The Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520

The history of the Rolex Daytona officially began in 1964, when the brand started their sponsorship of the famous car races in Daytona, Florida. Just over two decades after the first Daytona debuted, Rolex decided to replace the Daytona’s hand-wound movement with an automatic one. In 1988, they released the Ref. 16500 series, which eventually included the Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520 as their first collection of automatic chronographs.

There was something that made these models particularly special, and it wasn’t just that they had an automatic movement. It was the Zenith El Primero automatic chronograph movement. The El Primero was not only the first but also the best automatic chronograph movement at the time. It was first released in 1969, but when the brand was bought by Zenith Radio Corporation (ZRC) in 1971, the run of the revolutionary movement was cut short.

Rolex Daytona 16520

Zenith and Rolex in Partnership

So, when Rolex was searching for an automatic chronograph movement for the Daytona, Zenith approached them. Rolex agreed that if Zenith could revive the production of the El Primero, they’d form a partnership. Zenith presented the first updated variation of the El Primero, the caliber 4030, in 1986. Rolex requested about 200 modifications before landing on a version that reached their rigorous production standards for the all-new Daytona. Just two years later, they unveiled the 16500 series, which included the Ref. 16520 in stainless steel.

In addition to the totally revamped El Primero movement, the Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520 also featured several aesthetic updates from previous Daytona models. Some of the most notable changes include the addition of a sapphire crystal, a larger 40mm case size, lacquered and glossy dials, and applied metal hour markers treated with a luminous material. These design changes coupled with the functional changes made the Ref. 16520 more than just a superb tool watch—it was now an equally impressive dress watch.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520

The Release of the 16500 Series

The release of the brand new Daytona was an immediate victory. In particular, the Ref. 16520 quickly became one of the most highly sought after models for the brand, especially since it was only produced in limited quantities because of the outsourced movement. However, despite success of the reimagined Daytona, Rolex still had its sights on something more. They wanted all of their models to feature their own in-house movements, and the 16500 series was the only collection keeping them from achieving that goal. So, in 2000, just over a decade after the El Primero made its long-awaited return, they retired the 16500 series, along with the popular Ref. 16520.

The Daytona with its in-house movement continues to be one of the favorite models in the Rolex family of watches. However, when the brand discontinued the 16500 series, it only served to fuel the demand for the El Primero models. By 2001, just a year after the first Daytona with an in-house movement was released, the Ref. 16520 was hitting record sales at the auction blocks and reaching collectible status.

The affection for the Ref. 16520 continues to this day among avid collectors, lovers of the brand, and other watch nerds, like us.

Check out some of the Ref. 16250 currently stocked oat Crown & Caliber.

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Caitlyn is the founder of Grey Ghost, a New York City-based boutique content marketing agency with a passion for artists, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and startups. She believes in quality over quantity, creative thinking, and, above all, using language as powerful tool to build lasting connections.

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