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Rolex Thunderbird Turn-O-Graph ref. 116264
Rolex Thunderbird Datejust Turn-o-Graph 116264

While Rolex certainly has an arsenal of very popular watches like the Submariner, GMT-Master, Datejust, and Daytona, they also have some watches that aren’t as famous and fly somewhat under the radar. For example, the Rolex Thunderbird. Officially known as the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph, this particular watch is an important model in Rolex’s history. Let’s find out why.

The Rolex Turn–O-Graph

In 1953, Rolex unveiled the Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202 model. Unbeknownst to some, the inaugural Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202 was actually the first serially-produced Rolex wristwatch to feature a rotating bezel. (The very first Rolex with a bezel was the Zerographe prototype from the 1930s). The Turn-O-Graph watch was positioned as a device that offered an easier way to measure and record time.

The inaugural Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202
The inaugural Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202

A vintage ad for the Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202 explains, “…now the simplest of all ways of timing has been invented. It is built into a wrist-watch called the Rolex Turn-O-Graph. This new principle consists of an extra rim or bezel around the watch face. This rim is marked from zero to sixty and is easily turned by hand. To time an operation, all you have to do is align the zero mark on the rim with the second, minute, or hour hand of the watch. Thereafter, at any moment, you have an immediate record of the time elapsed.”

What is important to note here is that the Turn-O-Graph came before the Explorer, Submariner, and GMT-Master; therefore the Turn-O-Graph has the distinction of being Rolex’s very first tool watch. It was purpose-built as a tool to measure elapsed time. 

The first Turn-O-Graph shared many design traits with the Submariner–which would follow a few months later–such as the black rotating bezel, black time-only dial with round/rectangular/triangular indexes, and stainless steel case and bracelet.

The Turn-O-Graph Joins the Datejust Family

The year after the first Turn-O-Graph made its debut, Rolex changed the watch design and made it a part of the Datejust collection. While the second-generation Turn-O-Graph, which was ref. 6309, retained the rotating timing bezel, instead of a black aluminum insert, it was now a full metal bezel with an engine-turning finish. Naturally, in order for the Turn-O-Graph to join the Datejust family, the watch transformed from a time-only model to a watch with a date window at 3 o’clock and accompanying Cyclops magnification lens on the crystal. What’s more, the “Turn-O-Graph” moniker was dropped from the dial in favor of “Datejust.”

Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 16264
Rolex Thunderbird Turn-O-Graph ref. 16264

The third generation of the Turn-O-Graph came in the form of the Datejust ref. 1625 in 1959. Like the standard Datejust watches of the time, the Datejust Turn-O-Graph models sported 36mm cases and came in an assortment of metal configurations including steel, two-tone steel and gold, and full gold.

When the Turn-O-Graph Became the Rolex Thunderbird

Also in 1953, the United States Air Force established the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Thunderbirds. Based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, the Thunderbirds Squadron takes its name from the mythological creature prominent in indigenous North American cultures.

Vintage Ad for Rolex Thunderbird

As the story goes, a Thunderbirds pilot owned a Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph watch, which caught the attention of the squadron thanks to the practical timing bezel. As a result, the squadron put in an official request to Rolex in the late 1950s to supply the Thunderbirds with watches. So Rolex capitalized on this relationship on began marketing the Turn-O-Graph as the Rolex Thunderbird in the American market. There was even a special-edition full 18k gold version with the Thunderbird insignia on the dial, as seen in this vintage Rolex ad. From this point forward, the Datejust Turn-O-Graph picked up the Rolex Thunderbird nickname.

The Evolution of the Datejust Turn-O-Graph Thunderbird

Following the successful run of the Datejust ref. 1625, Rolex updated the model and presented the Turn-O-Graph 1625x references in 1977. The watches still had the 36mm cases with the rotating bezels, but inside the watches was the then-new Caliber 3035, which evolved the watches into quickset date models. In terms of variety, there’s the two-tone Datejust Turn-O-Graph ref. 16253, the yellow gold Datejust Turn-O-Graph ref. 16258, and the steel Datejust Turn-O-Graph ref. 16250.

Rolex Thunderbird Turn-O-Graph ref. 16253
Rolex Thunderbird Turn-O-Graph ref. 16253

In 1988, with the advent of Rolex’s new-generation Caliber 3135, came the release of a new batch of Datejust Turn-O-Graph 1626xx references. This time, the 36mm cases were furnished with sapphire crystals rather than acrylic ones. Different metal options of this particular generation of the Thunderbird include the two-tone Datejust ref. 16263, the steel Datejust ref. 16264 with a white gold bezel, and the yellow gold Datejust ref. 16268.

Rolex Turn-O-Graph
Rolex Thunderbird Turn-O-Graph ref. 16263, ref. 16253, and ref. 16264

Furthermore, because Rolex made the Datejust Turn-O-Graph 1626xx references until the mid-2000s, luminous materials can vary from tritium to Luminova and early models have lug holes while later ones don’t.

The Last Rolex Thunderbird Generation

In the 2000s, Rolex unveiled the newest Datejust Turn-O-Graph “Thunderbird” models, which boasted plenty of modifications. For instance, on top of the familiar 36mm cases now sat fluted rotating bezels rather than engine-turned ones.

Moreover, the “Turn-O-Graph” label returned to the dial to remind wearers that this is a special edition of the Datejust. Also on the dial was a red seconds hand and red numerals in the date window, which adds a great sporty touch to the otherwise dressy Rolex watch.

Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 116264
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 116264

Unlike previous generations, Rolex only offered the six-digit Datejust Turn-O-Graph references in two different metal options. There’s the two-tone Datejust ref. 116263 with a stainless steel case topped with a yellow gold fluted bezel and yellow gold center links on the bracelet. Plus, there’s also the stainless steel Datejust ref. 116264 with a white gold fluted bezel.

Rolex eventually stopped making the Thunderbird in 2011. While a sad end to an important Rolex model, the Turn-O-Graph “Thunderbird” is thankfully still available the secondary luxury watch market. Better yet, because it is still an unrated Rolex watch, the Turn-O-Graph watches can generally be purchased at lower prices than other comparable Rolex watches.

Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 116264
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref. 116264

Although not as famous as other watches from the Swiss watchmaking giant, for those in the know, the Rolex Thunderbird holds a special place in the history of both the brand and the luxury watch space at large.

Written by

Celine Simon

Celine is a freelance luxury watch writer who has enjoyed working in the horology industry for over ten years. Like many of the high-end timepieces she writes about, she comes from Switzerland—the heart of fine watchmaking. From Singapore to Montreal to Geneva to Dubai, Celine has lived all over the world but now calls Southern California home.