There’s vintage. And then there are vintage icons. The Rolex Submariner reference 5512 belongs in the latter category and there are plenty of good reasons for that. Aside from the watch’s good looks and historical importance within Rolex’s archives, this particular Submariner was worn by a legendary actor too.
Steve McQueen, a.k.a. the King of Cool, wore a Rolex Submariner 5512. While it’s pretty hard to compete with the man who starred in The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), and Le Mans (1971), the vintage Submariner 5512 boasts its own swagger too. Introduced in 1959, the 5512 was not only the first Submariner to include guards around the winding crown but it was the biggest version to date with a 40mm case. Rolex produced the Submariner 5512 for two decades, and over that time, the watch underwent a couple of notable updates. Join us as we discuss those updates, uncover which particular Submariner 5512 Steve McQueen wore, and also dispel the myth of the Explorer II 1655 “Steve McQueen”.
Table of Contents:
About the Vintage Rolex Submariner 5512
Submariner 5512 Quick Specs
- Reference Number: 5512
- Production Years: 1959 – 1980 (Approx.)
- Case Size: 40mm
- Materials: Stainless Steel
- Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Rotating Timing Bezel
- Dial: Black w/ Luminous Hour Markers (Gilt or Matte Style)
- Luminous Material: Radium or Tritium
- Bezel: Bidirectional, Black Aluminum Insert w/ 60-Minute Scale
- Crystal: Acrylic (Domed)
- Movement: Cal. 1530 (very early models); Cal.1560 or Cal. 1570
- Water Resistance: 200 Meters / 660 Feet
- Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet Stainless Steel
Evolution of the Rolex Submariner 5512
Production of Rolex Submariner models for the reference 5512 began in 1959 and carried on until about 1980. With nearly two decades of production dedicated to the Submariner 5512 model, there are a few specific qualities that define different periods during its time. It is what differentiates a modern Submariner from a vintage timepiece that carries a legacy.
For example, the Submariner 5512 was produced with both two lines and four lines of text on the dial. And one of the first things an enthusiast might notice is the number of lines on the face of the watch, directly above the 6 o’clock position.
The watch’s depth rating, as well as the model name (200m = 660ft and Submariner), are listed on two lines. Submariner 5512 watches with these two-line dials are not chronometer-rated. On the other hand, other Submariner 5512 models crafted during the second half of the model’s run show four lines of type on the face to include the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” inscription. Naturally, these Submariner 5512 models are chronometers.
Another significant detail to note is the placement of meters and feet on the depth rating. Early models had the meters units first: “200m = 660ft.” Rolex later switched it up to have the feet units first: “660ft = 200m.”
If you look at the sides of Submariner 5512, you’ll see that there are crown guards. The 5512 was the first Submariner to include protective shields around the crown, and the shape of these crown guards evolved over the years.
The very first iterations were square crown guards but these didn’t last long as this shape made it difficult for divers to use the crown while wearing gloves. Next came pointed crown guards, often known as PCG in collecting circles. To achieve this effect, Rolex craftsman would allegedly grind the squares into a point, making them thinner and shorter than what you might see today. The third and final iteration was the rounded crown guards, similar to what we see on modern Rolex watches.
Steve McQueen’s Submariner
According to Jake Ehrlich of Jake’s Rolex World, Steve McQueen wore at least two different Submariner references – 5512 and 5513 – during his lifetime. Fun fact, the actor wore his watches on his right arm rather than the left.
Steve McQueen had been photographed many times wearing his Submariner 5512 over the years including at the 12 hours of Sebring Race in 1970, on the set of Le Mans (although in the movie he famously wears a Heuer Monaco watch), and in the 1980 movie, Hunter—his final role before he died in November of that year at the age of 50.
Steve McQueen wore a 1967 Submariner 5512, with four lines of text on the dial, meaning it was a chronometer-certified model. Inside the case was Caliber 1570 and the crown guards were the rounded variety.
Steve McQueen had given his Submariner 5512 to his friend good friend Jimmy Brucker in 1980. The watch was auctioned in 2009 and sold for $234,000.
What About the Rolex “Steve McQueen” Watch?
Someone confusingly, there is another famous vintage Rolex watch that is nicknamed the “Steve McQueen,” which is not a Submariner at all but in fact, the Explorer II 1655. However, Steve McQueen never wore an Explorer II 1655!
So how did the Explorer II 1655 become known as the “Rolex Steve McQueen.” It was due to an unfortunate instance of misinformation. Apparently, an Italian magazine had reported that the actor wore one sometime in the mid-1970s and the erroneous information stuck. So even though it was later uncovered that McQueen never wore an Explorer II, the ref. 1655 will forever be known as the “Steve McQueen” in watch collecting circles.