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Could the Air-King be the best-value Rolex ever?

We trace the steady trajectory of pilot watchmaking’s quiet man, whose 2022 update fine-tunes everything an aviator needs in the cockpit today

Rolex nuts. Role-philes. Rolenerds. Whatever you want to call them (they call themselves “right” on any matter concerning Switzerland’s greatest, regardless) there’s one thing they can all agree one: the Air-King is the purest of them all.

It’s Rolex’s longest continually-made model by sheer virtue of distilling every element that Hans Wilsdorf patiently pioneered throughout the 20th century into a 34mm-wide circle of simplicity. Which, in turn, explains why 2016’s Air-King update cleaved such a chasm of opinion.

Since 1945, it had been clean as a whistle, with absolutely no bells. Monochrome, slim baton indices, just the occasional ’3,6,9’ luminescent numeral array borrowed from its hardier cousin, the Explorer. Then, all of a sudden in 2014, the democratic staple of Rolex’s catalogue was whipped from sight. It was replaced with the ref.116900 two years later — a watch with a green-coloured logo and seconds hand. Not only that, but massive minutes numerals, in between even-massiver 3,6 and 9 hours.

It may as well have been renamed from “Air-King” to “Marmite”. However, as the waiting lists (a Rolex ‘Professional’ model in steel for just £5,900? Good luck!) and this year’s surprisingly satisfying evolution both prove, sometimes it just takes time, so to speak. What’s more, the eventual revelation over that divisive dial redesign had the petrolheads taking the flyboys to school, in the process reinstating and reinforcing the Air-King’s pedigree as an aviator watch born truly of the skies.

See, Mr Wilsdorf, who founded Rolex in London in 1905 before upping sticks for Switzerland in 1919, was building watches of such a quality that by WWII – over standard-issue Breitlings, Longines and Omegas – many pilots made Rolex their personal choice as cockpit chronometer. The revolutionary ‘Oyster’ case was presumably a big selling point, as well as precision, should one have to bale out over water.

Among such airborne endorsements were British adventurer Charles Douglas Barnard (“The peculiar qualities of this Rolex watch render it eminently suitable for flying purposes and I propose to use it on all my long-distance flights in the future.”), the Houston Expedition of 1933 as it climbed to 33,000 feet in severe weather over Mount Everest, then the following year Owen Cathcart Jones and Ken Waller who finished fourth racing from London to Melbourne in their De Havilland Comet, using a Rolex as on-board chronometer.

It was the RAF’s fearless aviators of WWII who Wilsdorf wanted to celebrate, come 1945. His so-called ‘Air-series’ featured the Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, Air-Giant and the Air-King in various subtle iterations of his now-iconic screwback, screwed-crown watertight ‘sports’ construct. The Air-King was the one that stayed in production, as ref. 4925 then 4499 a year later, running on Rolex’s default pre-Fifties hand-wound ’10.5’ movement.

It wasn’t till 1953 that Rolex introduced its ‘Perpetual’ self-winding mechanics to the Air-King. This ‘6552’ reference also debuted the racy, Fifties-Americana-style “Air-King” dial marking – probably the only bit of typographic flair still found throughout Rolex’s entire catalogue. However, despite over a decade of Air-King development, Rolex stubbornly sticks to an official launch date of 1958, as this was when it upgraded to the top-flight calibre 1530 and earned itself the ‘Precision’ dial marking as well as a dedicated advertising campaign.

The reference 5500 Air-King would remain in production, almost unchanged, for 31 years.

This was then replaced by reference 14000 from 1989-99, which now came with sapphire crystal and a new movement, calibre 3000. In 2007 Rolex released the 114200 Air-King, which was the first in the range to receive a COSC certificate, thanks to its cal. 3130. Then, seven years later, the Air-King faded into the blue.

So how did it take the petrolheads to reassure the Air-King purists that the green-and-black ref. 16900 of 2016 was legit? It took some eagle eyes, granted, but in 2014 photos of RAF Wing Commander Andy Green’s new cockpit were released, replete with two bespoke instruments engineered by Rolex: a speedometer and chronograph sitting either side of the dashboard – analogue, rather than digital, so the former Tornado pilot could read them in an instant and flick his eyes back to the task in hand. Also, designed in a naggingly familiar, green and black aesthetic…

He might have had a Rolls-Royce jet from a Eurofighter Typhoon immediately behind him, but this was no fighter plane; rather the Bloodhound SSC land-speed-record ‘car’, which Green would drive in an attempt to smash his own supersonic record of 1997 in Thrust SSC. Mothballed at Coventry Transport Museum since 2021, the 1,000mph barrier is still waiting to be breached, at the behest of a Rolex designed with the most modern of pilot’s visual needs in mind.

As for the now-not-so-Marmite wristwatch, the ‘126900’ evolution for 2022 creeps from 39mm to 40mm, introduces a crown guard, widens the central bracelet links, all bringing a stronger coherence to Rolex’s immortal flying ace. Crucially, the next-gen 3230 calibre launched in 2020 is now ticking inside – unwavering beyond –2/+2 seconds per day thanks to Rolex’s ‘Chronergy’ system, an antimagnetic cocktail of patented alloys, with a ‘weekend-proof’ 70-hour power reserve (take off Friday evening, wear again Monday morning without having to rewind and reset).

For particularly pedantic Rolex enthusiasts, however, the biggest news is to be found at 1 o’clock. Or rather, ‘5 past’, as 2016’s lone “5” has FINALLY been prefixed with a “0”. OCD be gone, gentlemen, double-digit numerical symmetry has been restored dial-wide.

It’s these tiny things that Rolex do eventually get round to addressing, which in the meantime Role-philes just love to argue about.

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