1976 Smith Corona Super-G Ghia
When Olivetti produced the Valentine, the world's first 'designer typewriter' in 1969, it caused a sensation. Sold through outlets such as boutiques, rather than typewriter dealers, it became an instant 'collector's item'. Nowadays, it is still highly regarded and highly priced. There is even one on permanent display in London's Victoria and Albert museum.
The American firm, Smith-Corona, decided that they too wanted a slice of the action and produced a 'designer typewriter' of their own - in production from 1972 to 1977. The 'works' of the machine came from the mass-market Smith-Corona Corsair, made in the UK because labour was cheaper than in America. Sad to say, for a 'British' product, the quality wasn't anything to write home about. Olivetti did much the same thing incidentally, since the 'works' of the Valentine came from the Olivetti Dora - at least the Dora was a perfectly civilised machine ! The Olivetti Valentine came in a bold red (although there are other colours which are very rare and make typewriter collectors go weak at the knees), so Smith-Corona had to think of something else. They settled on a pleasant turquoise blue.
The outer casing was designed for them by Ghia in Italy. Yes, that's right, the same design house that did work for the Ford Motor Co. There is certainly a car influence there, because the snap-over carry case has two offset black 'racing stripes'. The front of the typewriter has a pull-out handle which allows it to be carried around once the carry case has been fitted over the top. It really is a beautiful piece of design - just a shame about the mechanism inside !
1967 Hermes Ambassador
Probably the largest, and almost certainly the best, office typewriter ever made - the amazing Swiss Hermes Ambassador certainly takes some beating. Sometimes known as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of office manual typewriters, the Ambassador was first introduced in 1948, with production only finally fizzling out in the mid-1970’s. The engineering and attention to detail of this machine are second to none. Its bluff front and tank-like appearance belies the precision engineering within, whilst the wonderfully light keyboard ‘touch’ and host of convenient features makes it a real winner. It solves problems that most other typewriter manufacturers hadn’t even considered. For instance, there is a tiny brush head – like the end of a toothbrush – beneath the carriage which sweeps any eraser dust away each time the carriage is returned. The sloping front is there for a reason. It is designed as a rest for a shorthand notebook to enable the typist to read as she (or he) is working. An adjustable ‘paper injector’ lever on the right of the carriage allows a letterhead to be rolled automatically into the carriage bringing up the first line of the page, ready to begin typing. Margins are set, not by the conventional sliders at the top of the carriage, but by a system not unlike the patented Royal Magic Margin. To set a margin, simply place the carriage in the desired position, and press a small button next to the platen knob. The spring-loaded margin will then set itself. Later models even had visible margin indicators built into a hollow bail bar so that you could see exactly where the margins were located on the page you were typing. There was even a version with an electrified carriage return, doing away with having to return the carriage by hand at the end of each line.
‘Hermes’ was the Greek god of speed, and the machine was well-named. Not only fast, but so well engineered that a service life of thirty-plus years was perfectly usual with this model. As a young typewriter engineer, I remember visiting a local firm in the late ‘seventies that were still using a fleet of Ambassadors that were new in the early ‘fifties ! The ‘Rolls-Royce’ reputation was further enhanced by the fact that these machines were relatively uncommon in an office world dominated by German makes. This was mainly because they were much dearer than rival manufacturers, thanks largely to the exchange rate between the Swiss Franc and other currencies.
The story behind this particular machine is that I sourced and refurbished a similar Hermes Ambassador for a customer about two years ago. When it was finished, my wife decided to give it a trial run and immediately fell in love with it. She made me promise to find one for her to keep and use for herself, but she wanted Pica typeface (the customer’s machine was Elite). I didn’t think that it would be easy to find a Pica-equipped Ambassador, but said I would try. Earlier this year, we were looking around a local ‘antiques centre’ – in reality more like interesting junk – when I spotted a Hermes Ambassador sitting on a shelf in one of the ‘stalls’. I took it down and had a better look at it on the floor. It was obviously unloved, because the price, already quite reasonable, had been halved. Naturally, there was a catch. It had been damp-stored and there was a fair bit of rust inside. However, it was a Pica machine and a promise is a promise ! Bought and brought home, I stripped the machine down and spent a very long time getting rid of the rust, unseizing the margins and cleaning everything thoroughly. A new platen was fitted to replace the rock-hard original. The damp had also attacked the aluminium casing, lifting the enamel in places. My wife spent quite some time experimenting with mixing various colours until she made a nearly exact match for the Seafoam Green enamel. This was applied to cover the blemishes. On further examination, it appeared that this machine had been supplied new to the National Westminster Bank in 1967. A supply/installation date had been Dymo-taped inside the inspection cover at the back, and this tallied exactly with the serial number. As a ‘fleet sale’ to a large organisation, it had come direct from the manufacturer’s sales department. A NatWest property sticker was still on one side. To preserve the history, the stickers were left intact. My wife was so pleased with her ‘new’ typewriter that she made a superb storage cover for it (shown above). Not simply a dust cover, this is a special typewriter-sized zip-up bag to contain the whole machine and protect it from dust for long periods between uses. Unlike the other typewriters which pass through, it looks like this one is here to stay !
Pre-War Typewriter Eraser Tidy
Just for a change to the normal 'Typewriter of the Month', I thought that I would feature an 'Accessory of the Month' instead ! I'm sure that a lot of readers will remember the old-fashioned typewriter eraser shown on the left. A precursor to modern correction fluid, it was used to 'rub out' mistakes (with the carriage drawn over to the side so that the rubber dust fell onto the desk, not into the machine!) rather than cover them up. Usually kept in a handy desk drawer, I can imagine that they were sometimes misplaced.
Wherever there is a problem, someone somewhere comes up with a solution. And here it is ! A handy spring-loaded cord with an attachment that goes through the rivet hole in the middle of the eraser ! With the device held to the side of the machine with a chromium-plated thumbscrew, you can pick the eraser out of its 'pocket', use it, and when released it will return to its rest position in the same way as a tape measure retracts into its case ! Rather ingenious, don't you think ?
A customer brought me a selection of typewriters for estimates just recently, and attached to the side of a Canadian-built Remington Five was this device ! One never stops learning in this trade, and I must admit that I had never seen one of these before. Out came the camera, and with my customer's permission, I thought that I would share this with a wider audience !
1927 Underwood Five - Post-War Rebuild
The Underwood Five – made from the turn of the last century until 1933, and then (in modified form) as the Underwood Six for several more years – is one of the most common ‘vintage finds’. Hardly surprising, because in its time it had nearly 50% of the total typewriter market. In fact, Underwood’s salesmen were told that if a potential customer wasn’t sure if they should buy one, they should ask them to ring any local firm and enquire which make of typewriter they used in their offices. Knowing that they had such a large market share already, they had a better than even chance of the reply being ‘Underwood’ !
After the Second World War there was a dire shortage of office typewriters. Large quantities were destroyed in bombing raids on factories since the office block usually went up at the same time. With only one factory in England being allowed to continue making typewriters throughout the hostilities, and those being strictly rationed to essential users, good typewriters were in very short supply. As a result, any old nail that could be refurbished commanded high prices and a whole new industry sprang up in the 1940’s to satisfy the demand. To ‘modernise’ pre-war machines to a 1940’s appearance, they were usually resprayed in a ‘crackle black’ finish, and the nickel-plated parts were given a quick ‘flash over’ of chromium plating. Depending on the size and honesty of the reconditioner, the machine was either completely re-built with new parts, or more likely simply cleaned and adjusted with secondhand parts being substituted for the most worn items.
This machine is a good example of a post-war rebuild. It was actually made in 1927, so was probably already twenty years old when it received ‘the treatment’. Originally it would have had a high-gloss black enamel finish with delicate gold pinstriping on the front and sides. The carriage end covers would have been brightly-polished nickel plate. As you can see, all these areas have been covered with crackle-finish black, which also conveniently hides any chips and scratches ! Unusually, the shift keycards have been replaced with custom-printed ones with the reconditioner’s name on. They have also gone to the trouble of applying a special transfer to the back, with their name and from this we know that they were based in Cambridge. So possibly one of the larger, more reputable firms.
The customer who brought me this machine, had been given it. The previous owner thought that they would strip it down and clean it and had taken off and/or disturbed many of the mechanisms. There were parts and screws in plastic bags and the carriage had been removed. It was quite a challenge, especially as some parts had been lost altogether and others damaged. It was rather like the old Morecambe and Wise sketch in which Eric says that he IS playing the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order ! In this case a lot of the screws were present, but not necessarily in the right holes ! Once properly reassembled and adjusted, together with new rubber parts, it turned out to be a nice typewriter. Even though she was a 1920’s girl in 1940’s clothes !
1925 Underwood 3-Bank Portable
Spurred on by the obvious success of the Corona Three folding portable, Underwood brought out a similar but non-folding compact portable typewriter in 1919. Like the Corona, it had three rows of keys and a double shift - one for capital letters and a second one for numbers and symbols. As one of the first rivals on the market, and backed by the resources of the mighty Underwood company, it proved to be a winner and continued in production until 1929 when it was finally superceded by a similar but slightly larger Underwood portable with a conventional four-bank keyboard.
This machine was sent to me by a customer who wanted me to get it working so that she could use it. It looked to have been used as a display piece only for some time, since it was full of dust and fluff from standing open and out of its carry case. Typical of typewriters of ninety-plus years old, all the rubber parts had deteriorated, including the special feet which had begun to crumble away. Close-up examination revealed that the drawband must have broken at some time in the past and been replaced with three strands of nylon bead string, painted black and held together with superglue ! It looked like something an antique dealer might do to be able to move the machine on ! At some time in the long-distant past - probably pre-war - the machine had been 'glossed up' for resale by someone in the typewriter trade. As was usual in those days, the black enamel had been given a coat of wood varnish to 'refresh' it. Unfortunately this goes yellow in time, and removal also results in the removal of the original decals underneath !
The rubber parts were replaced, and a new drawband made and fitted. I did the best I could with the varnished enamel. The plastic spools that came with the machine were replaced with the period-correct open metal kind - essential to keep an eye on the ribbon since these models do not have an automatic reverse mechanism. Once completed, the machine was packed up and sent back to my customer. Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from her a couple of days later with the photo above. What a lovely way of saying 'Thank You' and letting me know that the machine arrived safely at its' destination ! (Click on the picture to see a larger image of the typed message !)
1937 Everest Model 44
I last featured an Everest typewriter in 2018, when I showed you a rare full-size office model ‘ST’. As I explained at the time, the Italian firm ‘Everest’ is probably better remembered for the medium-sized portable typewriters that they made. A style-conscious firm in the same way as Olivetti, outside appearance was just as important to them as engineering excellence. Founded around 1930, they were taken over by Olivetti in 1960. Olivetti closed the factory and discontinued production after two years, but did re-employ the entire workforce in a new factory nearby, making Olivetti products. Some people wonder if Olivetti did this in order to eliminate some of the competition !
Serial number information is a little sketchy for this manufacturer, but as far as I can tell, this Everest Model 44 dates from 1937. In rather poor condition when it arrived, with parts missing, I managed to bring it up to full working order. It was intended as a Christmas present and I hope the recipient was happy with it on the day ! Sadly, one of the things that wasn’t present was the tiny blue enamelled trademark badge on the front of the machine. A typical ‘Art Deco’ touch along with the perforated individual ribbon spool covers, it makes these machines rather special.