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Wednesday 25 May 2011

China v Italy: The Mystery of the Origin of Rover Typewriters

Conventional wisdom is - at least as far as I understand it - that Rover typewriters are made in China and that China and Taiwan remain the only two countries still producing manual portable typewriters (we all know about India by now!). This wisdom is largely based on diligent research during the past seven years by Will Davis for his Portable Typewriter Reference Site (Portables NOW -
So how come (marginally) superior versions of the Rover 5000 are being made in Italy? And that these Rover typewriters, including the Chinese-made Rover 5000, are identical to Olympia typewriters also being made in Italy? Please explain? as a xenophobic Australian politician once asked, when pressed to outline the separation of powers.
I bought the Italian-made Rover 5000 on Australian eBay for no other reason than that I was (super) curious. Indeed, until the moment it arrived and I hastely unwrapped it (it was posted in a plastic bag!), my overwhelming suspicision was that the seller had made a mistake and the machine, like all other Rovers I have ever seen, or seen listed or advertised, was made in China. Indeed, not so long ago another Australian eBay seller had listed a Rover as being made in Italy, and when I queried this, he checked, apologised and corrected the listing to "Made in China".
My first thought in seeing this Italian-made Rover 5000 was "Olympia". Sure enough, when I put it beside my green Olympia Splendid (made in Italy) it came up as a perfect match. Then I noticed an Olympiette Special (also made in Italy, also for Olympia International) was, except for the outer casing, another almost perfect match. Indeed, even the cases the Olympia and Rovers come in are identical.
A couple of minor differences are these: 1. On the Olympia Splendid, the mainspring is under the carriage and the drawband runs across in front of the carriage, whereas on the Rovers the mainspring is at the back and the drawband runs behind the carriage. The Olympia arrangement seems to be a slight improvement. 2. On the Chinese-made Rover 5000, the escapement rack appears, for some strange reason, to be in two parts, with the main rack rigid and a parallel bar moved by the carriage release button. Whatever the reason, it doesn't work, and may well be the cause of some if not much of the bad publicity these Chine models receive.
I also wanted to see where the Chinese-made Generation 3000 and Olivetti 25 MS Premier Plus fitted into all this. It turns out - and maybe I missed something on Will's pages, because I hadn't previously realised this - they are identical twins (except for the outer casings). But they are a quite different and markedly inferior design to the Rovers/Olympias.
For all that, the bottom line is that all these models are pretty poor imitations of real, vintage typewriters, albeit some to a lesser degree than others. They are simply not all that well designed and in some cases very poorly assembled and unprofessionally finished. And where do the Japanese fit into all this? I am still wondering. I am reliably informed Brother designs, tools, dies etc, as well as Nakajima manufacturing, have a place in the extended story. Bear in mind, too, that Will Davis draws a line between Rovers and an Italian typewriter company called IMC. Could it be ...?
But back to what we have here before us: Overall, the Italian-made models are marginally better than the Chinese machines, though they seem to over-compensate for an unstable touch with a  typing action that is a little too heavy and sluggish.
The Generation 3000-Olivetti design (above) is simply woeful - both of these models fully deserve every bit of bad press they get. The alignment, as you will see from the typecast below, is all over the place, and in the case of the Generation 3000, not even the letters are properly spaced. These machines simply do not work as a decent, real typewriter is supposed to.
The Rovers/Olympias are a significant step up from the Generation/Olivetti, though the Chinese Rover's carriage - while for the most part identical to the Italian machines - is designed to be ineffective and cause problems. This is what makes me wonder whether the Italian-made Rover/Splendid/Olympiette are in fact later, improved designs - that the odd escapement rack arrangement on the Chinese Rover has been fixed on them.
As well as my own comparison photographs, I include here some images of other similar models which have appeared in eBay and elsewhere. The first (above) is of a Rover 5000 which looks far more closely related to the Generation/Olivetti than my Rovers. Another (below) is of an Olympiette De Luxe with an outer casing identical to the Rovers.


Richard P said...

I didn't even know that manual typewriters were still being made in Italy. Very interesting. Is there some web site for the manufacturer?

Nick Bodemer said...

I owned an Olivetti MS25 Premier Plus for all of two days. I paid $8.00 for it at a thrift store. It was so cheap, that I could actually smell the plastic. I donated it back after the second day;I stupidly had removed the price tag, and threw out the receipt, so I couldn't return it.

bondoz said...

Hi Robert - I have had the good fortune of finding an Olympia Splendid in green which you talk about in this piece. I am hoping I can get Tom in Carlton to service it. I also live in Carlton so that seems an incredible coincidence. It seems to be in pretty good condition (I had an Olivetti back in the 70s as a teen so remember how it works.) Thanks for your terrific info here.