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Monday 24 February 2014

Questions on Typewriters

I get bombarded with questions about typewriters. Perhaps if I used my blog to answer a few of the more regular queries (as well as a few of the more unusual ones), it may stem the blitz a bit.
Please let me stress, these are only my opinions, I don't put them forward as gospel on anything. This is how I feel about these typewriters, based on my own experience (and my own rather pronounced personal preferences).
I think the most under-rated portable typewriter, among those readily available on the Australian market, is the later model Olympia SM9, the last metal model to come out of Wilhelmshaven (the one with the orange Olympia circle on the front). I believe these can still be obtained at a good price because not only are they fairly common, but the vast majority of Australian typewriter buyers are completely undiscerning and go for machines in bright colours – pink and purple, for example, followed by red, yellow and orange - rather than out-and-out typability. They probably consider the Olympia SM9 bland in its white and grey colours. But a better designed, better manufactured typewriter of this vintage would be extremely hard to find. It is light years ahead of, say, a Nakajima, or a plastic Olivetti, for the work it does.
Unlike most brands, the later the year of manufacture for the Wilhelmshaven Olympia SM9 the better. So look for a serial number at around 4700000-5500000. The SM9 underwent a number of outer design changes from the early 1960s to the early 70s, but the internal engineering just got better as production processes improved. Quality control does not seem to have been forsaken in pursuit of lower prices. Indeed, Olympia probably priced itself out of the market at that time (the early 70s), because it persisted in using high quality materials in all components. These made it a very stable, durable, reliable typewriter which produced high quality work. But in the marketplace, it couldn’t compete with mass-produced Japanese machines. The price of these benefitted from cheap labour and lighter materials, as well as automated production processes.
Among earlier vintage portable typewriters, a sound pick would be an early model, US-made Smith-Corona 5 Series machine. This line first appeared in 1950. Unlike the Olympia SM9, the Smith-Corona 5 Series did not improve as production continued through the 50s. Quite the opposite. Try to find a machine with a serial number close to 5S 150000-250000, if possible. With the Smith-Corona, production standards did drop off, as SCM tried to compete with Japanese-made machines, which SCM considered to have been “dumped” on the US market at below production costs. SCM portable production moved to Britain in the early 60s – avoid British-made SCM portables like the rabies. They are not in the same class as US-made SCMs.
I consider American collector-historian Will Davis to be the expert in this field – he has certainly had much more experience typing with a far wider range of portables than I have. On his “Best Typers” page, Will ranks the Smith-Corona 5 Series his No 1 pick. See.
As Will points out, the pre-war Smith-Corona Speedline series is also well worth considering, and is recommended. But the refinements made for the 5 Series make it a better line. The Speedline will also be, because of its age, significantly more expensive than a post-war 5 Series typewriter.
I would highly recommend two German lines, the Torpedo 18 and the Alpina, both of which are readily available with QWERTY keyboards. The Torpedo 18 may be found as a Blue Bird, and the Alpina as an Avona or AMC.
With the Torpedo 18, preference should be given to the post-war version. The pre-war Torpedo 18 is also an excellent typewriter, though not so easy to find with a QWERTY keyboard. The post-war improvements, with somewhat superior engineering and production standards, and a much better in-store finish, make this range of the Torpedo 18 almost impossible to beat. It’s a typewriter, properly looked after, that won’t let you down.
The Alpina is one of those brilliant post-war German typewriters that came from what I describe as “boutique” factories – the very opposite to Nakajima. The Alpina shows all the hallmarks of precision engineering and non-production line manufacturing.
Another good example of this is the larger Voss, but to own one of these in Australia would almost certainly mean importing it from Germany. The extra expense would be worth it, but one may need to grapple with a QWERTZ keyboard. Likewise, a late 1930s Groma N, or a Urania from the same period, both top typers.
The post-war East German Optimas and Erikas, and Rheinmetalls from either the pre- or post-war periods, are sturdy, reliable machines which produce good work.
Also recommended is the Hermes 2000, of any vintage, which is another highly under-rated typewriter. I even rate the 2000 above the 3000, and way above the small Baby (or its multitude of variations)
Most of the typewriters I have recommended above (with the possible exception of the Erikas and Rheinmetalls) are what are more aptly called “semi-portables”, as they are generally higher and heavier than genuine “Reiseschreibmaschinen”.
I would class any pre-war Royal as a true portable, and a really worthwhile buy, but Royal portables got much bigger in the 1950s. The immediate post-war Quiet DeLuxe is an outstanding typewriter.
Of the truly small typewriters, the best I have ever used is a post-war Erika 9, made in East Germany by what became known as Robotron. This very basic model is light and compact but produces really excellent work. It evolved from the pre-war Erika Model M “master class” portable, an outstanding machine which is far more elaborate but nonetheless a good investment.
Almost all German-made portables, of any vintage, have their virtues, some more than others. Post-war Adlers, such as the Gabrieles and Contessas, are generally reliable and good typers, as are Triumphs (in the late 50s merged with Adler). Some sound typewriters also came out of Czechoslovakia (Consul) and Bulgaria (Maritsa) and these are easy to obtain in Australia (as Pacifics). Of the Italian typewriters, any Olivetti from the pre-war MP2 and Studio 42 and up to and including the Lettera 22 and Studio 44, or an Olivetti-made Invicta, is good. It’s possible to strike it very lucky with an early 50s Everest (as it is, say, with the small German Adler Tessy). But avoid Antares, Montana or IMC.
In the main, I also avoid British-made portables, although some of the Imperial Good Companions made between the end of the war and up to (but excluding) the Messenger are good typewriters.
Underwood produced many excellent portables from the 1920s through to the mid-1950s, but if buying an Underwood, ensure it was made by Underwood in the US, not by Olivetti, post-1960. Generally speaking, to own a good US-made Underwood in Australia, especially from the post-war period, it is necessary to import it from the US, which can be expensive.
For a truly great vintage portable, it is very difficult to go past any Remington made between 1921-1941. The very small machines, from the Model 2 through to the Envoy, are, in my experience, superb typers. But, as a former journalist, I am biased. My first preference will always be toward the very basic, lightweight, compact machines, even ahead of the Olympia SM9, Torpedo 18, Alpina or Hermes 2000 (although the last-named is one I could image myself taking on travels). As for Remington, after 1941, pretty much forget it, especially if it is British or Dutch made.
If one must buy Japanese, buy Brother. And don’t buy a Chinese-made typewriter under any circumstances. Also, as a general rule, avoid anything with a Litton symbol on it, even if it was made in Portugal. 
I'm not sure whether this German correspondent was trying to take the mickey out of me or not, but here is the exchange:
Q: I'm interested in the typewriter attached to this email ... Do you know how I could come by a sample page written with this TW? Do you think it is any good for occasional letter writing and writing poetry? I'm aware that it is marketed as a toy. Nevertheless, I love it! I can't find this info on the Internet!!!
A:  This is a Barbie typewriter. My model types in upper and lower case letters, but most toy typewriters do not (caps only). It is fully plastic, including the carriage, keys and segment, so it is not meant for heavy, even occasional adult use. You’d be lucky to get a sample page written on one. For the reasons mentioned, you very rarely get good alignment or paper grip (see sample below). Replacement ribbons are obtainable but not readily so. Among "real" typewriters, a similar design can be found in the Olympia Traveller C in cream, more recently re-marketed as the Royal Scrittore II in black. Both are Chinese-made and not great typewriters, but still far better than the Barbie.
R: Thank you very much! I find the typewriting beautiful. It might suit me well for some short poems. Do I understand you right that you think it might break after writing one single page? That would be a shame. Please understand that I find this Barbie typewriter the most beautiful typewriter I have seen. The one suggested by you doesn’t come anywhere close. This of course only pertains to my special flavor. Any other suggestions for sparkly, colorful or cute typewriters? Do you happen to know the model name of this one:
What do yo reckon? Maybe I should now suggest something FUNKY and ATOMIC? In purple? A KMart Nakajima?
PS: Cash Busters in South Australia listed a Petite toy typewriter as a real typewriter on eBay last week. The seller ignored me when I pointed this out. The item didn't sell.
Richard Polt asked about the later typewriter seen in the images I posted of Hunter S.Thompson last week. I have found an image offering a closer look at the typewriter. Can anyone identify it?


Piotr Trumpiel said...

And you know you probably bumped up the prices of all the machines pictured? :) And knowing the crazy internet ways that includes Barbie's one too :D

And for the Hunter S. Thompson's typewriter - looks like IBM Wheelwriter 1000 to me :)

P.S. Sorry for the mess in comments.

Bill M said...

Good review of the portables Robert. I agree about staying away from Brittish and Dutch made machines. All of the ones I've come across have been poor types and of poor quality and got passed on very quickly.
In the ultraportables I find the early Skywirters very nice machines. The Hermes Baby and Montana are ok, but not as good of machines nor do they have as good of touch as the Skyriter.

Nick Bodemer said...

What's wrong with Litton portables? Having grown up with a late 1960s Royal Safari, I am just curious.
I think that they have a strange feel, but am not sure why.
Thank you for your time

Ted said...

nice list, although I'd mention one major weakness of the Smith Corona Super-5's is the linkages that connect the typebars to the keys. They can pop loose quite easily and often do if the machine is used heavily.

Richard P said...

An excellent, useful post. I agree with most of your judgments. I will add that I think the segment shifted Remingtons of the '50s, especially the Quiet-Riter, are good typewriters.

rn said...

Spot on with your list, Robert! You've got most of my faves there (and how great that you've given some love to the 70s SM9, the machine that got me through college).

Still, I would say that you've missed one engaging machine that's a crossover between the subcompacts and the portables: the late 30s Patria. Mine is a sweet and silky writing device. Truly the best compact machine I've ever used.

To be fair, though, early Patrias are not all that common--and I don't think the 50s clones, like the AMC I recently picked up, are at all as good.

Also: if I were not typing Engish, I'd add one extra hat tip to 20s and 30s Remingtons: the cantilevered accent keys are a brilliant innovation. No backspacing for accents required!

Don Lampert said...

Sorry if we sometimes ask too much, but you've become one of our "gurus", and you know so much!
Maybe it would help if we sent in reviews of our own favorites, and they got compiled into a larger work for all to see and refer to. Not that you should do it. I'd work on that with a few others of us, if anyone is interested?
Maybe the writers amongst us could start something - Mark P, or anybody, how about it??!! I'll volunteer first - a group effort.
Thanks Robert!!

John said...

That is a IBM Wheelwriter that the gonzo author is using, probably typing "Fear and loathing on the campaign trail"....

shordzi said...

This Barbie typewriter, part of the Alfred R. Wepf collection, was made in Slovenia by Mehano. While the mechanical version types like ****, the electric version is fully functional and even has a beautiful typeface.
and .

DanaW said...

Sorry, Robert, not relevant to the post, but I have no other way of making contact. Did you see this story from Texas?

"Larry McMurtry's typewriters sell at auction for $37,500"

Best wishes,
Dana Wiser
Walden NY