If ever there was a zero-hero story, it was the replica Rolex Daytona watches , beloved and loved by all, selling only 500 pieces a year in its formative years, it has grown into one of the most coveted watches of all time, with a year-long waiting list and an amazing residual. The question is, how did this happen? It’s the journey that turns Rolex’s David the loser into the clumsy great giant.
The 1960s was the decade of sports chronographs. Jack Heuer was appointed CEO of Heuer, which launched the Autavia in 1962 and the Carrera in 1963. Omega’s Speedmaster was one of the first products of the game, introduced in the late 1950s. But the chronograph is not a new invention. Chronographs can first be seen in Louis Moinet’s astronomical pocket watch in 1816, and it’s old news that they appeared as smaller watches in the early 20th century. In fact, Rolex has been producing chronographs since the 1930s. What changed, however, was time itself – after the war, the 1960s flourished with wealth and glamour, and with it, speed. Motorsport is a gentleman’s sport, now popular worldwide, and it is the thrill of speed that has attracted a new kind of timekeeper: the sports chronograph.
Up until then, chronographs (even Rolex’s own watches) had a reserved, subtle flavor that didn’t fit the roar and glistening paint of the world’s fastest racing machines. Jack Heuer knows what he’s doing. Earlier, he set his sights on the pinnacle of Formula One racing, enjoining friend and racer Jo Siffert to distribute his watch in the paddock, thus making the TAG Heuer watch the first non-motorsport sponsor title in F1. Omega, however, set its sights on faster machinery. Kennedy’s 1962 speech raised the hope of putting a man on the moon, so there was another reward: becoming an official NASA watch.
Rolex launched the first sporty chronograph in 1963. 6239, its eyes also turned to the stars. Restore the name previously used for the reference. The 6062 lunar phase (a complex function that defines the literal meaning of cosmology and is a general study of the universe), the new chronograph is called the “cosmometer”. Like Omega’s Speedmaster, it’s big, sturdy and clear, which is exactly what space use requires. For Rolex, it was the right move. In the 1950s, Rolex defined it as a manufacturer of professional watches, with Submariner, GMT-Master and Milgauss all playing special roles for specific industries. Getting NASA to choose the Rolex Cosmograph as the watch to go to the moon would be a room full of them.
But that is not the case. Rolex Daytona underperformed Omega’s Speedmaster in NASA’s tests, plus astronaut Walter Schirra proved Omega’s suitability before flying the Sigma 7 on the Apollo Mercury-Atlas 8 mission. Rolex (Rolex) missed the tournament and needed to be regrouped. TAG Heuer (Heuer) has done a great job with motorsports, and Rolex (Rolex) has connections there. F1 was adopted – and remained so until 2013 when Rolex finally secured sponsorship rights – but there were others. The solution began in 1964 with one of America’s greatest racing series: NASCAR.
The history of NASCAR is well known: in the U.S. liquor prohibition of the 1920s and 1930s, smugglers adjusted cars to make them beyond the reach of the police, and once prohibition was lifted, a line of dry drivers and cars did nothing. The former smuggler met to race on a beach in Florida, then used in record-breaking speed races in the 1940s. That place is Daytona. As the sport has grown, so has its popularity, with riders like Rolex-sponsored Junior Johnson drawing crowds from Florida. Eventually, the demand was great enough to build Daytona International Speedway, and it was just in time for Rolex to rename the Cosmograph and move it in a new direction.
In retrospect, it’s almost possible to panic at Rolex HQ over the loss of a NASA contract; the Rolex Cosmograph was a sales failure and the biggest opportunity was gone. A mixture of advertising material was printed to achieve the Rolex Cosmograph, leaving the future of the failed sports chronograph hanging in the balance until the last minute. The world-famous racing endurance challenge, the 24 Heures du Mans race (also sponsored by Rolex), is almost on par with the stillborn Rolex Lemans, but it’s amazing that this is the Florida track that now hosts the Daytona 24 Hours of Endurance sponsored by Rolex, and it’s finally a win. Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was born.