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Thursday 11 February 2021

Big Bodies and Grunt Galore: 1965 Typewriters and Automobiles

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.

Later on Sunday evening I was looking at Oregon typospherian Bill Guthrie’s 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.”


Bill M said...

I don't remember those typewriters, but I do remember all of those great cars. We had a Plymouth Fury like the red one, and my Uncle had a '61 ford. Too bad they don't make good cars like those any longer.

Richard P said...

These cars really do look absurdly huge today, don't they?

My first car was a relatively compact '67 Buick Skylark.

Bill G said...

I knew the photo of that Buick looked familiar.

As a young person growing up in the 60's and 70's, I was very familiar with the larger cars as shown here. But when it came to American cars, I was much more drawn to the muscle cars that would come shortly afterward. Ultimately it was the much smaller British sports cars that sucked me in (my 1st car was a 1972 Triumph Spitfire).

But just as with the typewriters of the 50's, 60's and early 70's, I really enjoy looking at just about all of the cars from this era. In both cases, it is the design of these products that I find so appealing. It just so happens that one of my favorite photo books is by a photographer named Langdon Clay, titled "Cars: New York City 1974-1976". The photos in this book were taken in the middle of the night on the streets of NYC, featuring lots of classic American metal along with with a few other surprises mixed in.

Paolo Dal Chiele said...

The relation between typewriter and car design is an interesting provocation.
Considering the completely different function and role in the collective imagination there are few examples of direct influence. The only case that come to my mind is the Smith Corona GT Ghia designed by Tom Tjaarda. I had the opportunity to ask him about this experience the year before he passed away in Turin, and he confessed it was a "funny" experience.
There are also other examples where the relation is more subtle. The streamlined body of the 1939 Mercedes Superba for instance, which had very little justifications from the perspective of the typing functions, could be easily be put in relation with the extreme car design that was en vogue in Germany in the period: look at the Mercedes T-80 of the same year.
Again in Germany in the period between the war there is another interesting example, the Olympia Filia, which was ´the result of the "volks-product" policy promoted by the nazi, of which the Volkswagen was the most famous result. There is no direct design relation, but the design of both is very innovative and the result of the same underlying approach.
For the rest, car and typewriter have followed side by side by never crossing their way through the post war era. The words of Virgil Exner Sr. about the italian car design style in the early fifties, as opposed to american, german, french and english styles, apply directly and perfectly to the typewriters that in the same period Marcello Nizzoli were designing for Olivetti.
And then, how not to identify in the Olivetti 82 of 1959 the signs of stylistic evolution that in car design that is called edge design.