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Review: Rolex Daytona 116520

It was the watch that caused uproar, queues around the block—at least on paper, anyway. Imagine this, a product so undesirable that they can’t even be given away that then evolves to become something so sought after, people waited years to get one. The new, shiny ceramic Daytona may have stolen the limelight—but is the steel-bezelled 116520 still a watch worth having?

A Confused Start

What is the Daytona? I don’t mean that in some sort of deep and meaningful way—that would be ridiculous, it’s just a watch—more as a kind of I’ve-locked-myself-in-the-bathroom-because-I-don’t-know-who-I-am-and-the-spiders-are-trying-eat-my-brain kind of way.

It’s had a bit of an identity crises over the years, the Daytona, a watch named after a race track that’s famous-ish and fitted with features more befitting a dive watch, dressed in a shiny case and bracelet that’s likely to get scratched in a Rolls Royce let alone a racecar.

It all started in 1963—although it didn’t, because really it all started in 1957, when Omega released three watches, the Seamaster 300, the Railmaster and the Speedmaster. The Speedmaster was special, and boy did Rolex know it. Rolex knew this because it was used to being the special one, introducing game-changing watches such as the Submariner, GMT-Master and Explorer. You may have heard of them.

But what Rolex couldn’t get to grips with was the chronograph. You see, the success Rolex had enjoyed with its watches was nothing to do with Rolex—that is, it was not a manufacturer of watches, more a company that consolidated other people’s ideas and had someone else make them. You know, like Apple.

The first Rolex Daytona model was introduced in 1963)

The first Rolex Daytona model was introduced in 1963

That was all very well and good for the Submariner, which simply needed a sealable case and a turning bezel, and the GMT-Master, t a sealable case and a turning bezel and an extra hand—but a chronograph is different. A chronograph is complicated. Doing something special with one of those is easier said than done.

All the manufacturers that had been around for donkey’s before Rolex, who’d made a name manufacturing pocket watches, even they skipped the whole wristwatch chronograph thing. Omega, Breitling, Patek Philippe even—they all got someone else to do the dirty work for them. Same with Rolex. It’s expensive business commissioning custom movements as complicated as a chronograph, and so Rolex could only really use what was already available.

Omega, however—well, they still paid someone else to make a movement, but at least they had the budget to have it built exactly to their spec. And the watch it went in was like nothing ever seen before—big, bold, exciting, it was a revelation that made its competitors look very last century, Rolex included.

But Rolex was having none of it, so six—yes, half a dozen—years later, it came out with—no, not the Daytona—the Cosmograph. Then what’s a Daytona?

A Confused Middle

Here’s the thing—Rolex, like many other manufacturers caught off guard by Omega’s triple threat 1957 release, knew there was a bandwagon to get on, and get on quick. But the Speedmaster’s daring design wasn’t the only bandwagon racing along the trail, because the Americans and the Russians were up to some development of their own, and it was causing quite a stir.

When Yuri Gagarin first demonstrated that a human wouldn’t turn into a bag of pulp if fired into space on top of a neutered weapon in 1961, America wasn’t happy. This is for several reasons: one, the Americans weren’t happy that their own guy hadn’t got into space first, and two, they thought—probably correctly—that if the Russians controlled the domain of space before they could, they’d set up lasers on the moon and blow up America with them. Imagine Hoth, but less ice and more guys with furry hats on.

Now, space flight is a pretty delicate operation, despite the apparent violence of a launch, and timekeeping was not just imperative, but life-preserving. The countdown doesn’t go, “Lift off commencing in a bit, T-minus around ten minutes or so,” it’s precise, very, very precise. You’ll never hear, “the rocket will launch at—oh wait, there it goes,” and if there’s timekeeping involved, you need timekeepers.

And guess what the first watch in space was? No, not a Speedmaster. Haven’t you been paying attention? The first man in space was Russian, and so the first watch was Russian, too, a Sturmanskie. Okay, how about the second watch in space? Nope, still not an Omega—a Heuer pocket watch worn on a strap for the 1962 flight of the American Mercury Atlas 6. Third? A Breitling Navitimer worn by Scott Carpenter adapted for twenty-hour time, also in 1962. Breitling called it the Cosmonaute. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a joke.

The Rolex Daytona used a Zenith movement from 1969 to 2000

The Rolex Daytona used a Zenith movement from 1969 to 2000

Point is that none of those were Rolex, and after a third flight in 1962 where Wally Schirra wore a Speedmaster, Rolex were starting to look a little stupid. Why did it take six years after the Speedmaster for Rolex to release the Cosmograph? Because in 1962, a year earlier, all its main competitors had been into outer space.

The name Cosmograph starts to make more sense now, or at least up until the point where it becomes apparent that one has never been to space, and that sort of puts a dampener on it. After the free-for-all of brands making it up there, NASA actually decided to name a single watch as its official timekeeping equipment—and that wasn’t a Cosmograph either. Whoops.

So, what do you do when you’re faced with a box of product you don’t need? You do what Listerine did and change the label. It used to be a floor cleaner—Listerine, I mean—until the company invented the medical condition “halitosis”. Now, people with smelly breath could have friends, too. Rolex also pulled the old switcheroo. “The Cosmograph? For space? No, it’s for racing. See, we’ve changed the name to Le Mans—er, I mean Daytona…”

Rolex did actually print some marketing materials with the watch badged Le Mans. I guess the licensing didn’t go through and so the brand fell back onto a race in Florida it already sponsored, down in Daytona Beach—and it’s stuck ever since. Mind, they did leave the word Cosmograph on there, just in case.

A Confused End

So, of course a watch named after space that didn’t go to the moon, double-barrelled with its second choice of circuit, isn’t going to be hugely in demand. Well, it was worse than that: unlike the enormously popular Submariner, the Daytona was virtually unsellable.

Legend has it that Daytonas were used by jewellers as freebie incentives to sell other products, dishing them out like candy to anyone who’d stand still long enough. A word-of-mouth account from a known watch journalist and collector recalls a jeweller dropping one and then kicking it under the counter to deal with later. There are so few vintage Daytonas, not because they were exclusive, but because nobody wanted one.

Think about that for a second, and then think about Paul Newman’s own Daytona that sold in 2017 for a record-breaking $17 million. Paul Newman didn’t buy that watch for himself, it was a gift from his wife, Joanne Woodward. What’s now considered to be the most exclusive and collectible Daytona, the exotic-dialled variant, was even less popular back then, and so it’s highly likely that Woodward received it as an incentive to purchase something else.

The irony is that this watch was perhaps one of the biggest failures in all of watchmaking history. The Speedmaster outsold it ten to one or more, backed by the seal of approval from NASA and was ultimately just a better watch overall. The Daytona was hanging on to an outdated movement, the Valjoux 72, right the way through to 1988. The last references reused old parts just to clear inventory, dropping the screw-down pushers and bezel insert for ones found on earlier models.

The Rolex Daytona is Rolex’s most sought after model)

The Rolex Daytona is Rolex’s most sought after model

But in 1988, something happened. The industry was emerging from the other side of tragedy, when much of it collapsed under the might of Japanese technological innovation. The watchmakers that rose from the dust did so with a new mentality, one centred around luxury instead of practicality. And somehow, Rolex was right at the centre of it, and so when the Daytona was redesigned from the ground up as the 16520, powered by the Zenith-based calibre 4030, a new chapter began.

Between it and this, the follow-up 116520, updated to feature the completely in-house Rolex calibre 4130, the Daytona did something quite remarkable—it became one the most in-demand luxury watches of all time. Waiting lists spanned years, prices on the secondary market skyrocketed, every man and his dog coveted one, a watch that only a decade or so before was consigned to the dusty corner of jewellers’ windows.

It was the start of what has become part of Rolex culture—the impossible-to-get stainless steel sports model. Now that covers just about anything from the Rolex catalogue that matches that description, but it started with the Daytona. It’s given Rolex the opportunity to inflate prices fivefold, with used prices shooting even higher still, driven by demand and showing no signs of slowing. Madness? Maybe. Legend? Most definitely.

So, it begs the question, does the pre-ceramic Daytona deserve to be a consideration on your shopping list, especially instead of the spangly new ceramic one? It’s hard to justify on value, and the future can never be certain, but were things to stay as they have been, it’s a stable purchase and one that should be easy to move on if needed.

But what about wanting to own one? A luxury watch isn’t a practical purchase, not these days with phones and smartwatches, so should you want a pre-ceramic, modern Daytona? In terms of heritage, it’s not a trailblazer in the way the Submariner was, setting the technological benchmark of its time—it was more of a tick box exercise to cover a portion of the market.

You can’t dispute, however, that it’s a cultural icon that established pretty much everything about how we perceive luxury watches today. It led a new wave of modern mechanical watches into our hearts and minds, without which things most certainly would not be how they are now. You may consider that a bad thing, or a good one—either way, there’s no denying how much of an impact this watch has had.

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