This is my favorite vintage Rolex, full stop. There are many vintage Rolex watches that I love, but there can only be one winner. For me, it’s the quirky Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655 replica with black dial. It was introduced in 1971. Unlike you would think, the Explorer II — also known as the Steve McQueen Rolex — was not intended as a follow-up to the cheap copy Rolex Explorer. As Robert-Jan explained in his in-depth piece about the ref. 1655, the Explorer II was developed as an expansion to the Explorer lineup aimed at speleologists or cave explorers, who could lose the sense of time during their work. It is why the watch has an additional central 24-hour hand and a 24-hour scale bezel. On top of that, the watch is also equipped with a date function in case the cave explorers would not only lose track of time but also what day it is.
The biggest attraction of the steel case copy Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655 is, without a doubt, its funky appearance. It oozes seventies quirkiness in all the right ways. The dial design is weird, and the big orange 24-hour hand hard to be missed. And for one, the cyclops feels exactly in the right place in the right style instead of being an oversized nuisance. But all the quirkiness is balanced out by the 39mm stainless steel case with the stainless steel 24-hour scale bezel. Add the familiar Oyster style bracelet, and it makes sure this is not a watch that is over the top. No, this, for me, is the right balance between everything we know and love about Rolex combined with a dial design that feels lively and just about perfect.
Impractical but beautiful
But when it comes to practicality, the dial design is far from perfect. If you look at the dial, the regular 12-hour scale is indicated by the regular hour and minute markers. Every five minutes has a fat hour marker, and the 6, 9, and 12 o’clock markers are oversized markers. So far, so good. But the problems start with the 24-hour scale that is placed around the normal 12-hour scale. The uneven hours of the 24-hour scale are placed as half-hour markers to be used in combination with the large orange hand. I think it looks amazing, but I agree with Robert-Jan and many others; it’s far from a perfect functional dial design. Inside the chunky case, you will find the automatic Rolex Caliber 1575 GMT. It is similar to the 1575 caliber but has been modified to incorporate a GMT function.
Swiss made fake Rolex produced the cheap copy Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655 until the mid-eighties. The brand introduced its successor, the Explorer II ref. 16550 in 1985. That watch solved many impracticalities and looks like the Explorer II as we know it today. But it also lost a lot of its initial charm with the new design. There is a great deal of charm and quirky appeal that makes this first-generation Explorer II much-loved by collectors. Over the course of its production run, Rolex only changed small details of the design. A total of seven different dials was produced, and a handful of different bezels. Finding a Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655 is definitely possible, but the prices for one start at roughly €25,000 and moving up quickly for one in better condition. What you get for that kind of money, however, is the best-looking vintage Rolex there is. That’s my opinion, at least.