Style is an incredibly nebulous word. It’s an all-encompassing term that contains within it the self-expression of 7.8 billion people. And so, it’s no mean feat to become a style icon, a person whose mode of being and way of dressing are so well expressed that countless others look to them for inspiration and guidance. Today we’re talking about one style icon in particular, the legendary Steve McQueen, and this being Oracle Time, we’re going to focus on his watch collection and the watches associated with him in film.
Born in 1930s America, McQueen’s life is the ultimate expression of the American Dream. A broken and abusive home life left him with a disrespect for authority and a tendency towards truancy and crime. However, school and a stint in the military straightened him out and in 1952 he began to study acting. The rest, as they say, is history.
Heuer Monaco 1133, Le Mans, 1971
The 1971 racing film Le Mans was initially a flop, which is a surprise considering the cult status the film has today. In the picture, McQueen can be seen wearing a Heuer Monaco 1133 in the dark blue of Gulf colours – Gulf being the team that McQueen’s character is racing for. It is the archetypical Monaco, with a square case made from stainless steel and a diameter of 40mm featuring a bi-compax chronograph display.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox, The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968
Originally launched in the 1950s, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox was JLC’s answer to watches like the Vulcain Cricket, which were revolutionising the field of alarm wristwatches. The beauty of vintage Memovoxes is their understated elegance, a classy timepiece with hidden mechanical depths.
A similar description would also be appropriate for Thomas Crown, Steve McQueen’s character in The Thomas Crown Affair, who is a refined businessman on the outside and scheming mastermind on the inside. It’s no surprise then that the Memovox was the watch of choice for Crown. However, in addition to the JLC Crown can also be spotted with a Cartier Cintrée and a Patek Philippe pocket watch.
1963, The Great Escape, Rolex Speedking
The link between the Rolex Speedking and The Great Escape goes beyond a simple style choice by the costume and prop departments, McQueen’s use of one in the 1963 film is based in historical fact. Allied prisoners of war often had their watches stolen by German guards and so Rolex began supplying watches to POWs through the Red Cross, one of those models being the Speedking. It’s actually recorded that one of the soldiers who escaped during the event that inspired the film wore a Speedking. Today, the Speedking is sadly forgotten about and rarely spoken of because of its tiny 30-34mm proportions.
1968, Bullitt, Benrus #3061
While McQueen gave his Bullitt stuntman his old Submariner, complete with a dedication on the back, in the film he was wearing a black-dialled Benrus. A solid, reliable, military-style watch, the Series #3061 is a civilian version of Benrus’ famous army pieces, perfect for a guy that gets stuff done.
It’s got a reliable Benrus-signed ETA 2372 and you can still find plenty on the vintage market – and for not much money at that. The same can’t be said of that aforementioned Rolex.
1974, Towering Inferno, Rolex Submariner
In 1974 disaster flick Towering Inferno, McQueen takes on the role of Michael O’Halloran, a firefighter tasked with tackling an out of control blaze in the world’s tallest skyscraper. The choice of a Rolex Submariner is somewhat ironic, a dive watch designed to withstand the dangers of water, not fire. However, it also serves to foreshadow the climax of the film when the fire service unleash a torrent of water from a water tower to finally quench the flames, but not until after a dozen or more people have succumbed to the fire. In fact, McQueen’s most famous daily wear wristwatch was a Submariner too, specifically the Ref. 5512 and 5513.
One of the earliest watches McQueen is seen regularly with is the Hanhart 417, worn before his love affair with the Rolex Submariner truly took off. The 417 is one of the most famous German military chronographs ever produced, designed around World War II for use by the air force. Its design features a characteristic black dial with white accents, making it super legible at a glance, ideal for a pilot or leading man.
Rolex Explorer II Ref. 1655
It’s of course impossible to talk about Steve McQueen and watches without bringing up the watch dubbed the Rolex Steve McQueen. The model itself is the Rolex Explorer II 1655, a steel adventure watch with a GMT function and bright orange hand. It was nicknamed the Steve McQueen after he appeared in an advert for the watch, even though he never had one himself.
It’s fitting that the watch named after him is a more niche than say a Rolex Daytona (such as that named after his on-screen rival Paul Newman) because he was typically cast in the role of the anti-hero – less conventional but more rugged, just like the Explorer.
REC TTT Great Escape
The REC TTT Great Escape is also a watch that McQueen never wore, for very different reasons to the Rolex Steve McQueen, because it’s a new release this year. However, his hands did touch parts of it, as it’s made from the original 1962 Triumph TR6 Trophy 650cc used in The Great Escape film.
At £1,695, this watch is the closest that many of us can get to owning a piece of genuine Steve McQueen memorabilia. Especially considering that watches he actually wore can sell for £1.6 million at auction.