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Friday, 15 June 2012

Made in England (and the US): SCM Portable Typewriters of the 1960s

The 1960-62 Smith-Corona
Galaxie and Corsair designs
of David O.Chase
and Philip H.Stevens
The “Corsair SeriesSmith-Corona-Marchant plastic portable typewriters made at Kenrick Way, West Bromwich, in England from 1964-80 were designed by a team comprising esteemed New York industrial designers David Oscar Chase and Philip H. Stevens and Groton-raised design engineer Robert S. Metzner.
It was some team effort – and what a team! Essentially, this was the last “new look” for small, lightweight Corona portables. And if the design was intended to last, it did: the best part of 20 years. In that regard, I suppose, it deserves to rank up there with the first Corona “look”, the Corona 3, which stayed pretty much the same from 1912-1941.
There is a major difference, of course. The “Corsair” series of plastic machines was designed to be made as cheaply as possible, in a last-ditched effort by SCM to hold its market share. When the Corsair first appeared, in 1964, the just-launched Olivetti Lettera 32 was proving to be enormously popular, the market was starting to be flooded by Japanese portables, and Remington and Royal were mounting rearguard actions from Holland. Remember, Royal still did almost $114 million in typewriter business the year before Litton took it over.
In addition, well-made machines were emerging from behind the Iron Curtain into many Western countries, notably from Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. The portable typewriter market had never been so competitive – and price, not quality, was to be the deciding factor.
With the West Bromwich plant under persistent pressure from chain stores such as Woolworths to get the Corsair’s production cost down as low as possible, SCM did well to stay abreast with the like of Brother and especially Nakajima, which had the advantage of cheaper materials and much cheaper labour. Like Brother and Nakajima, SCM had one basic design and stuck with it through thick and thin.
English-made Corsair series SCMs are, therefore, still very common today. Despite the cheap plastic look and loose typing feel of the basic Corsair model, these typewriters, like the Japanese machines, have proved to be surprisingly durable.
On the SCMs, problems with such things as the ribbon vibrator have, however, often occurred with age. For today’s typewriter collectors, the smaller-sized ribbon spools might also be a drawback.
Pride-Line
Still, today I noted two for sale on Etsy, one for $400 and the other for $300. In 1978, these sold for $75, and even at that super-low price, Australian consumer magazine Choice still rated their quality as “poor”.
How to date these models? Well, to start with, their serial numbers invariably begin with “6Y”. Earlier “5YWest Bromwich-made metal models (the Empire Corona De Luxe), which Wilf Beeching dates from  1961, continued until at least 1967, so there is an overlap. The basic Corsair will just have “6Y” before a six-digit number. A “Z” after the number will usually represent Zephyr. The Corsair DeLuxe and the Zephyr, which are essentially identical and significantly better versions of the Corsair, will have a “C” after the “6Y”. Other variations include the Cougar and the Skyriter. There are many more.
Cougar
Skyriter
By the way, this “Y” coding started with the 1938 Zephyr DeLuxe (designated “1Y”; the basic model was “1Z”). Then came “2Y” with the 1949 Skyriter (“2 Series”), which is a post-war upgrade of the original Zephyr. It became “3Y” (the “3 Series”) in 1956. The much larger Joe Barkdoll-designed portables which were introduced in 1949 alongside the Skyriter are the “5 Series”. In that series, “A” after the numeral stood for the Sterling, “C” for the Clipper”, “S” for Silent and “T” for the Silent-Super and “TE” for the Silent-Super Electric. This sequence continued for American-made Coronas. The serial numbers for the Chase-Stevens designed, US-made "Galaxie Series" start with the figure 6.
H.G.Palmer, Richard Amery Collection
Bear in mind that English-made SCMs have a slightly different serial number sequence. The West Bromwich factory, which had started out making Salter typewriters in the late 19th century, was taken over by British Typewriters in the mid-1930s. This company produced Empire portables under licence from Paillard (Hermes) in Switzerland.
Initially, when SCM took over the West Bromwich plant in 1960, it produced a metal variation of the Skyriter called an Empire Corona (“4Y”), which succeeded the Empire Aristocrat (a Hermes Baby lookalike). After this came the "5Y" series, also sold in Australia as a H.G.Palmer.
SCM Empire
Then in 1964, the Empire line numbering sequence continued with the Chase-Stevens-Metzner designed Corsair series SCMs. Generally, “B” and “C” after the “Y” represent machines made in West Bromwich.
Take, for example, this Courier made by SCM in England for Golden Shield in the US: it’s an adaption of the Barkdoll5 Series” yet its coding is “C4Y”.
On the other hand, this Sears Citation was made in the US by SCM and has the prefix “S [for Sears] 6V”.
But getting back to the 1960-63 designs for the Corsair
The Sears Tudor version of the Corsair series
Industrial designers Chase and Stevens worked together from 1957-70 at Stevens-Chase Design Associates at Camillus and Skaneateles, New York. Metzner was a Groton-raised design engineer. Between them they designed at least six typewriters for SCM, with Metzner’s work continuing right through the 1970s and up to 1983.
David Oscar Chase was born in Syracuse, New York, on January 13, 1930. He received a bachelor's degree in industrial design from Syracuse University in 1954. Three years later he and Stevens established their industrial design partnership.
In 1970 Chase became chairman of Chase Design, which was in the mid-1990s named one of the top 10 industrial design firms in the US by the Association of Professional Design. Some of Chase’s designs were exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution.
Chase is perhaps more famous for his polo playing than his typewriter designing. He started playing polo in 1966 and travelled the world to compete. Chase played on polo fields in Hong Kong. Mexico City and Dusseldorf. He played in more than 30 national USPA tournaments.
Chase was the captain of the US team which competed in an exhibition event at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. He continued as top senior polo player into the 1990s, winning the US polo national seniors tournament five years in a row.
Chase died on March 7, 1995, aged 65, at Lake Worth, Palm Beach, Florida.
Philip H. Stevens was born on January 18, 1924, in Groton, New York. Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts has an award named in his honour. In 1970 the industrial designer became president of Philip Stevens Associates in Skaneateles.
Stevens graduated from VPA with honours with a bachelor of fine arts degree in industrial design in 1951, after serving in World War II with the 10th Mountain Division. He enlisted in the Army on April 13, 1943, aged 19, and during the Italian Campaign was wounded on Riva Ridge on February 20, 1945. This wound left him with only partial use of his left arm. After being discharged in April 1946, he became an aircraft design engineer on the B-36 high-altitude strategic bomber with Convair at  Fort Worth, Texas. Stevens returned to Syracuse in 1955 to start his own design firm and two years later formed a partnership with Chase.
For his service to the Industrial Designers Society of America and his excellence in industrial design, Stevens was made a fellow of the society in 1975. He has also served as vice-president of IDSA. He received two Master Design Awards, and his firm’s work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Roberson Museum in Binghamton, New York, and the Hanover Fair in Germany.
Stevens retired in 1997 and wrote Industrial Design: A Practicing Professional (2002), a guide for professional designers and text for industrial design students.
Robert S. Metzner was born in Illinois in 1925 and moved to Groton with his family at a very young age.
In 1960 Chase and Stevens designed the well-known and much-liked SCM Galaxie, also known as the Sterling, Super-Sterling and the Deville, among other model names. This design marks the beginning of the US-made Smith-CoronaSeries 6” typewriter, both manual and electric:
Alan Seaver Collection
This design was taken by Karl Tillman Baughman in 1965 and adapted for Sears for its equally popular Citation, made by SCM in the US.

Baughman was full of "new" ideas and this model came with a spare key device and an unusual cartridge ribbon:
Baughman (below) was born in Rockford, Illinois, on August 21, 1930. He passed away at Lake Forest, Illinois, on November 10, 2009.
In 1970, the Metzner-designed mechanics of the Corsair series SCMs were used in the English-made Ghia-designed Super G. The case and machine mask for this were the work of Tom Tjaarda and Alejandro de Tomaso, much more famous as car designers.
Finally, in 1978, John E. Jolliffe, of Manlius, New York, designed for SCM the SCM Smith-Corona Courier and Courier C/T. My understanding is that these were made in the US:

15 comments:

Bill M said...

Now I know more about the SCM Serial numbering. Too bad more of it is not on line. I have several newer SCM portables of unknown age. I like the changeable type too. It was not as varied and easily used as the IBM Selectric elements, but it worked.

Thanks for the great post.

Rob Bowker said...

Those Ghia styled machines (with the "Go Faster" stripes on the case) always seem to me to be an aesthetic response to Olivetti's Valentine. Thanks for a thorough run-through of SCMs!

notagain said...

I've had a number of those plastic corsair variants pass through the collection. That's the stunt typewriter that straps onto my bike. I see you mentioned the "Pride Line" and I still wonder what they meant by that. Great post - very informative.

Duffy Moon said...

Enlightening and exhaustive post, as usual. Makes me want to have a little more respect for my poor, under-appreciated SCM's.
And so funny that I just obtained one of those Sears machines, the twin of the one you have here. Agreed that it's superior in nearly every way to the Corsairs and Cougars.
Well done, and keep up the great work.

Richard P said...

Wow, I don't think I've ever seen a Courier C/T before. I see it was made to be used with that nasty correcting ribbon. Nice shape, though.

Robert Messenger said...

Thank you Bill, Rob, Peter, Duffy Moon and Richard.
@Rob: In an earlier post on the Super G design, I covered the issue of the response to the Valentine.

Anonymous said...

re: smaller ribbons/spools.
anyone know where I may be able to source replacement ribbon and/or spool?

The Hack's Job said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Hack's Job said...


I just picked up a SCM Pride Line today and have been trying to find more information on it. It has no other wording other than "SCM Pride Line", "Smith-Corona", and "Made in England", so I don't know which model it is. Also odd is the two-segment space bar that has "Error Coontrol" written on the right end of the main space bar, and "Power Control" on the smaller left-side bar.

Something else. Where on earth did they hide the serial number on these machines. After struggling to slip it out its plastic shroud, I can't find a number anywhere, which is a first for me.

katehay said...

Hi there,
I know that you are based in Canberra but I was wondering if you knew of anywhere in Melbourne that are reputable and service these typewriters. I found a Smith-Corona Corsair in my Grandfather's garage and it is still in good nick, just needs a new ribbon and a bit of a clean!

MJF said...

MJ said... Thankyou for a very informative site. I found my exact scm, I wasnt sure if i had figured out the Ghia on the striped cover but wow then on yur sight there it was. Including info about the designer. I only wish i knew how many of these were made?

Robert Messenger said...

MJ, there is a separate post on the Ghia design.

Paul Musgrave said...

There are some 5Y Corsairs out there, perhaps from the first production run in 1964. I picked one up the other day...it's essentially identical to my Skyriter mechanically, except for the fact that it is in an aqua plastic case. It seems the first models must have had the numbered touch selector under the lift-off top, no metal trim at the top of the keyboard, and came with white tab, backspace, and margin release keys (with red lettering). The subsequent design moved the touch selector to the left hand side (LMH setup instead of numbered), and the white keys became red with white lettering. Still later designs would have started to use the metal trim at the top, additional functions/features, etc.

Typewrunner said...

Thanks for the article and the tip off about 6Y serial numbers. I just got myself a Smith Corona Zephyr Deluxe. Its serial number starts 6Y and it is looks early 60s but it is not on any database that I can find. Nor can I find any pictures of it and you don't mention it above. I am loving using it and think the silver Zephyr trim on the front looks great.

madbeemer said...

Hello, Typewrunner. I dug up one that fits the description of yours to a T. Plastic, yes, but runs like a top. Selling it tomorrow to an eight-year-old lad who played with my Corona 3 folder at a type-out at Catskill NY Drive-in this summer. I'm typing up a lifetime warrantee, including going the hour's drive to his house. Free ribbons and cleaning when needed.
Eight years old! Don't you love it? If he loses interest, I will buy it back. 1961, apparently, with sn 6YZ284350. If he outgrows it, I have 90 more typers.
Take care... Erik in Chatham, NY