As a kid, I remember straining my neck when I first saw a Jaguar 420 on the road. In British Racing Green, it was absolutely stunning and while the Super Trump generation fantasized about 308s and Lambos, my daydreams were of leaping cats.
That dream soon faded. A neighbor had four old Jags in his garage and while all of them looked elegant, I can’t recall seeing them running about. It turns out that none of them could go further than the neighborhood store without overheating or bogging down in some way. The owner spent a fortune trying to get them roadworthy, but he quickly reached the depths of the money pit. And still, the cars couldn’t serve as daily drivers.
Vintage pens are a lot like old Jags. They look iconic. They fuel emotion and desire. But their eccentricities can quickly erode the intoxication of the initial attraction.
Take the Parker Vacs for instance. They are unmatched for their lovely celluloid shimmer, and not even Visconti’s Wall Street can compete with their allure. The usual deal breaker is that they are typically arid writers. Sometimes, you’ll find a gusher but this bestows a bigger headache. Taming it’s flow is harder than trying to coax a stingy feed to give up more ink. Sending it out to a nibmeister might set things right, but I’ve seen a few that remained incontinent even after a visit to a pen spa.
Skylines are reasonably priced and their streamlined silhouette evokes images of silvered jets cutting through the sound barrier. Their semi-flex nibs are a dream to use but their plastic caps and barrels shrink over time, leaving derbies and cap bands to rattle incessantly. You can try building up the gaps, but the years can only be unkind to the resin.
Safety pens hold a ton of ink and come in designs that shame a jeweler’s best offerings. Ornate overlays in vermeil, gold fill and sterling recall the pomp of the Roaring 20s and the nibs on these things are unmatched for flex. However, the cork seals in these pens can wither at the wrong time and leaks seem to be the norm. As a friend put it, safety pens are a test of faith.
Conway Stewart’s sublime lever fillers strike a fetching pose. Patterns like hatched and tiger eye celluloid give the Vacumatics a stiff run for the money. However, their plating is thinner than a julienned onion and if you bust the lever box, parts interchangeability is not assured.
Fancy hard rubber in black chased or perhaps the desirable cardinal orange hue? Be aware that browned ebonite is almost impossible to revive and the vivid orange material stains at the mere suggestion of the word. Even the gentlest microfiber cloth can abrade the maker’s mark and soaking the parts in water isn’t something you want to do very often.
The trick Snorkel fillers that were the bane of schoolmarms never cease to impress. Their Waverly nibs are some of the smoothest tips you can ever try and their colors match the tones that adorned Bel Airs and Mercurys of the era. But if you need to resuscitate a damaged Snork, few members of the local pen posse have the knowledge and parts to get it done.
And with each and every vintage pen, nibs are usually hand-cut. This means that tipping can be irregular or asymmetrical. Tine gaps can be skewed or angled, making nib tuning a delicate proposition. If you are unwilling to adapt to the predilections of these quirky points, you will rue the day that you snagged an elderly writer.
Do I hate vintage? Hardly. I have four of them. Admittedly, three are in the hands of repair specialists for various ailments. They can annoy the hell out of me sometimes but each one provides a special, if not eccentric experience that is endearing. Like the Jag that can only sprint a few blocks before bottoming out. You may not get very far but believe me, the ride is nothing short of exhilarating.
Mondays to Fridays may be best served by Honda. Quiet Sunday mornings are when the old roadsters can relive their concourse days and put a smile on your face.