Vintage Aurora 88 Family Ultra Review

This is an exceptionally exciting post for me–one that is several years in the making. I want to review the original Aurora 88 and all of its descendants because I have an example of all of them (with three exceptions that I’ll get to). I also have some cool documents and paraphernalia I wanted to share, too–partly because I’m an Aurora fanboy/nerd, but also because the English-language information available on these pens is lacking.

I have two main sources of information that I’m citing. The first and most important is Leticia Jacopini’s book La Storia della Stilografica in Italia 1900-1950, Volume One. I own a hard copy of the book, but both volumes are available for download on her website. Her works are the single best resource on Italian fountain pens in English bar none, change my mind.

The second source was an unbelievably detailed post from 2009 by the user “diplomat” on the Fountain Pen Network, here. I’m not a member of FPN–they never bothered to respond to my email for membership–but I have to give credit where credit is due. edit: okay, I’m a member of FPN now, on good terms, as of December 6th. They underwent an extensive site upgrade and users being unable to register was a known issue. I won’t hold it against them.

Left to right: 88, 88K, 88 Duo Cart, 888, 88P, 888P, 98, International, 2017 Duo Cart, 2019 Duo Cart. The Firma is pictured below.
Left to right: 88, 88K, 88 Duo Cart, 888, 88P, 888P, 98, International, 2017 Duo Cart, 2019 Duo Cart. The Firma is pictured below.
Left to right: Firma, 88, 88K, 88 Duo Cart, 888, 88P, 888P, 98, International, 2017 Duo Cart, 2019 Duo Cart.

Before getting into more individual detail, I wanted to cover a few more similarities here to avoid repeating them numerous times. The 88, 88K, and 88P are all piston fillers. They will always have to be restored to working order when you get them, even if the seller claims the pen is in working order (it’s not, I guarantee it, or it won’t be for very long in the best case scenario). One can trust some restorer/sellers like David Nishimura or Mike and Linda of Indy Pen Dance to restore these prior to selling them, but the vast majority of sellers, especially on eBay or similar, will not bother with them. While the process is not hard, in principle, the threaded piston head is incredibly fragile and will usually crumble to dust during the restoration. I recommend that you send these to a pro for restoration. It would be awesome if someone with the know-how could figure out how to 3D print these pistons–then restoring them would be a trivial task akin to replacing a sac on a lever filler. (If you figure out how to do it, I’ll happily buy a dozen of them.)

The oldest 98’s are also piston fillers, but the mechanism is completely different and made of more durable, modern materials. These typically will function okay without a lot of drama.

Newer 98s, the International, and the new Duo Cart pens all use Aurora’s cartridge/converter system, which is readily obtainable.

The rest of the pens are cartridge filled and were never intended to be used with a converter–converters didn’t exist. The pens use old Aurora Biflux cartridges, which are obsolete and not made anymore. By sheer coincidence, Platinum-brand cartridges and converters will mount on these older pens. Because they were not meant to fill via a converter, filling them in such a manner can be fiddly, but it can be done. One could also refill the vintage Aurora cartridges, but I have chosen to retain my cartridges as they are for the sake of collecting.

There were two styles of cartridges–the original cylindrical cartridges (right and bottom, all used), and the later cartridges with a neck (top left, one unopened, one used). Also pictured are the metal carriers that held them back to back in the pens–both generations of cartridges will fit in the carriers.
An early-modern intact Aurora cartridge with an intact vintage cartridge. Standard international cartridge for scale.
Platinum converters fit these older pens, likely by sheer coincidence. I had to modify the top converter to fit in the Firma pen by removing the gold ring at the open end, but otherwise I have had zero issues with this method. Shown with modern Aurora converter for reference.

Because I collect Aurora fountain pens, I incidentally also collect Aurora ballpoints and merchandise more broadly, so I’ll be including that information as well. A quick note on vintage Aurora ballpoints: modern-day ISO G1-style refills (a la the Schneider Express 225 or Aurora’s own Wagon refill not Pilot’s G1!) are dimensionally identical to Aurora’s old ballpoint refills except the modern refills have a plastic tail. Sometimes they fit without modification, but one can also trim the tail back to get them to fit. As far as I can tell, all of Aurora’s pre-1970 ballpoints use the ISO-G1/Wagon refill, at least until they adopted Parker’s standard of refills for all of their pens. Even today, the Wagon refill is used in Aurora’s skinny ballpoints, so they are available.

Top: original Aurora Magnum Refill. Middle: slightly modified modern Aurora Wagon Refill from my 88K ballpoint. Bottom: unused modern Aurora Wagon Refill.

No matter what anyone tells you, the original 88 was not a flex pen. It just wasn’t, pure and simple. The nibs on the early 88’s were quite responsive, maybe I’d go so far as to call them soft, but only if they are equipped with the soft nibs in the first place. Aurora offered 17 nib choices on 88s, and while most of them are, indeed, of the soft extra fine, fine, or medium variety, not all of them were. The nibs on all but two of my pens are downright rigid. I use the term “soft” to differentiate Aurora’s old-school standard nibs from their stiffer nibs throughout this post. I do not recommend these pens for users looking for flex–go get a Waterman 52 or a Mabie-Todd Swan. Hell, even a Sheaffer Jr. with a Junior nib is a better flex pen. I’m serious. You’ll be disappointed. Now, if you’re looking for a bouncy, responsive nib that can add a little bit of flair to writing, you’ll be in luck.

Finally, that Aurora feedback that us Aurora people gush over? Oh yeah, that’s here in droves. And I love it.

Small but mighty.

The 88 was designed by Marcello Nizzoli and released around 1946. The pen is simple in its elegance–a round, cigar-shaped pen made from black celluloid and featuring a metal cap. There aren’t a bunch of different finishes for the 88, but there were many options for the caps, including gold plate, Nikargenta, chrome, sterling, rolled gold, and so on. Mine is a gold-plated cap, which seem to be the most popular option. Again, the 88 fills with a piston and has a nice, functional ink window. The section of the pen, as well as the piston knob, are black ebonite.

Apparently there were also all gold-plated pens and solid gold pens, but I’ve never actually seen one.

The striations on the cap are very fine and tastefully done. The clip is a simple, functional piece.
The cap finial is shiny metal.
Aurora had a long history of engraving their sections and this practice persisted after the war. “Aurora” and “88” inside of Aurora’s shield logo. Not shown is the pen’s serial number, on the reverse.

The star of this show is the nib. Most of the early pens were equipped with either a soft fine or soft medium nib, indicated by a colored dot on the end of the pen–which was missing from mine. Only specialty nib grades were engraved on these pens, which  leads me to believe that this pen is a standard issue, soft fine.

It’s gloriously feedbacky and super responsive. I cannot really describe it. It feels like a vintage Aurora in the best way possible. I know I said don’t flex these pens, but just look at this:

That is with practically zero effort. It is fantastic.

With user-contributed serial numbers and a lot of speculation, users on Fountain Pen Network (again, I’m not affiliated LOL JK guys) generated approximate dates of manufacture. My 88, using their list, was likely manufactured around 1948, give or take.

The 88K was released around 1953, with some overlap in production. The pen itself is dimensionally identical to the original 88. The biggest non-aesthetic change that Aurora made was they began to manufacture the 88K’s section and piston knob out of celluloid.

Aurora used this style of clip well into the 70s. The striations on the cap are not as finely engraved as before.
The shiny metal finial was replaced by a black lacquered or painted metal finial. It’s much more pointy than the original, too. Also note the more pronounced cap striations.
This is actually the matching ballpoint and is the earliest example I have in which Aurora stamped their brand on the cap’s lip, something they still do to this day. Notice how the letters are uneven. This stamping only appears on the ballpoint.
Here, 88K is engraved in Aurora’s shield logo. The serial number appears, as does the nib grade and the Aurora name.

The 88K was available with the same cap options and nib options as the 88. I actually have seen pens that were entirely gold-plated, unlike the 88, so I know those exist.

My pen is equipped with a hard fine nib. It’s rigid, smooth, feedbacky, and wet.

My 88K came to me new old stock in a box labeled FIAT. It was likely a corporate gift that sat in a desk somewhere for 65 years before coming to me, along with all of the sweet retro paperwork!

HF=Hard Fine
Nib grades. Aurora themselves said, on this page, that 93% of users are served just fine by soft EF, F, and M nibs, shaded in yellow. That’s probably why 93% of their pens are EF, F, or M. They also offered obliques and stubs–I would love to get my hands on one of those soft OBB nibs! The writing in red states that an H indicates a hard version of a given nib. The D nibs, as far as I can figure out, were manifold nibs (Google translate tells me that the word ricalco that appears below the headings means “tracing”). I don’t know what the K nibs were–like a waverly-style nib, maybe?
This is just informing the user that this pen uses 18k gold plating on the caps, apparently.
Filling instructions with the Aurora Biflux ink bottle. We need to get Aurora to put ink in a bottle like this again.

My 88K was made around 1955.

Next came the Aurora Duo Cart in 1954, which was revolutionary in its own right. This pen was an early example of a cartridge pen, mostly aimed at school kids. Aurora used the sections right off of 88’s in an attempt to cut some costs, so these pens write just as well as full-fledged 88’s. The pen used the dual cartridge carrier–seen above–and when the user was out of ink they were to discard the empty cartridge and flip the carrier around. An ink alarm feature–a tiny ball on the end of a tiny chain in the pen’s barrel–reminded the user to get a new cartridge. This feature is more annoying than useful and was omitted in Aurora’s later cartridge pens. Modern users are forced to find a way to disable this alarm–I cut the nipple end off an empty international cartridge and placed it over the turning knob of the pen’s converter to act as a spacer to keep the alarm from driving me nuts.

Unfortunately, my 88 Duo Cart is in rough shape–tons of cap brassing, the clip is loose and floppy, and the jewel on the end of the barrel was obviously super glued into place at some point. But it writes. The nib feels very similar to the hard fine nib on my 88K; Aurora did not engrave the nib grade on these pens, so I’m left guessing once again.

The serial number is on the reverse. Even the school pens got serial numbers.
Note that the 88 logo is identical to the 88 pens and DUO-CART added underneath.
It’s seen better days.

The pens were available with a couple different plastic bodies and either black or red ebonite sections. I don’t know what Aurora’s serial number methodology was, but I get the sense that this pen was a very early 88 Duo Cart.

This pen is kind of cool. It’s aesthetically unique and different from the rest of the family–it’s a little blocky and chunky, and the short cap just works, in a weird way. The pen also changed the way people used fountain pens–cartridge/converter pens are the most prolific type now, and this was one of the earliest, commercially successful cartridge pens, along with the Waterman C/F that was introduced in 1953.

The 888 was a more grown-up version of the 88 Duo Cart and was released around 1956. It was a unique design, not just the section off of a more expensive pen made cheaper. It made use of the Duo Cart’s cartridge system with the ink alarm feature.

The lid swings open revealing what was a very modern pen by 1950s standards.
888 is engraved in the Aurora shield logo. On reverse is the serial number and the nib grade–K13. Aurora is engraved to the left of this logo.
The 888 (center) has a longer, more tapered section than other pens in this family.
The pen stays true to the 88 family’s roots with a nice cigar shape. The plug at the end is where the ink alarm feature is attached.
Interestingly, it introduced the cap style that Aurora stuck with for many years. The clip is the same as the 88K, but the domed finial is replaced by a slanted plastic disk.

The nib on this pen is a K13, which is stamped on the included warranty card and engraved on the pen’s section. Once again, I have no idea what the K nibs are supposed to be. The tipping material on this pen is not shaped like the K nib illustrations on the above documentation, but the nib is ever so slightly up-swept. Regardless, this may be my favorite nib out of all of these pens. It appears to be a fine and is slightly more rigid than the soft nib on my 88, but far more responsive than the hard fine on my 88K. It is perfectly tuned and an absolute joy to write with.

Of the cartridge converter pens I own in this family, this is by a wide margin my favorite, and is probably in the top three of my favorite vintage Auroras. The pen is very light, well balanced, and has a long, comfortable section. Plus it writes like a dream.

Unfortunately, people living in Italy during the late 50s were not as enthusiastic about this pen as I am and it was not the hot seller Aurora hoped for. The 888 was only made until 1959 or so; mine has a late-ish serial number and is probably a ’57 or ’58, if I had to guess.

Warranty card. The 888 included a strip of paper showing the factory’s testing of the nib (shown at the bottom)
Reverse of the above warranty card, detailing the use of the pen. Aurora’s Biflux ink cartridges shipped in a plastic holder (see the illustration #7).

The Firma (Italian for “Signature”) was released around 1957 and is an interesting, but often overlooked variant. Desk pens were far more popular in the past than they are presently.

The Firma uses Aurora’s Biflux cartridges just like the Duo Cart and 888, but it did not make use of the cartridge carrier or the ink alarm–I checked, the double cartridge carrier does not fit in the pen. I am not sure if they decided it wasn’t necessary for a desk pen or if they were already in the process of phasing the system out.

The pen itself came in a long, slender cardboard box.
Section engraving. The serial number and “M” for medium nib are on the reverse. This one is still chalked, too!
The long barrel tapers to a point and features a simple gold band.

The nib is a gloriously juicy medium and very pleasant to use. It is at this point that I noticed the pens start to feel much more “modern.” The sections and bodies on these newer pens are obviously plastic–not celluloid–and the nibs start to feel stiffer and are not as responsive. It’s still a good writer and it is nicely balanced, as desk pens tend to be.

The pen came with a thick glass base and pen trumpet–which looks like a rocket ship or something. It feels very, very late 50’s.

Thick, shiny black glass.
The Firma logo is printed on the cork bottom and is still legible on mine, which I thought was pretty cool.

The 88P debuted around the same time, circa 1958 or so. It is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the 88 family of pens–it was made entirely in celluloid, the cap–which came in the same options as every other 88-type pen except Nikargenta–was the most finely engraved. I will admit that the 88P feels more refined than the 88K and much, much more modern than the 88–which would have been considered a good thing in 1958.

My 88P is a later model, as indicated by its lack of serial number. Aurora stopped serializing the 88P in 1963.

Shown with matching ballpoint.
Here, Aurora chose to engrave the model in the shield logo with Aurora underneath. It looks much cleaner than engraving stuff all around the section. The nib grade is engraved on the reverse. No serial number on my particular pen.
Aurora used the same cap style as the 888. The engravings are smooth and crisp and the brand’s name is tastefully engraved on the cap. It is a beautiful, well made pen.

Unfortunately, as nicely finished as the 88P is, it debuted right as ballpoints and cheaper fountain pen options were growing in popularity. Even so, Aurora managed to sell well over a million of these beautiful pens before they ceased production sometime in the 60’s.

Filling instructions and warranty information for the 88P. Notice that the Biflux bottle isn’t the cool two chambered one at this point, which is a shame.
Reverse of the above. I don’t think Paola used her pens that much because they were in fabulous shape when I got them.

The 888P was the natural evolution of the 888 and started production sometime in 1959. Early models may have included the ink alarm system, but mine does not. The pen did make use of the Duo Cart cartridge carrier system, though. The pen is entirely plastic and uses the exact same cap as the 88P. The section is interchangeable with the section of the Firma.

My 888P is heavily worn; the section engraving is barely visible and it is covered in light surface scratches but it does not appear to have been abused or left in some cellar somewhere.

Notice the cap–it is identical to the 88P cap. This pen also brought the flat end back.
I mean it when I say the caps are identical–I can interchange them.
Notice the scuffing around the end–caused by being posted over and over again through the years.
The engraving is there but very worn. It uses a similar style to the 88P. No serial number, just a tiny “F” on the reverse, indicating that this is a fine nib.

At first, I was least impressed by this pen. It seemed to me that Aurora was just trying to cut costs with this model (using the same parts, cheapening the materials, etc.) and I was just adding it to the collection for the sake of completion. But the more I look at the way it is worn, along with the fact that the pen came in the original box with an old box of modern Aurora cartridges tucked inside, the more I realize that it tells a story of a pen that was heavily used and well-loved. A pen put away once the last ink cartridge was used up, but not before the owner tried one final time to use the new line of cartridges. Someone loved this pen. That’s part of the appeal of collecting vintage pens.

The 98. The final evolution of the 88 proper. This is where Aurora really tries to engage in the modern age with something completely new.

The 98 was released in 1963, and keeping with the tastes of the time, the pen was thinner and blockier. It’s still a piston filler, but the pen uses modern, durable plastics.

My 98 happens to be a sterling silver model in a set with a ballpoint. It was a corporate gift for someone working at Alitalia–the largest airline in Italy. I think that’s pretty cool. The deep blue velvet clam shell box is housed in a pinstriped cardboard outer sleeve.

End of the cardboard outer sleeve.
Certificate indicating that the pen is 92.5% Silver with a 14k nib.
I wish my company gifted like this.
Fountain pen with ballpoint.
Sterling hallmark.
Here you can see the clip; it’s the same overall shape and design as the clip introduced on the 88K, a full ten years prior. The size is different and the cut-out is not painted black, though.
The round cap finial from earlier models was replaced by this style of finial.
The Aurora logo and the nib grade on the reverse are the only engravings for this pen. Also note the small ink window.
The piston turning knob must be pushed to extend, like clicking the back of a ballpoint pen. Here it is unextended.
Here is the piston knob extended for use.

I love the 98. I think the design is clever and the pen is slick. It’s a nice size–not too fat, not too heavy. The pen writes well, posts well, and feels good in the hand. Despite being made of silver, it’s only a gram heavier than the 888P. And it writes well–it’s a smooth, toothy medium that feels good. Granted, the piston design would be called a captive converter and scoffed at today, but at the time there was no such thing as a captive converter, it was just a piston filler–converters for cartridge pens were just sort of starting to take off when this pen hit the market. The pen only holds 0.9mL of ink.

But what makes this pen awesome is the influence it had on Aurora’s future pens. This pen introduced the Riserva Magica concept, which Aurora still uses. And we still see design elements from the 98 floating around in Auora’s modern lineup–the Style series comes to mind. The 98 was also a transitional piece; it bridges the gap between the thicker cigar-shaped pens of the past and the thinner pens of the 1970s. I think it’s a really interesting pen.

At some point, Aurora stopped making the Riserva Magica 98’s and was only churning out cartridge/converter 98s. There was also some overlap with another series of pen called the International, which is, as far as I can tell, a cartridge/converter 98 but made with cheaper materials. The pen I have isn’t vintage per se, it was released in the early 2000s as part of Aurora’s Archivi Storici series–the story goes that Aurora found some new-old-stock parts, slapped some pens together, and sold them. So this is the Archivi Storici model 016, a new/old Aurora International:

Aurora must have liked this box because they re-used it for the modern Duo Cart pens. I like this box, too, so I’m glad they did.
Aurora did an exceptionally nice job with this clam shell box as well. I wish they’d make more of them.
The entire pen has a brushed, matte appearance without any section engravings. The pen is, overall, shorter and skinnier than the 98, making it the skinniest of them all.
Same clip design, same cap finial.
Here is a flat, shiny end instead of the piston knob from before.

This is also the generation of pens in which Aurora began using the Parker standard of cartridge/converter, which would have been in the late 60s or so.

I like this pen quite a bit; it was the third Aurora I purchased and the one that got me interested in vintage Aurora pens. Unfortunately, it’s also the last retro pen that I own that is a direct descendant of the granddaddy 88. I considered discussing the Hastil, but it’s not related to the 88 in any way. Similarly, the modern 88 doesn’t truly belong here either.

What does belong in this discussion, however, is the modern rendition of the Duo Cart. It’s pretty easy to trace their lineage back to the 88.

I already talked about the 2017 release of the modern Duo Cart here. I won’t drone about the 2019 version, except to say that it kept all of the good parts of the 2017 version but fixed the bad parts. It’s a solid, modern day pen.

Far right. I specifically chose the black modern Duo Cart because of how similar it looks to actual vintage Auroras.
Yes, the nib is steel and not 14k gold. But it’s a champion.

There are few more models floating around that probably belong on this list that I’ve overlooked, as well as a few that I’m aware of that are worth mentioning that I don’t have examples of. In the 1960s, Aurora replaced the (old) Duo Cart with the updated Aurora 2Cart, which gave rise to the Auretta family of school pens. Those are extremely collectable in themselves. Finally, there is a model called Per Lei (For Her) which was a line of Aurora 98s without clips, sometimes with tassels on the caps. These were ladies purse pens, and while I think they’re lovely, I just don’t have any on hand.

Asking me to identify which is my favorite is like asking me to identify which of my kids are my favorite–I love all of them. If pressed, I could limit the list to three (pens, not kids)–the 88, the 888, and the 98–but I couldn’t rank them. The 88K makes the list sometimes, too, but I think that’s just because it was a white whale for me–I had a heck of a time finding an 88K for a non-insane price to add to my collection.

I suppose the real question is “why?” Why would a young Midwestern man, who neither speaks Italian, nor has any Italian heritage, who’s never even been to Italy, be so interested in an Italian pen company?

A pen is just a stick that makes marks on a page. A free ballpoint from the bank is realistically the only writing device one would ever need. A crayon picked up from the floor of Applebee’s accomplishes the same practical task, too.

But sometimes you just have to listen to your heart. I believe Dan Smith called it “feeding your soul” in one of his videos back in the day. Aurora feeds my soul.

Anyways, that’s the story I’m sticking to.

The modern 88 must have been adopted. Oldest on the left to youngest on the right.
Ballpoints. Top to bottom: 88K, 88P, 98, modern 88.

Specs:

  • Vintage Aurora 88
    • Cap:
      • Friction fit, postable.
      • There were a bunch of options out there.
    • Nib:
      • 14k semi-hooded, soft fine.
      • 17 options available. Almost all of them that survived are fine or medium.
    • Body:
      • Black celluloid body with ink window. Section and piston knob in black ebonite.
    • Filling system:
      • Piston, 1.7mL capacity.
    • Length:
      • Capped: 138mm
      • Uncapped: 127mm
      • Posted: 148mm
    • Weight:
      • Total: 22g
      • Pen: 14g
      • Cap: 8g
    • Section diameter:
      • 8-11.5mm
  • Aurora 88K
    • Cap: friction fit, postable, a lot of options.
    • Nib: 14k HF, a lot of options.
    • Body: black celluloid.
    • Filling system: piston, 1.7mL capacity.
    • Length: capped 138mm; uncapped 128mm; posted 148mm
    • Weight: total 22g; pen 14g; cap 8g
    • Section diameter: 8-11.5mm
  • Vintage Aurora Duo Cart
    • Cap: friction fit; postable. Chrome or gold plated.
    • Nib: Fine? I don’t know what options were available.
    • Body: black plastic; black ebonite section. There were a bunch of options back in the day.
    • Filling system: Duo Cart cartridge carrier with ink alarm, originally with Aurora Biflux cartridges. Accepts modern Platinum cartridge/converters. Around 0.5mL capacity with converter.
    • Length: capped 137mm; uncapped 129mm; posted 152mm
    • Weight: total 19g, pen 12g; cap 7g
    • Section diameter: 8-11.5mm
  • Vintage Aurora 888:
    • Cap: friction fit; postable. Several historic options.
    • Nib: “K13.” Probably fine. Probably 17 nib options, historically.
    • Body: black…plastic? Maybe celluloid.
    • Filling system: Duo Cart cartridge carrier with ink alarm, originally with Aurora Biflux cartridges. Accepts modern Platinum cartridge/converters. Around 0.5mL capacity with converter.
    • Length: capped 138mm; uncapped 127mm; posted 151mm
    • Weight: total 20g; pen 12g; cap 8g
    • Section diameter: 8-11.5mm
  • Aurora Firma:
    • Cap: Not applicable. It’s a desk pen. It does rest in a cool desk stand.
    • Nib: 14k medium. I don’t know what options were available.
    • Body: black plastic.
    • Filling system: Historically Aurora Biflux cartridges. Accepts modern Platinum cartridge/converters. Around 0.5mL capacity with converter.
    • Length: 172mm
    • Weight:13g
    • Section diameter: 8-11mm
  • Aurora 88P
    • Cap: friction fit, postable. All of the usual cap options.
    • Nib: 14k Fine, I don’t know what historic options are out there.
    • Body: black celluloid.
    • Filling system: piston, 1.7mL capacity.
    • Length: capped 135mm; uncapped 127mm; posted 146mm
    • Weight: total 21g; pen 14g; cap 7g
    • Section diameter: 8-11mm
  • Aurora 888P
    • Cap: friction fit, postable.
    • Nib: 14k fine. Probably other options out there.
    • Body: black plastic.
    • Filling system: Duo Cart cartridge carrier with ink alarm, originally with Aurora Biflux cartridges. Accepts modern Platinum cartridge/converters. Around 0.5mL capacity with converter.
    • Length: capped 137mm; uncapped 127mm; posted 145mm
    • Weight: total 22g; pen 14g; cap 8g
    • Section Diameter: 8-11mm
  • Aurora 98 Riserva Magica
    • Cap: friction fit, postable.
    • Nib: 14k medium; probably other options out there.
    • Body: usually black plastic; shown in sterling silver.
    • Filling system: riserva magica piston; 0.9mL capacity.
    • Length: capped 140mm; uncapped 127mm; posted 145mm
    • Weight: total 23g; pen 15g; cap 8g
    • Section diameter: 8-10mm
  • Aurora International/98 Cartridge
    • Cap: friction fit, postable.
    • Nib: 14k medium; probably other options out there.
    • Body: matte finished plastic shown, other versions were available.
    • Filling system: modern Aurora; capacity around 0.8mL with converter.
    • Length: capped 137mm; uncapped 126mm; posted 144mm
    • Weight: total 17g, pen 10g, cap 7g
    • Section diameter: 8-10mm
  • Aurora 2017 Duo Cart
    • Specs at the end of the review, here.
  • Aurora 2019 Duo Cart
    • As 2017 version, except:
      • Uncapped length is 119mm, posted length is 140mm
      • Weight: total 26g; pen 15g; cap 11g

Aurora Duo-Cart–2017 Version

This is the first release of Aurora’s modern Duo-Cart pen. It’s recently been re-released and I do not have the new one to compare to my first edition. Yet.

edit: I now have the 2019 version. I’ll review that release soon. Much of what I have to say about the new release is the same as the 2017 version, but the biggest problems I had with the old version have been fixed by Aurora–no more cap **POP!,** the trim ring isn’t loose, and the nib was splendid out of the box.

Duo-Cart is sort of an interesting choice for this pen’s name. It certainly looks like the Duo-Cart of the 1950’s, which was an early attempt at a cartridge-filled pen and a way to reduce costs and sell a cheaper pen. The original Duo-Carts pretty much just used the sections off of 88s but dispensed with the more complex piston filling mechanism. Fewer parts to machine and assemble means a cheaper pen. Companies still preferentially make cartridge/converter pens because they’re easier to produce. The concept was simple–the pen held two cartridges back-to-back with a carrier; when one cartridge was empty, they were swapped and the user could continue writing without having to refill the pen.

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But they were called Duo-Carts because they held two cartridges. The modern Duo-Cart does not do this. To be fair, Aurora’s modern cartridge probably holds as much or more ink as the original system and making this pen with their current system versus creating a new rendition of a cartridge carrier or whatever probably helped keep the costs down.

This pen can also be found on the internet advertised as the “Archivi Storici,” which is a bit misleading. Archivi Storici translates to “historical archives.” Aurora did have another set of pens in this line 10 or 15 years ago that were, basically, a run of pens made from new old stock 98 and 88 parts they found lying around in their archive, hence the name. The modern Duo-Cart is entirely that–modern. It’s a reproduction, or more accurately, a modern pen inspired by historic pens. My Duo-Cart’s box is identical to these older Archivi Storici boxes and it says Archivi Storici on the box–not Duo-Cart–so that’s probably where the confusion is coming from. I feel like the distinction needs to be made, in one place, for the sake of collectors trying to figure all of this out.

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“Mythical Pens of Fabulous Years” according to Google Translate.
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That said, I’ll review my vintage 888 Duo-Cart and my Archivi Storici model 16–basically a NOS cartridge/converter 98–at some point. If (when) I decide to buy a 2019 or a vintage 88 Duo-Cart, I’ll review those as well.

Anyways, the year was 2017. I decided that I love pens with hooded nibs and I had to have them all. I’d also recently determined that I adored Aurora pens. Enter the Duo-Cart. Supposedly, the story goes, Aurora made a bunch of these pens for a company’s special event and then decided to release them. They discontinued them due to quality control complaints, which hopefully they’ve addressed.

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It was/currently is only available with a medium nib. I wasn’t crazy about the nib out of the box–it was serviceable after adjustment, but the tipping material was uneven with a misaligned nib slit and it just wrote. . .weird. I’m not saying the tines were misaligned–I mean, they were, but that’s a simple fix–I’m saying the slit in the nib was cut off-center.  This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it was obviously defective.  Instead of sending it back like I probably should have, I dealt with it. Eventually I modified it into its current state based on my examples of vintage Aurora nibs, but to date it’s the only Aurora pen I’ve bought that wasn’t spot-on out of the box.

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Here you can see the off-center slit in the nib. Pens with this defect aren’t necessarily trash, but it’s not optimal.
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I tried to modify my Duo-Cart to write roughly equivalent to vintage Auroras. It feels pretty close and looks close enough on paper.

The cap on my example is tight and comes off of the pen with a sizable and somewhat obnoxious “POP!” One of the complaints about the first run of these pens was that caps were not tight. Mine is not loose at all. The cap posts securely and seems to be made out of some non-ferrous metal, aside from the springy steel clip. Brass maybe? In any case, it’s pretty heavy and can make the pen feel back heavy when posted.

The section is quite long, which gives users some flexibility in finding the most comfortable way to hold it. I like this about Aurora pens.

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The trim ring between the section and the barrel is not secured and can be lost when the pen is disassembled. This cheapens the pen, really, and I hope Aurora fixed that in the new release.

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WHY?

The pen fills with Aurora’s cartridge/converter system, as stated. Aurora’s converters are overpriced, but it came with the pen. Their converters hold around 0.8mL of ink while their cavernous cartridges hold 1.3mL.

I collect Aurora pens, so it’s pretty much impossible for me to be 100% objective with them. Still, I will say that this pen isn’t as up to snuff as my other Auroras. The obnoxious *POP!* when uncapping this pen can draw a vacuum and lead to ink splatter, it really bothers me that the trim ring is just. . .there. . .and I’ve never had a defective nib on any other Aurora, vintage or new, except this one. Aurora is synonymous with quality to me and I honestly feel their prices reflect this fairly, but this one missed the mark. It was close, but not quite there.

It was essentially a beta test and Aurora has since reworked the pen. Also this is nowhere near the top of Aurora’s lineup. My post-purchase support from Aurora (and Kenro, their North American distributor) has been top-shelf, so I’ve no doubt that they would have taken care of me, had I chosen to go that route. In the past, Aurora has delayed the release of their special edition pens by months to make sure they got QC problems worked out, and I think this pen could have benefited from a bit of a delay. We’ll see if it did.

Even with its faults, I’d still place it in the top five modern-production pens with hooded nibs, if that’s your thing, but Aurora will have to work harder to de-throne the Lamy 2000, which is a better pen for the cash. Compared to the rest of the viciously competitive sub-$200 market, the Duo-Cart a pretty decent choice and aesthetically unique, Parker 51 knock-offs notwithstanding.

The modern Duo-Cart has some stiff competition with its past self, too. The street price of this pen is $180–for that price, it’s pretty easy to score a user grade, restored 88 or its variants. For even less money, 98s, 888s, and vintage Duo-Carts are out there. This pen isn’t “better” or “worse” than a vintage pen: the ability to use a modern cartridge/converter system, the enhanced durability afforded by modern materials, and the warranty and support of the company definitely win out, here. It comes down to user choice.

I still love the pen and its unique place in Aurora’s history. This pen can trace its lineage back to the legendary Aurora 88 much more so than the modern 88, which makes it pretty cool.

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There is definitely a family resemblance, here.

Pros:

  • Basically a solid pen.
  • Classic, old-school aesthetic.
  • Re-released after working out the kinks. Hopefully.

Cons:

  • It was an experiment, intentional or not, or it was simply rushed to market.
  • The nib was. . .so so out of the box. Serviceable, but atypically crappy for an Aurora.
  • Medium only. I wanted a fine nib, so I had to make my own.
  • It’s back heavy when posted. May or may not be a con, depending on the user.
  • Unless you like the looks, prefer a cartridge/converter pen for changing ink easier, or are an Aurora fanboy like me, the Lamy 2000 is a better value.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Snap cap.
    • Postable.
  • Nib:
    • Semi-hooded steel nib.
    • Gold plated or polished to match the pen’s trim.
    • Medium only.
  • Body:
    • Burgundy resin. Other colors are available with the new release, but the 2017 version was black or burgundy only.
    • I swore this pen’s barrel was injection molded, but I’ll be damned if I can find a seam on it. The section is injection molded but the seam is extraordinarily discrete. The threads joining the two are amazingly smooth and precise. This is the Aurora quality I’m talking about.
    • The pen barrel has a brass sleeve on the inside to add a little weight and balance, which is also typical of Aurora.
  • Filling system:
    • Aurora’s proprietary cartridge/converter system.
    • Converter capacity is 0.8mL.
    • Aurora’s system is patterned off of Parker’s, so Parker cartridges and converters probably work.
    • Aurora’s TrikTrak converter will also work, but that converter is expensive, hard to find, barely holds any ink, and basically sucks. I don’t know why anyone would use that in this pen, but they could if they wanted to.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 134mm
    • Uncapped: 121mm
    • Posted: 142mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 27g
    • Cap: 12g
    • Pen: 15g
  • Section diameter:
    • 9-11 mm
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Capped, with Lamy Safari and Lamy 2000 for comparison.
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Uncapped, with Lamy Safari and Lamy 2000 for comparison.
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Posted, with Lamy Safari and Lamy 2000 for comparison.
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Parker 51

Some say that the Parker 51 is the best pen ever made.

So, do I think it’s best? “Best” is subjective. If we define “best” as “a no bull-shit pen that writes a consistent line every time, holds a crap load of ink, is virtually indestructible, and has otherwise stood the test of time” than the Parker 51 is easily in the top ten, maybe the top five. I love the streamlined fountain pen aesthetic and rigid, hooded nibs but that’s not for everyone. Some people accuse pens like this–the Lamy 2000, Pilot Vanishing Point, vintage Montblancs, Auroras, and the titular Parker 51–of being glorified roller ball pens because of their aesthetic. This isn’t a philosophy of aesthetics blog: love it or hate it, it’s hard to argue that the Parker 51 didn’t revolutionize fountain pens and set the trend for fountain pens in the 1950’s and 60’s.

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My P51 is a vacumatic, dated to 1948, which is late for a vacumatic. In ’48, Parker introduced the aerometric filler, which is a simpler, more durable filling system. Many of the original aerometric fillers are still functional today whereas vacumatic filled pens invariably fail and require specialized tools to replace. Most 51s are aerometric fillers. Vacumatic pens hold a ton of ink–my P51 holds a whopping 1.6mL–but are impossible to clean out. I just use blue in mine.

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The nib is a fairly rigid 14k medium, or it was sold to me as a medium. Vintage American pens tend to be ground finer than modern German equivalents, so a medium Parker 51 is going to appear pretty fine on paper. Parker also produced 51 Specials, which are the same pen but with high-quality steel nibs.

Parker 51s are made from Lucite, a brand of acrylic. When compared to injection molded plastics, it feels high quality and robust. Compared to a celluloid or ebonite material, it feels cold, hard, and lifeless. It doesn’t feel cheap in any case, and the material has a proven track record of durability. Mine is dove gray and has a few areas of discoloration, which isn’t entirely uncommon on the lighter materials. They came in twelve or thirteen different colors during their production, with gold trims or not. There is also a smaller version of the 51, called the Demi.

The cap is a clutch mechanism–the cap is “locked” onto the barrel’s clutch ring with “lugs” on the inside of the cap, which is sort of opposite of the Lamy 2000 that has lugs on the pen that lock onto the cap. This isn’t the perfect way to describe this, but suffice to say capping and uncapping the P51 is quite satisfying compared to a typical friction-fit snap cap that just gets smooshed onto the pen. It posts well, too.

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I like the Parker 51. It–along with the Esterbrook J series–is the prototypical, indestructible vintage American pen that is both easy to collect and a sensible choice for everyday writing. Every American pen brand and many European brands had a pen that was inspired by the 51’s looks (including the Aurora 88 that was legendary in its own right), and the pen itself has been copied ad nauseam; imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.

If one is looking for a beautiful and responsive open nib or gorgeous, deep materials, however, one will have to look elsewhere.

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Pros:

  • Great writer.
  • Lightweight and well balanced.
  • Huge ink capacity.
  • Durable.
  • Vintage Americana.

Cons:

  • Aesthetically, it’s not for everyone.
  • Vacumatic pens are impossible to clean and wear-out over time.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Clutch type.
    • Postable.
  • Nib:
    • 14K Medium on this pen.
    • Parker 51s almost always have fine or medium nibs, although Parker made other grades including broad, stubs, and obliques; these nibs are extraordinarily rare and usually insanely expensive.
    • Octanium nibs are common, too. Octanium is Parker’s proprietary steel alloy.
  • Body:
    • Dove Gray Lucite on this pen.
    • Other colors exist on both the full sized 51 and Demi model.
  • Filling system:
    • Vacumatic with 1.6mL capacity.
    • Only 1941-1948 pens had vacumatic systems, the rest are aerometric.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 140mm
    • Uncapped: 130mm
    • Posted: 153mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 19g
    • Cap: 8g
    • Pen: 11g
  • Section diameter:
    • 9-11mm
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Sheaffer Balance Oversize

I had a thing for large pens and vintage Sheaffer fountain pens back in 2016, so when I saw a pen that was both I knew I had to have it.

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Using Richard Binder’s site once again, I’ve dated this pen to between 1936 and the Early 40’s, and for a pen that is 80ish years old, this thing is pretty sweet.

When it debuted, this was the top of the line Balance. The barrel is marked “1000,” which isn’t a model number but rather the MSRP of $10, or around $180 adjusted for inflation. Identifying what model a Sheaffer balance is requires examining the clip, nib, the pen material, and its dimensions and comparing it to records like those found on Richard Binder’s website.

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Now by modern standards, this oversized pen isn’t that big. It’s closer to what we would call a full size pen, like an Aurora 88, Pelikan m800, Sailor 1911 Large, and so on. Back then, huge pens weren’t in style; after all, in fountain pens’ heyday they were just pens, and not everyone wanted a flashy status symbol.

The Lifetime nib on this pen is stunning–14k two tone, heart shaped breather hole, and an up-swept medium point. It’s a very smooth writing experience. The nib is also one of the most rigid nibs in my collection, second only to an Esterbrook fine manifold nib. Gold nibs aren’t always softer than steel nibs. I like rigid nibs for most applications, but not everyone does.

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The Balance pens were meant to be posted, but mine is a little warped from being posted over the years. I still like to post it, but I feel like I have to push it on harder than I’d like to get the cap to post because of the warping. When I post it, I do so cautiously to avoid cracking the cap lip.

This particular pen also suffers from ink starvation–it writes perfectly for a page and then starts writing drier and drier until finally it stops writing altogether. This isn’t a particularly difficult thing to fix, depending on what’s causing the issue, but I’m not in a huge hurry to correct it. I consider it a quirk of an 80 year old pen rather than a flaw. Maybe I’ll send it out, eventually.

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I have a lever filler, but vacuum filled Balances were made towards the end of production. My Balance holds a sizeable 1.4mL of ink.

Sheaffer Balances are widely available in a bunch of different sizes and finishes, so they’re pretty accessible to someone looking to pick one up. They are good pens.

Pros:

  • Light and well balanced.
  • Pretty.
  • Writes well.
  • Holds a bunch of ink and has a visulated section to check ink levels.
  • Vintage Americana.

Cons:

  • Old pens have quirks.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Twist cap.
    • 1.25 turns to remove.
    • Postable.
  • Nib:
    • 14k Lifetime nib, in Medium.
    • Other nibs came on Balances. The most common nib grade is Fine, but Medium and Extra Fine are somewhat common. They aren’t marked, so it takes some guesswork to figure out what’s in one’s hand.
    • Sheaffer also made Broad, Stub, and Accountant nibs–those range between pretty uncommon to exceptionally rare.
  • Filling System:
    • Lever fill.
    • 1.4mL ink capacity.
    • Vacuum fillers were also made towards the end of the pen’s life.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 143mm
    • Uncapped: 124mm
    • Posted: 165mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 20g
    • Pen: 12g
    • Cap: 8g
  • Section Diameter:
    • 10-12mm
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Sheaffer Balance Junior

I’ve been reviewing full-sized and oversized pens  for the most part, but I decided to break it up with this sweet pocket pen.

The Balance Junior was one of Sheaffer’s lower-tiered, non-white dot pens, but it’s largely made from the same materials as the larger Balance pens–14k nibs, the same celluloid, and so on. This one doesn’t have gold-plated trim, but otherwise there isn’t much difference between this and a white dot Balance, except the size. Sheaffer made Balances from 1929 until the early 1940’s; Sheaffer didn’t introduce the Marine Green striated celluloid until 1937, so this pen is at least that old (more Sheaffer balance information can be found on Richard Binder’s Website.)

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Trying to capture the depth of the celluloid.

Unlike larger Balances, the Junior can be found with the Junior nib–a beautiful, semi-flex nib. Typically, vintage 14k nibs from Sheaffer are extremely rigid; the Junior was available with these rigid nibs too, but the Junior nib is anything but. Perhaps it’s not as flexible as a full-flex vintage nib, but I doubt that any modern flex nib can outperform this nib and feed.

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Tiny nib with a lot of character. Also shown is the visulated section that helps keep track of the pen’s ink level.

I don’t really write with flex pens but this one is very enjoyable. It takes zero effort to flex, snaps back quickly, and the feed keeps up well. It’s perfect for adding a little bit of a flair to writing, but I wouldn’t push it too hard.DSC_0165

That said, a nib this flexible isn’t really all that great for everyday writing unless using a light touch. The pen is very tiny, too, so I don’t like it for long writing sessions. Someone with a smaller hand and delicate touch could make it work.

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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport

The street price for this pen is $50-$100, depending on the material, filling system, nib, and condition of the pen, so someone in the market for a self-filling, high-quality pocket pen could do a heck of a lot worse. However, pens that fill with sacs–like lever fillers–are more sensitive to jostling, temperature, and pressure changes so it should still be carried in a secure way, not rattling around in a purse or jeans pocket.

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Made in the U.S.A in Fort Madison, Iowa.

Pros:

  • Stunning materials.
  • Basically affordable and still around.
  • Pocket-sized, self-filling pen with an ink window (technically a “visulated” section, but functionally similar).
  • Wonderful nibs.
  • Holds more ink than a typical cartridge only pocket pen.
  • Vintage Americana.

Cons:

  • It is small. That might be a pro, depending on the writer.
  • The youngest of these pens have been around since World War II, so they’ll come with vintage pen “quirks”.
  • Lever fillers suck to clean and pens that fill with sacs are more likely to burp/splatter/do weird stuff in response to vigorous movement, temperature changes, or air pressure changes.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Screw cap.
    • 1.25 turns to remove.
    • Postable.
  • Nib:
    • 14K Sheaffer Junior; EF/F Semi-Flex.
    • They were also made with rigid two-tone 14k Lifetime nibs and Sheaffer #3 nibs, almost always in fine or sometimes medium.
  • Filling System:
    • Lever filler with visulated section.
    • Ink Capacity: 0.8mL.
    • Vacuum fillers were an option on later pens. These are harder to restore than lever fillers and have a higher price tag.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 123mm.
    • Uncapped: 117mm.
    • Posted: 143mm.
  • Weight:
    • Total: 11g.
    • Cap: 4g.
    • Pen: 7g.
  • Section diameter:
    • 8-9.1mm.
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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport
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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport
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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport

Sheaffer 500 “Dolphin”

A little background on this pen: in the 60’s, Sheaffer wanted to make a lower-budget line of pens that capitalized on the popular Imperial line. They had semi-hooded nibs that looked like inlaid nibs. The pens from the line were eventually nicknamed dolphins, likely originating from the weird, bulbous sections. The least expensive pen in this budget line is the cartridge 500.

That said, this weird pen is pretty sentimental to me.

I found it in an antique shop after I took the NCLEX–the licensure exam for nurses in the United States. It was new old stock, in box, with a matching mechanical pencil. It was one of the first times that I’d seen a fountain pen in a store and I’d just passed a big milestone in my life, so I bought it.

I fell in love with the streamlined look of hooded and semi-hooded pens because of this goofy little pen. The aesthetic doesn’t work for everyone, but I love them. I have a sub collection of pens with hooded nibs because I found this pen. It was my first vintage pen, too.

It may have been a budget pen in its time, but the 500 writes like an expensive one. The nib is fine and maybe unhallmarked palladium-silver–mine doesn’t attract a magnet, but the nibs weren’t marked on these cheap pens. The pen itself is small–right around 12cm uncapped–and very light. The metal slip cap works and isn’t too heavy, so the pen can be used posted, although it’s long enough to be used unposted, too. The whole thing feels cheap, though

It’s filled with a cartridge only. Modern Sheaffer cartridges work just fine for this, but modern converters will not fit in the pen (I tried). I suppose one might be able to convert it to an eyedropper. I have no idea if vintage Sheaffer squeeze converters would fit but those sell for about the same or more than these pens, so that’s not exactly an economical solution. The good news is that Sheaffer cartridges are all over the place and not terribly expensive. The ink is okay, too (except black–I hate Sheaffer Black) and the cartridges hold-up to reuse pretty well if one wants to refill them, as I usually do.

The 500 series pens are still relatively easy to find used, if one is interested. The street price is $55-75 as of this writing. I like this pen, but I would not pay $50 for it and I sure as hell wouldn’t pay $75 for it–$50 is in the Esterbrook J range and $75 can buy a user-grade Parker 51 (if one shops around), both of which are arguably better vintage pens.

The pencil is a pencil and it functions as expected.

Pros:

  • Writes really well. Smooth steel/maybe palladium silver nib.
  • Still relatively available.
  • Interesting Aesthetic.

Cons:

  • Cartridge only.
  • Feels like a cheap pen, even if it writes well.
  • Interesting Aesthetic.

My verdict: mine is sentimental to me, but overall I’d stay away unless one finds an example at a good price, collects Sheaffers, or likes the unconventional look.

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Capped, with Safari for size comparison

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Posted, with Safari for size comparison

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Unposted, with Safari for size comparison

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With Matching pencil. Cartridges only.

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It’s pretty obvious that manufacturers of the day were emulating the style of the Parker 51.