The Grail Series: McQueen’s Watches
This week’s grail watch post is going to take some explaining. We are going to be looking at two iconic vintage Rolex references, both linked to an altogether different type of icon, one of which he never wore but which bears his name, the other he wore religiously which doesn’t.
Confused? You will be.
The King of Cool
Was Steve McQueen the coolest man who ever lived? I’d never presume to offer my opinion but…yes. Yes, he was.
In his life he extinguished towering infernos, tore up San Francisco in a Mustang and leapt barbed wire fences on a stolen motorbike while wearing his standard issue POW leather jacket and khakis. He was a volatile, demonically charismatic screen legend, a reform school thug who went on to typify the perfect antihero for the counterculture generation.
Robust and self-assured, his style was no nonsense utility over showy statement; an uncompromising attitude that extended to every part of his life, including his watches.
While onscreen he is most commonly associated with the square dial, blue-faced Tag Heuer Monaco he wore in the 1970 movie Le Mans, in his personal life, McQueen was a Rolex fan. And the model he wore consistently for the last 20 years of his life, before his untimely death in 1980, was the ref. 5512 Submariner.
So far so good. But if you happen to engage in any research of the man and his brand, you will be presented with page after page of a very different model, one that has been inextricably linked to McQueen for decades, with exactly zero evidence that he ever wore one.
The ref. 1655, the first of the Explorer II range, will forever be known as the Steve McQueen Rolex. In the same way it took just one photo of Paul Newman wearing his exotic dial Daytona in an Italian magazine to eternally change that particular watch’s standing, so it was with McQueen and the Explorer.
The only difference is, with Newman, the Daytona was clearly visible in a posed studio shot. For McQueen, it was a grabbed, candid snap of the man in his natural habitat of the race track. On his wrist, poking out beneath the sleeve of his fireproof suit, is a Rolex. At some point, someone decided it was an Explorer II, although the angle makes it impossible to tell.
Never letting the facts hamper a great marketing opportunity, the probable mistake was left uncorrected by Rolex, and McQueen had far too much swagger to engage in any argument of that sort. So the legend remains.
As for the watches themselves, they each marked significant development in their respective pedigrees. Below, we’ll see just what it was that makes them the sort of true blue grail pieces that get collector’s hearts racing.
The Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655
Despite the similarity in name, the Explorer II was never intended as a successor to the original Explorer from 1953.
Whereas that model was the epitome of simple, elegant functionality, the ref. 1655 released in 1971 was a completely separate entity with a far more specific brief. With its all steel construction, fixed engraved bezel and bright orange 24-hour hand, the Explorer II had its sights fixed on a very select set of individuals from the start—one that, where sunlight was concerned, saw either too much or none at all.
Scientists and explorers whose life and work takes them to the extremes of the polar regions, where the sun never sets in the summer or rises in the winter, or else into the perpetual darkness of uncharted caverns, can quickly lose their sense of night and day.
With the Explorer II, the boldly colored ‘Freccione’ (literally ‘big arrow’ in Italian) hand always indicated the correct hour on the 24-hour graduated bezel, providing some point of reference for those who hadn’t or couldn’t see daylight for sometimes weeks at a time.
However, although it used the same movement as the ref. 1675 GMT-Master of the era, the Cal. 1575, the Explorer II was not a true GMT watch. The non-rotating surround meant it couldn’t be used to keep track of two time zones as the pilot’s watch could.
Between this perceived lack of usefulness, its extremely confining niche and a dial that many thought too cluttered and unreadable, and the ref. 1655 struggled to gain a foothold in Rolex’s sports range. Hold it up alongside the Subs, Sea-Dwellers and even the still marginalized Daytonas of the time, and it lagged a long way behind in popularity and outright sales.
Even so, it had a decent run. In all, the first of the Explorer IIs stuck around until 1985 and went through five different versions in its 14 years.
Identified as Mark I to Mark V, the only distinctions between each model are minute, even for Rolex, changes to the dial, bezel and hands. The Mark II dial, for example, that ran from 1972 to 1977, has the ‘Frog Foot’ coronet—a unique design of the brand’s logo that resembles, you guessed it, the foot of a frog.
The Mark III is known as the ‘rail dial’, a rare and highly sought after variant made between 1974 and 1977, where the letter ‘C’ of ‘Chronometer’ is lined up perfectly with the ‘C’ of ‘Certified’ in the two lines of ‘SUPERLATIVE CHRONOMETER OFFICIALLY CERTIFIED’ text.
Other details, such as the four individual styles of bezel, which varied in the thickness and positioning of their fonts, or whether the seconds hand is straight or has a lume dot at the end (the ‘lollipop’ style) also have a great effect on prices for vintage examples.
Perhaps the biggest visible difference and the one that has the most bearing on the ref. 1655’s value is in the 24-hour hand. The original pieces were known for their bright orange color, but around 1975, Rolex decided to change them to red. However, the paint they used discolored badly over time, and these later red hands would fade back to orange, or even to yellow or occasionally bleach completely white, known as the Albino Explorers. All factors that can make dating a 1655 quite a challenge.
The Attainable Grail
Likened to many of the so-called grail watches we look at in this blog, the ref. 1655 can be had for a surprisingly realistic price.
Note I said realistic and not cheap. A good later example will still set you back northwards of $15k, early Mark I dials are twice that and beyond.
Nevertheless, this is one classic Rolex that represents a truly excellent investment. While prices have been increasing steadily for the last few years, it is still a severely undervalued watch compared to the other sports models from a similar period.
Always the dark horse in the stable, it has started to appeal to collectors searching for something different in a sea of Submariners and GMT-Masters. The out and out tool-like nature of the Explorer II has remained true to the essence of Rolex. Never a status symbol, it has now become a statement of individuality.
Whether or not he actually wore one we’ll never know, but Steve McQueen’s namesake has become, appropriately enough, the rebel’s choice.
The Rolex Submariner ref. 5512
The formative years of the world’s favorite dive watch were particularly unsettled. Certain models were launched and quickly discontinued, sometimes within as little as 12 months. Innovative features and upgrades would be introduced, each facilitating a new reference, meaning some of the earliest examples today number in the mere handful.
By 1958, most of the teething problems had been ironed out to the extent that the emerging ref. 5512 stayed in production for two decades, and it represented both an important first and a significant last in the Submariner’s history.
It was the model that introduced crown guards to the range, a logical and welcome addition considering the harsh environments the watch was intended for, and which lent the piece the silhouette we know today. But it was also the last of the acrylic crystal breed to be offered without a date function. The Cyclops-magnified date window at 3 o’clock has been a bone of contention among Rolex devotees ever since its introduction, with those against it arguing it ruins the symmetry of an otherwise handsomely legible dial.
The ref. 5512 then, marks the end of the classic vintage Subs, and has a huge fan base accordingly. Simple, effective and effortlessly stylish, this was Steve McQueen’s watch, and don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Much like the ref. 1655 above, the Submariner ref. 5512 evolved during its run, but it is a little more complex than with the Explorer II.
The very earliest examples were what is known as the 2-line models. When it was introduced, the 5512 was powered by Rolex’s Cal. 1530, a fine movement in itself, but non-chronometer rated. Having not passed, or been submitted for, accreditation from the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute, or COSC, which lays down rigorous standards for the accuracy of mechanical watch movements, Rolex were unable to add the SUPERLATIVE CHRONOMETER OFFICIALLY CERTIFIED text to the Sub’s dial. Therefore, the only writing other than the ‘Rolex’ and ‘Oyster Perpetual’ labels were the Submariner name and the water resistance, 200m-660ft.
During the mid-60s, the movement was upgraded to the Cal. 1560, and then to the Cal. 1570 a little later, both COSC-rated, which led to the more common 4-line dial examples, testifying to their chronometer credentials.
However, the story doesn’t end there. In 1962, the Submariner ref. 5513 was released, essentially the same watch but only ever offered as a non-chronometer. With identical looks but a cheaper price tag, the ref. 5513 was the more popular of the two and stayed in production all the way through to 1989, meaning there are vastly more available to buy on the vintage market, and they can cause the unwary collector some expensive headaches. It is not unheard of for a relatively common ref. 5513 being passed off as an especially valuable 2-line ref. 5512.
The introduction of protective crown guards to the Submariner range succeeded in making an already desirable watch even more vital. Yet the very first pieces that were produced, and by very first we mean about the initial 100 examples, featured square guards that made it too difficult to unscrew the crown.
The shape was soon changed to a more pointed design, with those handful of original pieces going on to become the most sought after vintage models of the ref. 5512. As an interesting side note, the square crown guard cases Rolex had already gone to the trouble of making were shipped over to their sister company Tudor to be used for their own Submariner, the ref. 7928—which today stands as the rarest example of that watch as well.
Ever evolving, those pointed crown guards, sometimes referred to as ‘El Cornino’ for their horn-like shape, were themselves replaced in the late 60s for the rounder style we are all more familiar with in the contemporary Sub.
By the time the 5512’s race was run in 1978, it had gone through countless tiny variations, particularly of its dial. Differentiated by Rolex collector’s own peculiar language, they are separated into groups such as chapter ring or non-chapter ring, underline, non-underline, exclamation points, meters first, gilt, matte and many more besides. Each has its place, and prices between two examples that to the uninitiated look to be virtually identical can be astronomical.
The ref. 5512 is a genuine all time great in the Rolex canon, regarded by many purists as the last of the breed—a perfect, masculine tool watch.
Happily, for such an important chapter in the Submariner story, late examples can be had for around the same price as the ref. 1655 Explorer II. The Sub was made in far greater numbers than the Explorer, leaving plenty of choice on the pre-owned market.
Rare, early pieces, of course, aren’t quite so attainable. Even if you can track one down, you are most likely to be presented with the ominous ‘price on request’ label where the dollar value usually is.
Those brave enough to request the price, and rich enough to pay it, end up with not only a rock solid investment, but an example of Rolex at their very best. The 50s and 60s were a golden age for the crown, and the Submariner ref. 5512 was arguably their finest creation.
And if it was good enough for Steve McQueen, it’s good enough for us.