Rolex Decades: The ‘40s Air-King Versus the ‘50s Air-King
If you have been following our ‘Decades’ series here at Beckertime, you will know that we have covered most of Rolex’s biggest hitters so far, tracking the changes which took place between one era to the next.
The hardcore enthusiasts among you may have been asking yourselves why we haven’t gotten to many of the more under-the-radar watches in the collection yet, which is a description that fits the Air-King perfectly.
Well, the reason is quite simple; I’ve been avoiding it. And the reason I’ve been avoiding it is that the early history of the model is so bloody confusing.
I’ll give you just a couple of examples. Rolex watches with the name ‘Air-King’ go back as far as World War II. The brand’s official stance, however, is that the series debuted at the end of the 1950s. On top of that, Air-Kings and Explorers shared both cases and reference numbers for a while too, this being back in the mid-20th century before the manufacture became the strict, vertically integrated entity it is today.
As a result, a wealth of information regarding the Air-King is available to read across the internet, most of it contradictory.
But fear not! I have delved deep, engaged in some exhaustive research online and offline and below I have laid out how the model differed between the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The ‘40s Air-King Versus the ‘50s Air-King: The Start of it All
The first Air-King watches, or at least, watches with ‘Air-King’ written on the dial, were released in 1945 and were part of a series of models Rolex made to commemorate the heroics of the RAF during WWII. British pilots had taken to discarding their standard issue pieces, usually Rolex’s own 30mm Speedkings, and instead were buying themselves the brand’s Oyster models, preferring them for their robust build and particularly their larger size and correspondingly increased legibility. Hearing of this, Hans Wilsdorf commissioned a number of models designed specifically for pilots, and the result was the Art Deco-esque Air-Lion, with a rounded square case, the Air-Tiger, with its small seconds sub-dial and the Air-Giant, with a larger 33mm diameter. The Air-King joined last and was the biggest of the four, clocking in at 34mm. The whole range would stay in production until the 1960s when all but the King were retired.
If you ever find an example of that debut reference, the ref. 4925, you will be able to see quite clearly that the name Air-King appears on the dial, so why Rolex refuse to acknowledge the watch as the first in the line is a mystery. Some speculate that it is because the title is not written out in the Air-King’s own iconic font. But seeing as pieces such as the Datejust and Daytona didn’t have their names on the dial at all for the first few years of production, and Rolex seemingly has no problem considering them the original references regardless, there could well be another reason. Who knows?
Anyway, examples of the ref. 4925 are exceedingly rare as it was replaced the following year with another model, the ref. 4499.
Objectively, there was little to choose between the two. Both measured 34mm, were cast in steel with smooth bezels, had similar handsets and indexes and both were powered by the same Aegler Hunter manually-wound movement, the Cal. 10.5.
But the main point of the Air-King was set from the beginning. It was as simple as a watch could be, made to be reliable and easily readable in whatever situation or condition the wearer found themselves in, and it was also among the cheapest models Rolex sold—all elements which have carried over to the modern day.
The ‘40s Air-King Versus the ‘50s Air-King: The Air-King Starts to Find its Feet
The 1950s was the decade which saw Rolex enter its most inventive and fertile period as a manufacturer.
A time which saw the brand invent the tool watch genre, in a six or seven-year period they came out with iconic models for Scuba divers (the Submariner), scientists (the Milgauss) and, crucially, professional pilots, with the GMT-Master.
The success of that last piece might explain the Air-King’s relegation to dark horse status. Not only was the GMT-Master a more useful watch, with its ability to track two time zones simultaneously, but it also stood out aesthetically, with its twin-color Pepsi bezel. By comparison, the Air-King looked more like a dress watch and the austerity of its design condemned it to being an also-ran.
However, 12-months before the debut of the GMT, the Air-King was updated again, in the form of the ref. 6652.
This would become a transitional reference, one that introduced the model’s first automatic caliber, the Cal. 1030. It was also the model which saw the signature ‘Air-King’ font make its initial appearance, the characteristic script found on the dials of the current generation today. Despite that, however, Rolex still do not consider the ref. 6652 an Air-King, but simply another Oyster Perpetual model.
But the follow-up finally changed that.
The ‘40s Air-King Versus the ‘50s Air-King: The ref. 5500 Arrives…and Stays
In 1957, Rolex brought out another new Air-King reference and were apparently so pleased with this version that they stuck with it for the next 37 years.
The ref. 5500 is the first official Air-King, according to the brand.
Still housed in a 34mm steel Oyster case, this reference was equipped with a movement from the first family of calibers Rolex created in-house, the Cal. 1500 range. Until 1963, the ref. 5500 used the base Cal. 1530, the same engine powering the era’s Submariner. In the Air-King however, it was never COSC-certified and so the dials are marked ‘Super Precision’ rather than ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified’.
In addition, the movement was available with a differing number of jewels. Because of import laws, those models sold in the U.S. used the 17-jewel version while the rest of the world had 25 or 26 jewel calibers.
Beyond 1963, Rolex started using the Cal. 1520 as a cost-cutting exercise. The latter movement employed a stick regulator instead of the brand’s proprietary Microstella system and also had just a flat hairspring and not a Breguet overcoil. Consequently, these later pieces are marked simply ‘Precision’ at the six o’clock or else they have no designation at all.
There were a number of dial options available on the reference, with the most prevalent being a creamy silver face with baton markers. One especially collectible example is the incredibly rare ‘Double Red’, à la the Sea-Dweller, with both the Air-King and Super Precision text printed in red.
Others were to follow, with black and slate grey faces proving especially popular.
The handset evolved too, with the now recognized stick hands taking over from the previous Alphas, and the look of the watch was simplified overall.
The ‘40s Air-King Versus the ‘50s Air-King: The ref. 5500 Variations
As unheralded as the Air-King was at the time, Rolex still felt the need to issue the watch in a number of different guises for sale in Commonwealth countries.
In 1958, the short-lived Air-King Date models arrived. The steel ref. 5700 (with a smooth bezel) and Rolesor ref. 5701 (with a fluted bezel) were powered by either the Cal. 1525 or Cal. 1535 and offered a slightly smaller alternative to the 36mm Datejust.
The non-date versions also got some variety, and this is where some confusion can creep in. The same year as the Dates were released, the arrival of the ref. 5506 gave the model its first taste of luxury with a 40-micron deep gold-plated case. All good so far.
However, after that, the ref. 5501 (Rolesor, fluted bezel), ref. 5502 (gold-filled, smooth bezel) and ref. 5504 (steel, smooth bezel) all appeared. These used the slightly bigger 35mm case from the Explorer. Still not too bad.
Unfortunately, Rolex then also decided to fit both the Air-King and Explorer with the same Explorer-style 3/6/9 dial, looking to see if the latter watch would suit a smaller 34mm size. So, if you search for either a ref. 5500 or ref. 5504, you will find versions with the Explorer dial which are actually Air-Kings, others with the Explorer dial which are designated as Explorers and others with standard Air-King dials which are indeed Air-Kings. And now you know why I’ve put off addressing this watch’s early years for so long!
The ‘40s Air-King Versus the ‘50s Air-King: The Air-King as a Gift
The Air-King ref. 55XX series and the Air-King Date ref. 57XX range took the model all the way up to the end of the 1980s, making them among the longest-standing references in the whole of Rolex’s history. Very little was changed on the watches during all that time, bar a switch to tritium from radium in the mid-’60s and the introduction of a Quickset function on the Date models in the ‘70s.
But, even though it has been seen as something of an underdog most of its life, the Air-King does have some notable credentials of its own.
Throughout its mid-century run, the model was awarded as a gift to retiring pilots flying for Pan Am—the airline, you remember, which collaborated with Rolex on the creation of the GMT-Master. Why they chose the Air-King over the GMT to present to their crews is just one more item to add to the great list of Air-King puzzlement.
Obviously, the link between Rolex and the airline, and aviation in general, is an enduring one and so their association makes sense. The connection between Rolex and Dominos Pizza, on the other hand, does not.
Nevertheless, the two have had an affiliation since the ‘70s, with Air-Kings presented as rewards to managers of high-performing stores with revenues that hit certain levels for a number of weeks in a row. The first references given out then were, of course, ref. 5500s and the sight of the Dominos logo slapped on the dial caused its share of controversy. Rolex offered some form of appeasement in the 2000s when they moved the insignia to the first link of the bracelet. These dual-badged examples of the Air-King, whether they are to your taste or not, still command a decent premium as preowned buys, especially as no one seems to know quite how many have been produced over the years. For the record, Dominos switched to presenting Oyster Perpetuals in 2014 when the Air-King was briefly retired.
The formative years of Rolex’s oldest pilot’s watch were something of a mess, which could be a reason the manufacture simply ignores them. In truth, the early examples had little to distinguish them aesthetically from standard Oyster models, and some even shared reference numbers.
But from the arrival of the ref. 5500, the Air-King started on its way to becoming very much its own entity, albeit one which has spent most of its time in the shadows of more illustrious stable mates.
We will follow up soon with a post on what changed on the watch when the ref. 5500 was finally allowed to hang up its crown.
Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.