The chronograph alternatives to the vintage Rolex Daytona you need to know about
The vintage chronographs from Heuer, Omega, and Universal Geneve you should be collecting
The vintage Rolex Daytona. It’s so many things to vintage watch collecting: the grail; the benchmark; the gold standard.
When I say “vintage” Daytona in this article, I mean the four-digit references produced from the 1960s until the 1980s: refs. 6239, 6240, 6241, 6262, 6264, 6263, and 6265 (whew, that was a lot, but the differences among these references basically come down to whether they have a steel or contrasting aluminum bezel, and pump or screw-down pushers). Sure, those five-digit Zenith Daytonas are starting to get a lot of heat too, but today we’re focused on true vintage, manual-wind, chronographs. There’s something so pure, so classic about the form.
For a while, the “Big Red” ref. 6263 felt like something of a “benchmark” for the health of all of vintage collecting, if not all of watch collecting. With the recent interest in modern and independent watches, that moniker has probably been assumed by something like the Patek Nautilus 5711 or FP Journe Chronometre Bleu.
But, prices for the Big Red are stable and strong: at least a few sold towards the end of 2021 between $110k and $125k. So while vintage Rolex might not represent the top of the watch collecting market like it did say, five years ago, it’s still going strong.
Meanwhile, not everyone wants to spend $100k+ on a vintage chronograph. But what’s great about vintage is you don’t have to. The form of a vintage Daytona is classic and timeless, and has been repeated by dozens of brands over the years: stainless steel case; three registers; manual-wind caliber. Contrasting (i.e., panda or reverse panda) subdials are nice, but not necessary.
Sure, the Daytona might be among the most recognizable – and expensive – vintage chronograph. But by no means is it the only. To me, there are a few true competitors to the Daytona: Sports chronographs from brands that have stood the test of time, introduced and perfected in the 60s, with classic designs and history worth collecting. Framing these chronographs as “alternatives” to the vintage Daytona does them something of a disservice as they undoubtedly stand apart on their own merits. I use that title merely to suggest that there are a handful of chronographs I consider in the same league as the Daytona, and that you should look at when shopping around for vintage chronographs. In addition, they share the same defining characteristics as the Daytona’s timeless design: introduced around the 1960s, three subdials, manual-wind chronograph movement, steel case. Here they are.
Heuer is arguably a more prolific manufacturer of chronographs than Rolex. Over the years it produced a ton of interesting models, names like Autavia, Monaco, Carrera. Sometimes, the first is the best. Led by Jack Heuer, Heuer the brand introduced the Carrera in 1962. As far as chronographs go, these first execution reference 2447 Carreras are about as simple as it gets: smooth bezel, monochromatic dial, no outer tracks. But that’s also what makes them nearly perfect. It’s Bauhaus meets racing functionality. Jack Heuer was a huge racing fan, and Heuer had long been the watch brand for racing, producing dash timers and other timing instruments.
The Carrera ref. 2447 measures 36mm in diameter, with sharply angled lugs that downturn slightly so that the watch fits snugly on wrist. The first execution Carrera was produced with monochromatic silver or matte black dials, called the 2447S and 2447N, respectively (along with a super-rare “eggshell white” dial).
Later second execution examples also feature panda (2447SN) and reverse panda (2447NS, or 2447 NST if it features a tachymeter scale) dials with contrasting subdials. As with any vintage watch, there are other rare grail-level variants from these, but good, correct examples of these standard references are already hard enough to find nowadays. Expect to pay substantially more for a panda or reverse panda example (if you can find one, that is). The silver dial 2447S is the most affordable of the bunch. That said, the black 2447N is extremely attractive – there’s something about the matte black dial of a Heuer chronograph that’s endlessly alluring. Together, the Carrera feels like you’re wearing an old-school Indy racing car on your wrist: The lugs even resemble the nose of these cars, and the Carrera feels like the perfect tool to time your laps with.
If you don’t want to drop the cash on a three-register Carrera, Heuer also began making two-register variations shortly after it introduced the model. Even more affordable are the “poor man’s” Heuers, chronographs manufactured by Heuer for all kinds of different brands and retailers (the Tradition for Sears is one of my favorites).
If the Daytona has one historical foil, it’s the Omega Speedmaster. Famously, Omega and Rolex both submitted chronographs to NASA to be tested for use in the space program. Of course, we call the Omega Speedmaster the “moonwatch” nowadays for a reason. Omega won the NASA contract, and its place in history.
Unlike the Heuer and the Universal Geneve Compax (below), there are dozens of vintage Omega Speedmaster references to collect. This can make it more difficult – and more fun – to collect the model. Luckily, there are also some great resources to guide you through the Speedmaster. Check out our Resources page for a list of some of our favorites.
For those who like slightly larger watches, the Speedmaster is also the go-to: depending on which vintage Speedy reference you opt for, it’s a good couple millimeters larger than the other watches on this list, which really do look like teeny vintage watches compared to the big, bold Speedmaster (especially Speedmaster Professionals with their large asymmetrical cases and twisted lugs.)
Besides the size, the early Speedmasters are powered by Omega’s legendary caliber 321, which uses a horizontal clutch chronograph movement that’s widely lauded as one of the best commercially produced chronograph movements ever. It also sets apart the Speedmaster from the other chronographs on this list, all of which are powered by the outsourced Valjoux 72. Instead, the caliber 321 uses the Lemania 2310 as its base (a caliber also used by brands like Patek for years).
Universal Geneve Compax ref. 885103/02 and /01 (‘Nina Rindt’ and ‘Evil Nina’)
Finally, for my favorite of the bunch. Cards on the table, I own a Universal Geneve Nina Rindt, and had always wanted one before that. Before I even knew what Rolex was, or what a Daytona was, I’d wanted a Universal Geneve Nina Rindt. I must’ve spotted that now-famous photo of Nina wearing her Universal Geneve at the track in my early days of watch curiosity. It’s the first thing I ever wrote about for Rescapement.
Anyway, I don’t want to spend too long getting high on my own supply, but to me this is the best vintage chronograph. Universal Geneve’s Compax line dates back to the 1930s, when it featured the first-ever three-register chronograph movement (the UG cal. 281) but this reference feels like the brand’s swan song before it essentially folded to the quartz crisis.
Like the Heuer and the Rolex Daytona, it measures about 36mm in diameter. But the case of the Nina Rindt — and “Evil Nina,” if a reverse panda dial is more your style — features twisted lugs which are beautiful when they remain sharp and unpolished. Really, they feel like a bit of a call back to the twisted lugs on the Gerald Genta-designed Polerouter. Universal Geneve produced the Nina and Evil Nina in two different executions, with a few dial differences distinguishing the two. The second execution dials, which often turn a nice, slightly tropical color, are my favorite. The Nina Rindt’s dial is also a much purer white and not a silver tone like the color options in the Heuer or Daytona. To me, this gives the watch more character and charm and feels less cold — and that’s what vintage is all about.
The contrasting tachymeter bezel is bold, just as the panda and reverse panda dial are equally audacious, with the numerals and thick subdial hands giving the watch an exotic feel that’s “Paul Newman”-ish.
Besides the panda or reverse panda dials, there is also a series of “exotic” Compax dials featuring interesting blue colors.
Concluding on chronographs
Sure, there are dozens of other vintage chronographs you’ll find scouring eBay and auction catalogs, but to me, Rolex, Heuer, Omega, and Universal Geneve stand apart as manufacturers of beautiful, badass, and historically interesting chronographs.
This is by no means to suggest these are the only vintage chronographs worth collecting, either. I’ve got equal love for Breitling, the Movado M95, Longines 30CH (not to mention the illustrious 13ZN), and so many others. But there’s just something about these chronographs from Heuer, Omega, and Universal Geneve that seems to have withstood trends and the test of time.
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