has exceptional qualities that greatly increase the movement’s precision by significantly enhancing its resistance to perturbation. It is also insensitive to magnetic fields, extremely stable in the face of temperature variations and is unaffected by the thousands of small shocks a watch is subjected to in daily wear. It remains up to 10 times more precise than a traditional hairspring.

The new calibre 4130 was also the first Rolex calibre to have it s name engraved on the oscillating weight: a curving “Daytona” in red letters echoing the name on the dial. Two details on the dial show that the watch was fitted with the new movement. First, the horizontal positioning of both chronograph counters – the small-seconds was moved from its usual position at 9 o’clock to the bottom of the dial at 6 o’clock.

Secondly, the minute and hour counters are aligned slightly above the centre of the dial, an aesthetic signature that enhances the visual balance of the dial and underlines the meticulous attention to detail so typical of Rolex. Contrary to its predecessors, no additional new inscription appears on the dial of the new Cosmograph Daytona.

In 2016, the aesthetics of the steel Cosmograph Daytona have evolved again. A superbly sculpted, smooth and lustrous high-technology monobloc Cerachrom bezel in black ceramic, has been introduced in place of the engraved metal bezel. This visual and technical evolution represents a nod to history and the 1965 model, also fitted with a black bezel insert, but in Plexiglas.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 2016
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 2016

This innovative Cerachrom bezel, developed and patented by Rolex, offers a number of advantages. Its hardness makes it virtually scratch-proof, it keeps its colour despite the effects of UV rays and it is corrosion-resistant. In addition to this extreme durability, the numerals on the tachymetric scale are exceptionally legible, thanks to a process developed by Rolex. The graduations are first moulded in the ceramic before it is fired at 1,500° C, then coated with a thin layer of platinum via PVD (Physical Vapour Deposition).

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 2016

The clear definition obtained through this process, together with the contrast of the platinum against the black ceramic, lends peerless legibility to the bezel of the 2016 Daytona.

The design of the graduations has also evolved with numerals and triangular markers around the edge of the bezel. The monobloc Cerachrom bezel is made in a single piece and holds the crystal firmly in place on the middle case, ensuring waterproofness.

This exclusive component first appeared in 2011 on 18 ct Everose gold Daytona before being fitted in 2013 on the 950 platinum version celebrating the Cosmograph Daytona’s 50th anniversary.

Courtesy: Rolex

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