For most people, Thunderbird usually refers to the Ford Thunderbird introduced in 1955. However, there is a watch that gained recognition as Rolex Thunderbird in the same period as the Ford Thunderbird. If you ever come across one, you will notice that it has arrowhead markers and a bird logo on the dial. On the back of the case, the words “U.S Air Force Thunderbirds” are etched. Unfortunately, Rolex stopped producing them in 2011, but there is a lot to their history, as you shall learn from the details below.
Origin of the “Thunderbird” Name
According to Legends of America, the Thunderbird was a supernatural bird that symbolized power and strength. People called it “Thunderbird” because when it flapped its wings, the sound was so powerful like thunder, and from its eyes, it shot lightning. Although it was believed to protect people from evil spirits, it brought bad, and good rains. Bad rains caused destruction, while good rains were enough for plenty of harvests. The majestic birds lived in the mountains, and legend has it that the bird was so large that it could carry a whale in its claws while flying.
With such a reputation, it made sense that when the United States Air Force wanted to prove that it was still powerful, only the thunderbird name was good enough to portray it in such a light. For a long time, the air force had aerobatic teams, with the first one being in 1927; it was called the Three Musketeers. After years of forming new ones and disbanding them, it founded Thunderbirds in May 1953. The Thunderbirds' official name is The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron. It comprises six pilots, half of whom are replaced each year, meaning the entire team flies with the Thunderbirds for only two years. They practice 50 weeks a year. The squadron began performing after the Korean War to restore faith in the Americans that the jets were reliable, safe, and easy to maneuver. According to First Flight Aviation, they settled for the Thunderbird nickname because of how the two compare. Just like the bird shot lightning, so did the jets with their artillery capabilities. Also, the noise of the jet engines while they fly is similar to what the Thunderbird produces. Most of all, they both represent power and strength.
Birth of Rolex Thunderbird
You might be wondering how a watch and fighter jet came together, and Gray and Sons explains the marriage between the two. According to the article, one Thunderbird pilot had a Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph timepiece. Rolex had unveiled the ref .6202 model, and it became the first Rolex wristwatch to have a rotating bezel. It is important to note the first-ever Rolex watch to have a rotating bezel was the Zerographe prototype made in the 1930s. Since the Turn-O-Graph was designed to be more accurate and measure time thanks to the rotating bezel, it captivated the squadron. Rolex boasted that at any time, one could tell the exact time that had lapsed by timing through aligning the zero mark on the extra rim with the hour, minute, or second hand.
The Thunderbirds, therefore, wanted the entire squadron to have the watch and placed a special order with Rolex to supply them with such watches. Rolex is not one to waste such a golden opportunity and immediately embarked on the task of aligning itself with the Thunderbirds. Consequently, the watchmaker nicknamed the Turn-O-Graph ref. 6609 the “Thunderbird,” and placed the emblem on the watch’s dial. Even in one of the vintage ads, you can read how Rolex marketed the watch as one developed for and worn by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. It was a pricey wristwatch; while other Datejust models went for $210, the Thunderbird with an 18-carat gold bracelet sold for $1,000. A Rolex thunderbird with a strap had a price tag of $550. Although both the Thunderbirds and the Turn-O-Graph were launched in 1953, it was not until 1959 that Rolex started making the Rolex thunderbird. By then, the watch had undergone a few changes since it made its debut. For instance, the second generation had a full metal bezel, unlike the first generation which had a black aluminum insert. Since it joined the Datejust family, the Turn-O-Graph also had to include a date window upon becoming a Thunderbird. The watch was marketed as a Rolex Thunderbird and according to Rolex Magazine, the first advert was in 1960.
The Significance of a Rolex Thunderbird
Owning a Rolex, especially a vintage watch, can come in handy for you. You can imagine how much it is worth now if in the 1950s it had a price tag of $1,000. According to Hodinkee, any Rolex Thunderbird is a vintage worth having in your collection. The article cites the example of Captain Herman Griffin’s Rolex, which sold at Heritage Auctions. Besides people being interested in the watch because it belonged to a Thunderbirds pilot, it was also quite a catch because of Griffin’s background. Griffin grew up in an orphanage and was always caught sneaking out and landing in trouble because he was involved in fights. The adventurous spirit could have motivated his interest in lying. Even as a pilot, he tested the limits by engaging in maneuvers during practice sessions. Griffin, at one time, flew under a bridge to prove to himself it was possible, but such moves could not be done during the routine Thunderbird shows. Such stories filled the childhood of Griffin’s grandson Tom who held on to the watch, wearing it only once during his wedding day before giving it up for the auction. While the watch was made over seventy years ago, such memories still make it worthwhile for generations to come. To pilots such as Griffin, it may have been only a watch but to the rest of us, the timepieces tell the story of strength and endurance.
Written by Lily Wordsmith
Read more posts by Lily Wordsmith