The “Steve McQueen” Explorer II

steve mcqueen rolex explorer ii

Yesterday, we talked about the Jean-Claude Killy, a series of Rolex big date chronographs named for a championship skier who, as far as we can tell, never wore one. Today, we’re going to take a look at another so-named watch in the Rolex lineup, the ref. 1655 Explorer II known as the “Steve McQueen.” (It was also called the “Freccione,” which comes from the Italian word “Freccia” meaning ‘arrow.’)

The actor and race driver, who was also known as “The King of Cool,” did in fact wear a Rolex or two. But as far as photographic evidence is concerned, McQueen never wore an Explorer II. But you know who did? Well, if you read yesterday’s post, you know. None other than the illustrious Olympic Champion skier and Rolex board member, Jean-Claude Killy himself. At least he did in several magazine ads from the late 1960s and early 1070s.

rolex explorer ii

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But what of this first Explorer II reference? What’s the story on it? Why did Rolex see fit to upgrade from the Explorer – but keep the original in the lineup as well?

The 1655 was a close cousin of the 1675 GMT-Master. The watch was introduced in 1971 and production ran until 1985. It turns out that it wasn’t so much an upgrade of the Explorer, but a new tool watch in its own right. It was originally intended for cavers – speleologists and spelunkers – who couldn’t tell day from night for obvious reasons. With a 24-hour hand, it was easy.

This 24-hour hand was hard wired to the main hour hand in the calibre 1570 and 1575, both of which were used in the early watches. The 24-hour engraved bezel was stationary as well, which meant the 24-hour hand/bezel combination could not be used to set a second time zone. Apparently cavers always descended to the depths close to home in those days. (This 24-hour feature was updated to second time zone capability when the Explorer II received a major update in 1986.)

rolex explorer ii 42mm

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The first three years of production saw the 24-hour hand colored orange, which was updated to red in 1974. Actually, one source claims they were red all along, per Rolex marketing literature, but the early version faded and discolored to orange over time.

Another oddity – Rolex-speaking – were the stick hands of the 1655. Hours, minutes, and seconds were all denoted by simple straight hands, making the 1655 one of the few modern Rollies with unique hands. Presumably, these hands made the watch that much more readable with 1970s Tritium lume?

We do know that the 1655 version of the Explorer II went through several minor evolutionary changes to dial and bezel, as well as hands during its production life. This, of course, is typical of the way Rolex likes to do their updates.

Even though the 1655 was discontinued long ago, nice examples can still be had. They occasionally pop up at auction, and Chrono24 and other online brokers often have them, typically in the low five figure range.

Last, speaking of exploring (see what I did there?), tomorrow we’ll take a look at the watch The King of Cool really wore. But, don't forget to check out Everest watch bands for your Explorer II 16550 and 16570 and the 42mm Explorer II straps.


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