The Monaco and the Cosmograph Daytona are giants in the history of racing watches, considered by most to be two of the all-time greatest. But which one deserves to be crowned King? Read on for our verdict.
If you know anything about car racing watches, you'll know about the TAG Heuer Monaco and the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. The Monaco was among the very first automatic chronograph watches in 1969 - a big moment in horological history - and its square case has since become iconic thanks in large part to its appearance on the wrist of acting legend Steve McQueen in the 1971 film Le Mans. The Daytona, meanwhile, was a classic Rolex design from 1963 that rose to fame after being tied to the annual 24-hour endurance race at the International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Today, it has become one of the most highly sought "grail" watches for collectors around the world.
But we don't need to rehash the history, which is already well-known to most. We know these are two of the all-time greats - but what makes them great?
Both the Monaco and the Daytona can be recognised instantly thanks to near-flawless designs that have more than stood the test of time. The (pre-TAG) Heuer Monaco McQueen wore is a true beauty. At a time when watches across the industry used parts from just a handful of providers, Heuer negotiated exclusive access to the Monaco's square case. This made all the difference. With its rounded sides and corners, the case captures the essence of sixties style - accessible to all tastes and yet highly distinctive among the competition. The dial design is the perfect complement - especially the original vintage model with its rectangular hour markers, symmetric square subdials and its left-hand crown, forming a striking triangle with the pump-style pushers. Everything about it declares this to be a watch for racecar drivers - from the sporty red highlights to the corfam strap and the dramatic vertical stripes on many models. This is the consummate image of romanticised vintage motor racing class.
The Daytona watch ensemble is no less distinguished. The round case may be more familiar, but the original Cosmograph design, putting the tachymeter on the bezel instead of the dial, and striking colour arrangements for the subdials (or their outer rings), made this a great-looking and functional timepiece from the beginning. Many appreciate the Daytona simply for its dashing good looks, but it is very much a tool watch, with an extremely sturdy Oyster case and a lot of data displayed in a highly legible, easy-on-the-eye layout. More recent models have introduced remarkable variations (did you see the one with rainbow gemstones?) but they have all stayed true to the same essential, beloved design.
In a TAG Heuer vs Rolex showdown, the Monaco better captures the glorious sixties motorsports era, while the Daytona is the more timeless. Both watches are exceptionally versatile, and more than stylish enough to be worn in almost any occasion.
Together with the Carrera and the Autavia, the Monaco was the first Heuer watch to feature the Calibre 11, which was the first ever widely-sold automatic chronograph. An extraordinary achievement that was jointly produced with Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Depraz, the Calibre 11 definitely had its flaws, and early examples were known to run fast. The Monaco has since been fitted with a series of different automatic movements, and today uses tribute versions still called Calibre 11 or Calibre 12, with improved specs based on Sellita or ETA base movements.
The Daytona used the Valjoux-sourced 727 for its first 25 years or so. This manual-wind calibre was a major liability for the watch as the quartz crisis kicked in, and resulted in poor sales for many years. It was rectified in 1988 when Rolex introduced a modified version of Zenith's El Primero - the very movement that competed with the Calibre 11 to be the first automatic chronograph. This was a superb machine that served the Daytona well for many years, but eventually Rolex required something it could call truly in-house. In 2000, the outstanding calibre 4130 appeared on the scene, the first all-new Rolex movement in fifty years. With its high-performance vertical clutch system, the 4130 has served the Daytona ever since, perfectly catering to its racing-watch stylings.
If you're deciding whether to buy TAG Heuer Monaco or a Rolex Daytona men's watch, there isn't really a wrong decision to make. Both represent the pinnacle of what most collectors desire in a racing watch, though the different approaches taken to get there are considerable. Neither watch comes cheap - some will tell you there are better options at these prices. Steel Daytonas remain very difficult to acquire - most dealers have long waiting lists thanks to high demand and low production numbers. A good vintage Monaco can also be tricky to find on a budget, though newer versions are not to be sniffed at. Most collectors would agree that the price is worth paying, in the end, for such treasures as these.
So which one wins this battle for the ages? We love the style and historic quality of the Monaco - the way it perfectly captures an era in both watchmaking and racing - But in the end it probably isn't quite worth the price premium over equally awesome peers like the Carrera and Autavia. Compared to the Daytona, the Monaco may seem inexpensive, but the materials, functions and name brand of the Rolex Daytona make the price justifiable. The Daytona also looks back on a legendary story: it’s not without reason that the Paul Newman Daytona is the most expensive watch in the world to date and is described as the holy grail of watch collectors. At the end of the day, the timeless design, impeccable functionality and value retention of the Rolex Daytona make it the true King of racing watches!
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