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Tuesday 16 April 2013

Imperial Portable Typewriters 1908-1978: Part IV and Last – The Sun Sets on British Imperials and Rises in Holland, France, Portugal, Japan and Germany

Imperial Safarimade in Portugal,
segment-shift, serial number SA9270201
Once Litton Industries took over the Imperial Typewriter Company in 1965, Imperial portable typewriters started to be made in an array of countries, starting with Holland, and in an array of shapes and sizes. None of the designs that were labelled Imperial, however, were in any shape or form British.
Imperial Sabre, made in Portugal,
segment-shift, serial number SB9012320
Imperial portables took the path of Underwoods six years earlier – except that in the case of Underwood, two models would appear with distinctly non-Olivetti designs. Imperial was afforded no such luxury. Instead, it found itself grouped in by Litton with ABC/Cole Steel and Royal and in 1969 with Adler/Triumph. Ten years later it was under Volkswagen control, and in 1986 under Olivetti ownership. In the course of these events, Imperial lost any surviving semblance of its own identity altogether. By 1978, one of the world’s great typewriter brand names was more or less gone forever.

A Union Jack symbolically draped over the
coffin of the Imperial Typewriter Company
in the sad streets of Hull, 1973
For most of the preceding 13 years, Imperials appeared as relabelled Royals, initially made in Holland and later Portugal, before both Imperials and Royals became all-in relabelled Silver-Seikos and Nakajima ALLs, made in Japan. Olivetti eventually acquired both brand names, but unlike Royal, Olivetti never marketed a typewriter called an Imperial. Robotron in East Germany, flagrantly ignoring international naming rights, stepped into this gap by producing an Imperial 34, which had absolutely no connection whatsoever with the original Imperial company.
Imperial 34, made in East Germany
Litton continued to produce the Imperial-designed Messenger portables until 1967 and kept Imperial’s factories in Leicester and Hull operating until 1973. Long before then, however, Litton had moved portable typewriter production to Holland and Portugal.
Imperial 1000made in Holland,
carriage-shift, serial number SL6501681
The first non-British Imperial portable came, in 1965, from the factory Royal had established at Leiden in Holland when taking over Halberg. This model, best known as the Royal Skylark, was called the Imperial 1000. It followed a similar path to the Imperial/Royal Safari (aka Sabre), and later morphed into the ABC/Cole Steel portable as the Imperial 2002, made at the Messa factory outside Lisbon in Portugal.
Imperial 2002, made in Portugal, carriage-shift
Imperial Safari, made in Portugal,
segment-shift, serial number SA8945718
Production of Imperials and Royals moved from Holland to Portugal in 1967, when Litton ended the run of the Imperial Messenger in England and the Royal Safari in the United States (along with the Cole Steel). At this point the German-designed ABC/Cole Steel and US-designed Safari became mass-produced, the Safari as both an identical Royal and an Imperial. (After first considering Turkey, Messa later moved production of the smaller ABC portables to Pakistan; meanwhile, the rights to the mechanics of the smaller Royal/Halberg portable were sold by Litton to Nippo in Japan.)
Imperial Concord, made in France, carriage-shift
While all this was going on, an absolute Imperial apparition appeared: the Imperial Concord. This is a Japy small portable typewriter made in Beaucourt in France in 1968. Japy had long since been making, under licence, typewriters that were part of the “Euro Portable Family” – a family which embraced Patria, Swissa (Switzerland), Oliver (Italy/England), Voss (Germany) and Amaya (Spain). In the 1950s it also established a close connection with another Swiss company, Paillard (Hermes) and in 1971 was taken over by Hermes (which in turn eventually became part of the Olivetti stable). The Imperial Concord is indeed thought to be a Hermes design.
Japy Gazelle (aka Beaucourt Message)
Quite how Litton fits into all this is unknown, but the Imperial Concord was also made as the Beaucourt Message and the Japy Gazelle. What we do know is that the Concord portable typewriter emerged at the time of the development of the British-French turbo-jet airliner which resulted from a 1962 treaty between the two countries: The spelling of the typewriter model reflects an official change forced by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in response to a perceived slight by French president Charles de Gaulle.
Wilf Beeching's Imperial portables from Century of the Typewriter

Imperial 300 (electric, made by Silver-Seiko)
This French Connection was a one-off for Imperial. In 1969, after industrial strife at its remaining Royal plants in the US, Litton dragged the Imperial and Royal typewriter brand names, no doubt kicking and screaming, off to Japan. For five years, until 1974, Imperial and Royal typewriters were rebranded Silver-Seikos (Silver-Reeds) and made in Kashiwazaki, Niigata (where portable typewriter production had started in 1966). Then Litton switched Japanese camps to Nakajima ALL in Sakaki, Nagano, where portable typewriters had started coming off the production lines in 1965 and reached a peak of 150,000 a month in 1975.
Imperial 200, 1969
Imperial Signet, 1970
(adopting a 1930s Royal model name)
Imperial 220 (Fleetwood)
carriage-shift, serial number MN1591770
From the Scott Kernaghan Collection
Imperial Gemini, with transistor radio in case
Imperial 201. Note the Nakajima blue is somewhat darker than the Silver-Seiko blue. In most cases, Japanese Imperials used some shade of blue to distinguish them from Royals, but not always. 
Imperial 202, carriage shifted,
serial number 50092049

Imperial Good Companion 203
Imperial 205, carriage-shifted,
serial number 3X106878
A sizeable portion, perhaps as much as one-third, of those 150,000 portable typewriters a month were labelled Imperials. Yet a hard-earned reputation, established in 1930, for making fine portable typewriters began to sink as the sun set on the British Empire and a rising sun appeared over the Japanese typewriter industry. Litton’s move to Japan in 1969 was not the beginning of the end for Royal, which was still to face a Chinese rebirth. But it was most definitely the start of the demise of Imperial.
Imperial is now long gone, but through the four posts in this series, we hope it is far from forgotten.
This German tin toy typewriter,
an Imperial A, does not count.


Jasper Lindell said...

I do like the Sabres/Safaris, but it really was a sad end to a fine typewriter company.

Bill M said...

Thanks for the interesting post. The first Imperial looks identical to a Custom-III I had. Change the front label to Custom-III and it's a match.

Rob Bowker said...

Great wrap to a really interesting series. Thanks. This last post reminds me why I'm not especially interested inthere later products of the conglomerates. There's not a lot to their designs that stirs the soul.

shordzi said...

Illuminating. One more brand for my "Patria-Japy" collection. Thanks!

cottageorgan said...

I'm looking at buying an Imperial Signet from Trade Me here in New Zealand. Do you know if it is still possible to get ribbons for this model? Thanks for the interesting articles. Anthony