The Rolex Explorer II Ref 216570 might be the holy grail of Rolex steel sport watches. Not because it’s super rare. Or was worn by somebody super famous. Although the Heuer Monaco is not the only watch Steve McQueen’s name is associated with. No, there’s something else that makes the Ref 216570 stand out. It’s the only steel sports Rolex that trades at or below retail on the secondary market. (The same can be said for the Air King. But I don’t count it as a proper tool watch.) Does this make the Explorer II undiscovered bargain? Let’s take a closer look and you can decide for yourself.
A (Very) Brief History Of The Rolex Explorer II
The Rolex Explorer is a tool watch in the true sense of the word. Feedback received from the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition. informed its design. That expedition, you may recall, resulted in the first successful summit of Mount Everest. Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay both made it to the top. Joining them for the summit was a Rolex watch.
Later in that same year, the Rolex Explorer made its debut. It was designed to be legible in extreme conditions. A simple time-only display. Three hands. No date. It was a winning formula, which is why Rolex hasn’t changed it much over the years. But it was not practical for all types of “explorers”. For example, speleologists. Also known as people who spend extended periods of time in dark caves.
So, in 1971, the Rolex Explorer II Ref 1655 was launched. It was bigger than its predecessor at 39mm. And more functional too. The steel case featured a fixed bezel with 24-hour markings. Used in conjunction with the orange 24-hour hand, the wearer could see what time of day or night it was. Particularly useful if you’re in a dark cave and have no reference points.
The obvious question though is how do you read the 24-hour scale in the dark? The numbers on the bezel are clearly not luminous. The answer comes in the extra lume plots on the dial. Like many watches, the Ref 1655 features luminescent markers at five-minute intervals. But there are also small luminous squares every 2.5 minutes too. This results in 24 glow-in-the-dark accents. Or one for each hour of the day. There’s also a date window at 3 o’clock. Again, useful for people spending extending periods of time underground.
Inside was the Rolex calibre 1570/1575. The same movement used in the GMT-Master. But because the bezel was fixed, it can’t display a second time-zone. This made it less attractive to the wider market. After all, few people needed a watch specifically for exploring caves. And so, despite being in production for 14 years, the Ref 1655 was not a great seller.
The Ref 16550 And Ref 16570
The Ref 1655 was followed by the transitional Ref 16550 in 1985. This model introduced a number of key changes. A larger 40mm case size. Mercedes-style centre hands. A longer and thinner arrow-tipped 24-hour hand. A sapphire crystal. And a new movement, Calibre 3085. This meant the 24-hour hand could now be adjusted independently from the centre hands. Making the Explorer II a true GMT watch.
The other big change was the dial. The dial of the earlier Ref 1655 was criticised for being “too busy”. It was also only available in black. With the Ref 16550, Rolex introduced the option of a white dial. The lay-out was also simplified. It is much more akin to the brand’s other tool watches. Such as the Sea-Dweller. Most had white gold surrounds around the indexes and hands. But some later versions, had black surrounds instead. The idea being to make them stand out against the white of the dial. This change was permanently introduced from the Ref 16570 onwards.
Being a transitional model, some variations of the Ref 16550 are popular with collectors. Especially because a defect in the white dial paint causes it fade to cream over time. Much like the Tropical Dial Rolex Daytona. You can see an example of this in the picture below. (And the one above.)
The Ref 16550 was superseded by the Ref 16570 in 1989. This solidified the changes introduced in the previous model. Particularly the black surrounds on the white “Polar” dial. Inside was the new calibre 3185. This was updated to the calibre 3186 in later models. In production for 22 years it was replaced by the current Ref 216570.
It is the original model that remains the most sought after by collectors though. To insiders it’s better known as the “Freccione”. This comes from the Italian word “freccia”, which means arrow. A somewhat obvious reference to the orange (later red) arrow-tipped hand.
Some people also refer to it as the “Steve McQueen Rolex”. But this is a misnomer. There’s no photographic evidence that McQueen ever wore an Explorer II. Once a Rolex model has a nickname though, it tends to stick. Pepsi. Hulk. Etc. You get the idea.
Whatever name you call it by, the Ref 1655 is by far the most popular of the Explorer II models. This is partly because low demand at the time meant low production volumes. Meaning good examples are rare. As such, prices on the secondary market can be north of GBP 20,000. Or 3 times higher than the retail price of the current Ref 216570.
The Rolex Explorer II Ref 216570
2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the Explorer II. To celebrate, Rolex introduced the Ref 216570. It draws on the Ref 1655 for inspiration. But with plenty of modern updates. Two different versions are available. One with a white dial. The other with a black dial.
At 42mm, the steel Oyster case is the largest yet for an Explorer II. The reason for this is more dial real estate. The extra space allows for larger indexes and hands. This means more lume and better legibility.
In homage to the Freccione, Ref 216570 features an orange-tipped 24-hour hand. A welcome change from the thin red arrow on earlier models. Of course, it now functions as a dual-time display. Making it more user-friendly than the original Ref 1655. The name “Explorer II” is also in matching orange.
Inside is the self-winding calibre 3187. A movement developed and manufactured in-house by Rolex. It features a Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex shock absorbers. This ensures better resistance to shocks and to extreme conditions. Ideal for adventurers. The movement is a Superlative Chronometer. This means it should be accurate to -2/+2 sec/day, after casing.
The calibre 3187 is not a new-generation movement though. Which has led many to speculate that the Ref 216570 will soon be replaced. Likely with a cerachrom bezel too. Don’t expect the price to go up when this happens though. Like with the Batman. Or the all-black GMT-Master II. Unless Rolex makes some drastic changes, which seems unlikely.
The retail price of the Rolex Explorer II Ref 216570 in the UK is GBP 6,250.
Is It A Bargain?
The Rolex Explorer II has always sold well enough for Rolex. But it’s never been as popular as the brand’s other tool watches. This is due to its distinct aesthetic and narrower target market. Still, you get excellent value for your money. And if you’re comfortable buying on the secondary market you might even save yourself some money. Something that is just about unheard of with all other steel Rolex sport models.
Technical Specifications: Rolex Explorer II Ref 216570
- Case: Oyster – 42 mm – Oystersteel – monobloc middle case, screw-down case back and winding crown – fixed 24-hour graduated bezel – twin-lock double waterproof crown – waterproof to 100 metres / 330 feet.
- Dial: White or black – 18ct gold hour markers – Chromalight display with long-lasting blue luminescence on hour markers and hands.
- Movement: Calibre 3187 – bidirectional self-winding via Perpetual rotor – Parachrom hairspring – 48-hour power reserve – Centre hour, minute and seconds hands – 24-hour display – Second time zone with independent rapid-setting of the hour hand – Instantaneous date – Stop-seconds for precise time setting – COSC-certified chronometer.
- Price: GBP 6,250.