One of the things I'm eagerly anticipating in 2021 is a series of planned group sessions at which I will show people how to take typewriters apart, perform rudimentary repair work (such as reattach drawbands), and put the machines back together again. Some Canberra folk have expressed an interest in learning how to fix their own typewriters. With these talks in mind, I spent last Sunday dismantling and cleaning three standard-size spare parts typewriters - a 'modern' Adler, an Olivetti Lexikon 80 and a Royal Empress. The last two mentioned were bought so I could complete rebuilds – I had been given a Lexikon 80 and an Empress, but such things as a few keytops and levers and switches were missing, and I was fortunate enough to find another Lexikon and another Empress, which enabled me to complete the work. For the coming sessions, the key elements of spare parts typewriters have been laid out so I can easily demonstrate the design and function of such things as carriages, escapement racks and escapement wheels, feed rollers, mainsprings and drawbands and, of course, the inner workings of typewriters. Sometimes playing around with these parts is like having a second childhood - I squeal with delight when I touch a "Magic Margin" switch and watch a piece of metal go flying across a broad rod. It's never-ending fun.
YouPic website and his great black-and-white images of a classic American car, a 1955 Buick (above). It struck me that the Royal Empress, in particular, is typical of the popular "big and bold is better" American design style which stretched into the mid-1960s. That may especially apply to autos, but the big, bulbous Royal shows it spread to typewriters as well. The Empress is 15 inches wide with the mask on, but inside the actual mechanical part is encased within 10½ inches, so to paraphrase Lonnie Donegan, “there's much [spare] room inside”. The Empress in its full glory weighs 35 pounds, but with the mask off a mere 18 pounds. Why? Well, when we think about those gas guzzling “great hunks of junk” (as we now think of them) that were the most stylish autos of the time, there was certainly an excess of spare space inside, both under the hood and in the boot.
I settled on 1965 because that was the year the Royal Empress (along with the Electress and the wide-bodied Safari-style portable) were being heavily advertised in LIFE magazine, and I knew LIFE ran an awful lot of double- and single-page colour ads for cars in any year. In any period, the images almost always appeared to accentuate the enormous size of the cars, especially the length of them. But for autos, 1965 seems to have been the boom year for “bigger and bolder is better” – just before the bust when the availability of oil and gasoline became an issue, and the need to generate 325 horsepower started to feel a little ridiculous. It was fun to look at hundreds of these cars and gasp at the sheer size of most of them: Buicks, Cadillacs, Chryslers, Chevrolets, Fords, Lincolns, Oldsmobiles and, oh, those HUGE Pontiacs.
I expected, in taking the Royal Empress apart, that I’d find gaping gabs either side of the mechanics, and I did. The guts of the typewriter didn't strike me as being that much bigger than what one finds inside a Remington SJ, and that has a way smaller frame. My spare parts Adler is an even heavier machine than the Empress, but its 21 pounds of innards are far more compactly packed inside an exceedingly boring mask. The Lexikon is much more stylish, and its mere 20 pounds of guts are again a reasonably tight fit within Marcello Nizzoli’s mask. The same cannot be said for most of the autos I looked at. As I recall, some of the cars were massive, like the Buick Riviera at 17½ feet long and 6½ feet wide and a curb weight of 4310 pounds - no squeeze of anything there! A VW Kombi offered 170 cubic feet of space, and some of the limousines must surely have gone close to the same. Still, I take my hat off to Bill Mitchell, who designed many of these big beauties, just as much as I admire George Kress and Yasuhlro Olruda for their Empress typewriter design.
In October 1965 LIFE ran a full-page colour advert for that year’s Chrysler Newport model, showing a sleek softtop stretch of metal which had a V8 motor generating 270 horsepower under its elongated yellow hood. The ad said, “There are many logical reasons for buying a Chrysler. But if you feel great all over when you look at one, who cares about logic. After all, did anyone ask whether Venus was a good cook? So if you buy a car strictly on looks … look.”
More than 55 years on, the same reasoning can still be applied to another kind of machine, the Royal Empress. It’s one of those typewriters that, when I first saw it in its full bulging beauty, took my breath away. Just as I might have said in 1965, if I saw a Chrysler Newport, “Now THAT’s a car!”, I can say in 2021, “Now THAT’s a typewriter!” It’s not that I necessarily think big is better, and I’m not trying to suggest the Empress is especially beautiful, or a particularly great typewriter. It’s just that "WOW!" factor you feel upon seeing so much sleek metal, if you get the gist. A bit like Crocodile Dundee saying, “That’s not a knife, THAT’s a knife.”