Assembled class I histocompatibility molecules, consisting of heavy chain, beta2-microglobulin, and peptide ligand, are transported rapidly to the cell surface. In contrast, the intracellular transport of free heavy chains or peptide-deficient heavy chain-beta2-microglobulin heterodimers is impaired. A 90-kilodalton membrane-bound chaperone of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), termed calnexin, associates quantitatively with newly synthesized class I heavy chains, but the functions of calnexin in this interaction are unknown. Class I subunits were expressed alone or in combination with calnexin in Drosophila melanogaster cells. Calnexin retarded the intracellular transport of both peptide-deficient heavy chain-beta2-microglobulin heterodimers and free heavy chains. Calnexin also impeded the rapid intracellular degradation of free heavy chains. The ability of calnexin to protect and retain class I assembly intermediates is likely to contribute to the efficient intracellular formation of class I-peptide complexes.