In the next installment of our Then and Now series, we’re investigating the evolution of one of Rolex’s oldest watch models: the Air-King. Few Rolex models have undergone a change as drastic as the Air-King over the course of its existence. So with that, let’s compare Rolex Air-Kings, starting with the first version to see what has changed over the last seven decades leading up to the current version.
The First Rolex Air-King
The first Rolex Air-King watch made its debut in 1945 as the Air-King ref. 4925. This was a follow up to the family of “Air” Oyster watches from the 1930s/early 1940s that Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf, created in honor of British Royal Air Force wartime pilots.
The Rolex Air-King ref. 4925 sports a steel 34 mm case—considered quite large for its era—and a smooth steel bezel. The generously-sized winding crown sits without guards on the case, while the caseback is—like all Rolex watches—fluted to keep water and dust from entering the watch. Remember, the 1945 Air-King ref. 4926 came well after the first Rolex “Oyster” waterproof watch of 1926.
A simple time-only watch with a highly readable dial, the Air-King ref. 4925 includes the trio of hour, minute, and seconds hands and a mix of Arabic numerals and tapered indices. There are also discreet minute markers running around the periphery of the dial. The Rolex crown and name are placed right under the 12 numeral followed by the words “OYSTER AIR-KING.
Notice the lack of the “PERPETUAL” on the dial. This is because the very first Air-King runs on a manual-wound Caliber 10.5 Hunter movement rather than a self-winding automatic one.
Rolex did not produce the first Air-King ref. 4925 for very long, replacing it with the Air-King ref. 4499 just one year later.
The Current Rolex Air-King
At Baselworld 2016, Rolex surprised onlookers with the release of the Air-King ref. 116900. It was not only surprising because the Air-King had returned after its discontinuation in 2014, but also because the Air-King ref. 116900 looks nothing like its predecessors. It seems that Rolex took that two-year pause to completely revamp the Air-King watch.
The current Rolex Air-King comes with a 40 mm case—substantially larger than the steadfast 34mm size of previous Air-King watches. To put it into context, the Air-King now shares the same case diameter as the Submariner, GMT-Master II, Daytona, and the Milgauss. To match the steel case, the Air-King ref. 116900 is fitted with a steel Oyster bracelet.
Furthermore, the dial has almost no resemblance to past Air-King models except for the familiar Air-King font (first seen on the Air-King ref. 5500 in 1957). The black dial of the new Air-King ref. 116900 houses a colorful mixed bag of details. There are the Explorer-style hour numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock sitting alongside minute numerals in the remaining spaces. Then there’s the green lollipop-style seconds hand matching the green Rolex logo. What’s more, for even more color, the Rolex coronet is bright yellow. Completing the dial are the Mercedes-style hands (a first for the Air-King), the luminous inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, and the minute hash marks encircling the outer edge.
Although the dial of the new Air-King is a far cry from older models that share its name, it is in fact not a completely new design. The inspiration for the Air-King’s new look is the dashboard of the BLOODHOUND SSC supersonic vehicle fitted with Rolex-made precision instruments.
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Team sponsor Rolex kindly manufactured these precision dials for BLOODHOUND SSC several years ago. These dials are fitted in the cockpit as secondary instruments should the main instruments fail. The dial on the left is the speedometer going up in increments of 100mph (Notice the Mach 1 marker, not many cars have one of those!) The dial on the right is an analogue stopwatch and clock. #bloodhoundssc #rolex #rolexwatch #dailydetail #speedometer #stopwatch #machmeter #supersonic #landspeedrecord #lsr #sponsor #SouthAfrica2018 #1000mph #engineering #dials #hakskeenpan
Unlike the very first Air-King, the current Air-King ref. 116900, of course, runs on an automatic movement—the Caliber 3131. Along with a power reserve of 48 hours, the time-only Cal. 3131 is an antimagnetic movement and is the same one Rolex uses to power the modern Milgauss watches.
Put the first Air-King ref. 4925 next to the current Air-King ref. 116900 and it’s clear that these are two vastly different watches with more differences than similarities. Yet, at the core, the new Air-King is still a time-only steel watch that sits at the lower end of the Rolex price spectrum—a similar promise of the inaugural Air-King watch.