August 2020 15 Min Read

Is the Rolex Pre-Daytona a forgotten classic?

By Russell Sheldrake

There is a long-standing love affair between watch collectors and the Rolex Daytona. It has been the golden child of the collecting community for over a decade now, in many ways embodying the idea of a vintage sports watch. However, unlike some horological icons, the Daytona was not designed overnight. Rather, it was the product of slow, gradual change over the post-war years. This evolution is something that we have now come to refer to as Pre-Daytona, the build-up to what would become one of the most popular designs of the 20th century.

While countless words have been written about the Daytona, and even more hours have been spent by collectors studying the various references, the period that preceded the model has traditionally received less attention. Despite this, the Pre-Daytona chronographs are worth paying attention to, as they laid the foundation for what would come and also carry some cultural weight on their own. James Bond even wore a customised Pre-Daytona in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Often overlooked but worthy of our attention.

As such, we thought we would turn our eye to these often-ignored watches from Rolex’s history. Not because they are watches we handle often or will have for sale in the near future, but because it’s always interesting to shine a light on areas of the watch world that receive slightly less attention. Whilst ultimately the appeal of the Daytona is rather unique, we hope to at least offer some clarity on what came before, whether it's simply a clear definition of the term, which references fall under this umbrella or what details to look out for in the various executions.

What is a Pre-Daytona?

First things first. Being a rather nebulous term, it feels important to try and pin down exactly what falls under the Pre-Daytona umbrella. If you take the word literally, then we could talk about every Rolex chronograph produced before 1963, when the ref. 6239 was introduced. This is not only unhelpful in its lack of specificity, but it also would make this a rather long article. So, the question is, how do we narrow it down?

 The transition in action.

The best place to start, from our point of view, is at the end. If we work our way back from the beginning of the Daytona, the first reference that needs to be considered is the 6238. Starting production in 1961, it actually overlaps with the 6239 by a handful of years in the Rolex catalogues, with the first Daytona being released in 1963. While this is the first reference that many collectors picture when the phrase Pre-Daytona is mentioned, Aurel Bacs, senior consultant at Phillips and self-confessed ambassador for the ref. 6238, believes that it might be inaccurate to categorise it as such.

“As these two were made in parallel, you could almost argue that it wasn’t a Pre-Daytona, but in fact a sibling of the Daytona,” Bacs tells us. As we will dig into later on, the 6238 is the model that the Daytona draws from the most, with essentially only two modifications between it and the most celebrated model. What if we go back another reference, can we call this one a pure Pre-Daytona?

A vintage advert showing a 6234 alongside other Oyster watches from Rolex. 

The next Rolex chronograph is the ref. 6234. Produced from 1955 to 1961, there is no cross over with the Daytona, and there are some startling differences that separate the two. The hands and markers are significantly more old-fashioned than the ones we are used to seeing on Rolex’s later chronographs. There is also an additional scale on the dial, in the form of a telemeter running in tandem with the tachymeter. It does, however, still bear some important similarities. It presents a three sub-dial configuration, along with matching case, crown and pushers. Not to mention it runs on a manual wind, Valjoux movement that, whilst updated just before the Daytona was introduced, is clearly related to the one that powered the later watch. Are these similarities enough to label it as Pre-Daytona?

Showcasing the depth of these Pre-Daytona dials, courtesy of Watch Club.

We could also go back one more step to the 6034, another triple register, Oyster chronograph from the 1950s. Made in very limited numbers by Rolex’s standards, it came with both silver and rarer black dials, in both steel and gold. Similar to the 6234, it has two scales running around the circumference of the dial and, due the period in which it was produced, is only ever found with a “Swiss” signature at 6 o’clock. The “T Swiss T” signature was not enforced until the 1960s to indicate the use of tritium. However, could the argument be made that this is too far detached from the sportier Daytona design to earn the moniker of Pre-Daytona?

One thing that we think can be said with some degree of certainty is that any Rolex chronograph from the “Monoblocco” generation, or which is only equipped with two sub-dials, is too far removed from the Daytona to be considered in this article. Whilst they are technically Rolex chronographs made before the Daytona, we see too many differences in both the design and construction of these watches to include them. After all, the Pre-Daytona category is only relevant insomuch as it directly relates and shares similarities with the Daytona. As such, whilst this doesn’t detract from the collectability of these pieces, it’s hard to group them with this selection.

All three generations (from left to right) 6034, 6234 and 6238.

For the benefit of brevity and clarity, when we talk about Pre-Daytona from here on out, we will be making reference to any Rolex chronograph made prior to the release of the 6239, that has an Oyster case, round pump pushers, three sub-dials and a “6000” reference number. We believe that these show a clear lineage to the Daytona and offer the best insight into the evolution of what would become one of the most recognisable timepieces of the 20th century.

Into the Details

Now that we have a working definition to help guide the rest of this article, it seems wise to take a look at some of the defining characteristics of these watches. There are small intricacies that collectors obsess over, which might not instantly be obvious to the casual observer. It makes sense to do this in chronological order, so that you get the best idea of how Rolex evolved and developed their chronographs.

The first reference we want to deconstruct is the 6034, where we see the first signs of Rolex modernising its chronograph selection. Whilst it wasn’t the first chronograph to come in an Oyster case – that title goes to the 3535, launched back in 1939 – it shows an interesting combination of components that signal the slow, gradual development of Rolex’s chronographs. Another reason to focus on this model first is that it has been considered highly collectable for a while now. Back in 2006, we saw a rare yellow gold version sell for north of CHF 90,000. At the time, you would be expecting 6263 Paul Newmans to sell in the range of CHF 50,000 to 60,000. This comparison speaks to the long-standing desirability of this model, among a select group of collectors, before the Daytona experienced the success and widespread attention that it enjoys today.

 An Anti-Magnetic 6034.

There are many dial variations out there, which only adds to the collectability of this reference. The main features that seem to be consistent throughout, however, are the leaf hands, three sub-dials and the use of a tachymeter running around the periphery. More commonly, this was produced with a silver dial – in both steel and gold cases – that paired the tachymeter with a telemeter, but this could be substituted for a pulsometer as well. You will often see the two scales in red and blue, when they appear on a silver dial.

One of the rarer variations of the dial layout involves having the telemeter scale on the inner section of the dial, as opposed to sitting next to the tachymeter. This inner telemeter scale can also be printed in blue, when on the standard silver dial. We’ve also seen the arrow markers swapped for shorter diamond shaped ones; these are usually paired with a change in hand style, moving to arrow shaped hands.

The contrast between a silver and black dial.

Rarer than the silver dial, is its black alternative. This is a common thread that runs through these Pre-Daytona models: the rarity and quality of the black dials has proven to be a significant draw for collectors over the years. According to Edmond Saran, of Le Monde Edmond, these black dialled 6034s were often glossy, with gilt lettering. Glossy and gilt are two words most vintage Rolex collectors love to hear. Saran also points out, in his various detailed articles on these watches, that the lettering was applied in an unusual and difficult way. He observes that the Rolex signature and the scales around the outside of the dial are not simply printed on a black lacquered background, but are rather applied underneath and shine through in negative relief. As Christie’s point out in one of their catalogues, “such lacquered black dials must be regarded as the ultimate state of the art in dial manufacturing.”

Now, let’s take a look at the next progression in the Pre-Daytona family, the 6234. It’s another one of those references that doesn’t get much attention from the general public, or get frequently shared on social media, but does nevertheless achieve strong prices at auction when the right examples come up. Rolex started its production in 1955, and wrapped things up in 1961, with an estimated total of 2,300 made in steel, and two karat weights of yellow gold. We spoke with Teddy Dewitte, a collector, dealer and Pre-Daytona enthusiast. According to Dewitte, who has managed to collect a large amount of data on these rare references, Rolex made 2,250 in steel, 36 in 18k yellow gold and 108 in 14k yellow gold. This just goes to show just how rare it can be to find these in gold and in good condition.

The multi-coloured dial of a 6234, courtesy of Teddy Dewitte

A natural question at this stage would be, why did Rolex make this watch in two different karat weights of gold? There is a simple answer to this question: tax. More specifically, at the time, the import tax into the United States was a lot higher for watches made in 18k gold compared to those in 14k. This means that if the watch is in this lower karat gold it was more than likely to have been sold in the American market in the 1950s, or early 1960s.

 A 'T Swiss T' dial with no lume, courtesy of Teddy Dewitte.

Another interesting iteration of this reference, which also appears to have been modified for a specific market, is the one that has no lume on the dial or hands. As many will know, the “T Swiss T” signature, found at the bottom of a dial from this period, is used to indicate the use of tritium as lume. However, there are versions of the 6234, one of which Dewitte happens to own, that have the “T Swiss T” signature, but no lume on the hands or dial, with no signs of it being removed either.

Dewitte believes that these were sold to the Japanese market. It's thought that given the country's recent history, having any form of radioactive material on a product was seen as a big deterrent. “The dials will still have the “T Swiss T” signature at the bottom, as they wouldn’t have adjusted the dial printing at the supplier for a specific market,” Dewitte tells us. Instead, they would have just skipped the lume process and then had special hands applied at the Rolex workshop, with no channels carved out for lume.

Both large and small sub-dial configurations of the 6234. 

If we look back at how the 6234 is linked to the Daytona, we still see the triple sub-dial layout, although there is some variation in these as well. Rolex, and it’s unclear why, produced versions with smaller sub-dials and larger ones. The smaller ones don’t overlap with the dual scales that go around the perimeter of the dial which, to a degree, improve the readability. Having scales run straight through sub-dials is something of an old-fashioned, chronograph hangover that, as we will see, Rolex were about to fix.

One final note on this model before we move on. There is a small variation that we have observed, thanks to Dewitte, of the sub-dial hands being in different colours. In most examples, these hands will match the metal colour of the case. However, we have seen one steel watch, where the hands are blue, complementing the red and blue tachymeter and telemeter scales. This additional touch of colour that is presumed to be correct, but with no obvious reason behind it.

A 6238 with its original receipt showing a retail price of  CHF 780 courtesy of Stefan via Le Monde Edmond.

Finally, we reach the model that many associate with the term Pre-Daytona, the ref. 6238. Starting its production in 1961, it stays in the Rolex catalogue until either 1967 or 1968, though sources seem to differ on the exact date. As mentioned above, this does mean that this reference overlaps with the first Daytona, the 6239, by some four years and the similarities between the two are clear to see.

The design of the 6238 progresses over its lifespan. The first series is a very similar to the reference which precedes it, with leaf hands, diamond applied markers and even some twin scales around the periphery. Then, we see a shift in the second series to a sportier design.

It features straight hands, faceted baton index markers and just a single tachymeter scale on the dial. This is often what collectors will picture in their minds when they talk about the Pre-Daytona. As Bacs says, “there are only two things that you need to change on the 6238 to make it into a Daytona. The bezel and the dial.” The bezel on the 6238 is smooth and, according to Dewitte, “very similar to what you find on an Explorer.” The only modifications that Rolex made to turn the 6238 into the 6239 was move the tachymeter on to the bezel and place the sub-dials in a contrasting colour. There were, according to Saran, 14 different dial variations of this reference made, all of which he lists here.

A slight point on contention among collectors of this reference, which Saran has also pointed out, is the length of the minute hand, which seems to differ. It is widely accepted that the shorter minute hand is the first and original hand that was meant for this model. It appears to be proportionally correct, as it doesn’t extend past the hour markers onto the outer scale. However, there are a few models out there, mainly later ones, that have a longer minute hand, which bears a striking resemblance the minute hand used on the 6239.

As Dewitte points out, since both of these models were made simultaneously for a number of years, it is possible that the longer hand that was meant for the Daytona also found its way onto this model. It could also be the case that these are service replacement hands. Either one of these is possible, or perhaps both. Neither has been proven. What is important to remember is that both sets of hands are original Rolex hands, meaning that they were more than likely fitted by the brand. Whether it was when the watch was first made or during a service is hard to tell.

The three dial variations to be found of the 6238. 

While the 6328 is still a rare bird, it had the longest production run out of any of these Pre-Daytonas. Dewitte has placed its production numbers at around 3,590 in steel, 150 in 18k yellow gold and 225 in 14k yellow gold. The same rules on dials colours and rarity apply here, with silver being far more common and black proving harder to find. However, there is also a grey dial version that Rolex made, only in steel cases. It can, at first, look like the silver dial, but it is a couple of shades darker and far rarer.

The last thing to know about this reference is the change in the movement that Rolex used. At the beginning of its production, Rolex kept the 72B Valjoux movement that is found in the ref. 6234. This then changed when the second series model was released, with the redesigned hands and markers. The watch was now running on the Cal 722, which would be carried over into the first Daytona model. 

Why Should We Care About the Pre-Daytona?

According to Bacs, “about one billion people know what the Daytona is, but only a small fraction knows anything about the Pre-Daytona. It just hasn’t broken into the mainstream yet.” With such a popular and successful model immediately following this series of chronographs, why should we pay attention to them? For Dewitte, “these models show Rolex in a time of change. They were trying lots of different paths before they settled on one design.” Many like to call these “transitional” chronographs, as they seem to mark the shift that Rolex made from vintage to modern chronograph design. They shifted the scale onto the bezel, ensured there was no crossover between scale and sub-dial and made use of round pump pushers and the Oyster case. They even integrated a distinctively more contemporary font for the sub-dial numerals. It was these marginal changes that paved the way for the Daytona.

 The 6034 once owned by Eric Clapton, courtesy of Auctionata.

One aspect that is often discussed in collecting circles is rarity, which is a characteristic that all of these Pre-Daytonas have in abundance – or lack thereof, as it were. Part of the reason these chronographs are so unknown is also why they are so desirable. There were so few made, meaning that there are so few now in good condition left to enter the market. Despite this, Bacs believes that he’s had some of the best one pass through his hands. “I believe that in every category of the 6238, Phillips holds the world record for price achieved at auction.” This probably goes some way to explaining why Bacs believes himself to be an ambassador for the reference. It also helps that since he has started collecting watches, he has always had at least one 6238 in his collection, if not multiple examples. It goes to show a genuine admiration for these timepieces.

According to Bacs, the simpler design of these watches can draw in a different type of collector to those who normally focus on Rolex sports models. “These are probably the most Patek looking of all Rolex’s chronographs,” Bacs says. This would partially explain why Eric Clapton, one of the most celebrated collectors of modern times, who focused on complicated Patek Philippes and unusual Daytonas, also felt the need for a complementary 6034 in rose gold. This difference in appeal has also been seen by Dewitte, who has had people return Pre-Daytona watches to him because the dials were too “plain”. If you buy a Pre-Daytona expecting it to have the same aesthetic feel as a classic Daytona, we think you’ll be sorely mistaken. Whilst there are only a couple of changes between the 6238 and 6239, they make a drastic difference. Whether it’s the Panda or Paul Newman look, the original Daytona has a sporty feel that the Pre-Daytonas lack, which is by no means a bad thing for the Pre-Daytona.

George Lazenby as James Bond wearing his customised 6238 on set.

This difference in appeal got us wondering why one is today considered an icon ,and the other an afterthought. When you take a step back, the Pre-Daytona models have everything a watch needs, to be considered in the upper echelons of the horological world. It’s rare, produced by an established brand, linked to a popular sport or pastime, has various collectable variations and has appeared on the wrist of James Bond. That’s right, George Lazenby wore a customised 6238 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Is there much else one could ask for? 

While many might see the Pre-Daytona as some gateway drug to buying a Daytona, we think this is the wrong way to look at them. They may be in a different price bracket to the Paul Newmans or Oyster Sottos, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. There is far more to these chronographs than simply pre-dating the Daytona. They are able to stand on their own merit, against some of the most famous watches on the market today. Perhaps all they need is a little more time.

Our thanks to Edmond Saran, Teddy Dewitte, and Aurel Bacs for taking the time to talk to us and share their knowledge about these rare and underrated watches.