Studying the classics – the Pelikan M400 vintage tortoise.

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Just over a week ago, a friend emailed me a link to a forthcoming local auction and mentioned that there were some fountain pens included. I had a browse at the online catalogue and began to get moderately excited at the prospect of acquiring a vintage  Pelikan M400 tortoise.

Still a newbie to the process, it was a novelty to log in to the sale room web site and submit  a bid. The auction was due to take place on Tuesday at 10:30am. With around 500 lots to get through and the fountain pen lots all coming towards the end of the sale, it was likely to be late afternoon before the Pelikan came up. On my only previous  experience with this auction, I had been hopeful of buying a burgundy Parker Duofold Centennial but was unprepared when the bidding sped past the estimate and I let it go.

I was quite expecting to be unsuccessful again and so had a back-up plan of bidding on one or two other pens, in the event that the Pelikan went to someone else.

In the event, when the Pelikan came up, as I listened online to the auctioneer, there were no higher bids placed and it went to me. (I should have walked away from the computer at that point content with my success. However I lingered online to see how the other pens sold. When a blue resin limited edition Sailor came up, I found my mouse hovering over the “Bid” button and, seeing off some half-hearted opposition, I found myself owning this pen as well, more of which another time).

I had been reading up online about the vintage Pelikan. On the following morning, I received the invoice for my two pens, by email from the auction rooms, which I thought was very speedy and efficient of them. I arranged to collect my pens later that day.

The Pelikan was fitted with a Rover 14k gold nib, extra fine, as the catalogue had stated. The pen was apparently an export model. I do not know the history of Rover nibs and am not sure whether the pen was first sold with this nib option (the piston turning knob does have the letters EF printed) or whether it might have been a later replacement of a Pelikan nib.

At home that evening, I was able to have a closer look at my purchase. The pen looked to be in a reasonably good condition for its age, which I believe dates from the early 1950’s.

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On the barrel, barely legible unless with a loupe, are the words EXPORT and PELIKAN GUNTHER WAGNER.  The nib reads ROVER 585 EXTRA. (Presumably the word FINE is concealed by the section).(Update: No, on later removing the nib, I was surprised to see that below the word EXTRA, it reads “PO.45”)

Looking at the cap, there is no inscription on the cap band. I have read that this puts it as being an early model. There were plenty of shallow scratches on the cap, signs of general use, but these are not visible to the naked eye and are only cosmetic and do not worry me at all. There are a couple of tiny cracks no more than 2mm long just below the pocket clip ring, possibly due to shrinkage but again, of no concern.

The nib looks to be in good condition with some wear, as a smooth, rounded foot can be seen to the tipping material. I was excited to try the extra fine nib but had to be patient.

The feed is an ebonite one, with “longitudinal fins” which all looked intact. These can become brittle with age and are easily cracked. I had read up on the informative “The Pelikan’s Perch” blog, how to go about removing the nib and feed, taking great care not to damage the feed.

First I wished to establish whether the nib and feed were screw fit or friction fit. Again, I learned this week that some rare early models were friction fit and that this design was briefly repeated later when the model was re-introduced.

I tried operating the piston. This was very promising. The piston traveled up and down and still felt reasonably stiff. The attractive tortoise-shell coloured, striped resin barrel gave a good view of the piston, when held up to the light.

I wanted to measure the take up into the reservoir. I have contrived my own simple device for this, being a syringe, with the plunger removed and with the nozzle plugged with a match stick. This I attach to a vertical object (the bathroom clock!) with an elastic band, and fill the syringe with water using a pipette, up to the 5ml mark.

I then held the Pelikan nib down in the syringe, and filled it with water, as you would with ink. I was pleasantly surprised to see the water level drop down to 3ml, indicating a good 2ml capacity in the Pelikan.

Ejecting this first lot of water, produced some old blue ink residue from the pen and I flushed it a couple more times, before then leaving the pen filled with water and standing in a jar of water up over the nib to have a good soak.I left it for 24 hours.

The following evening, flushing the pen a few more times, I then tried for the first time to remove the nib.Gripping the nib and feed firmly, wrapped in several layers of tissue paper, I held these still while attempting to rotate the barrel towards me, thus unscrewing the nib anti-clockwise. I was delighted when the nib began to unscrew, with no difficulty at all and I was able to remove and wash the nib and feed unit. I gather that these are interchangeable with modern nib and feed units for the M200 and M400 series pens, so that I could try the 14k gold EF in my modern M205 blue demonstrator, or the steel broad from the M205 in the vintage tortoise.

Before I filled the pen for the first time, I had to make the choice of a suitable ink. I decided to go either for Waterman Serenity Blue, or Diamine’s Conway Stewart Tavy, for this first fill. Dipping the pen in each of these ink in turn, I settled upon the Tavy, as a darker more legible line in the extra fine nib. I also like the dark blue-black tones of this ink which seemed fitting for the vintage pen, such that you might find on a letter from the 1950’s.

I was concerned as to how well the old cork piston seal might work, on a pen of perhaps over 65 years of age. The piston had drawn up water to a very satisfactory capacity, but I did not know whether it might leak from the back once filled with ink. I had spent an evening reading about removing piston assemblies from these pens, by means of a dowling rod inserted through the nib end and this sounded much too advanced and risky for me to attempt.  I very much hoped that the piston would be usable. If not, then I had an attractive and rather expensive dip pen or a nib unit that I could use in other pens.

And so that night, the pen suffered the indignity of being stood in a glass jar to check for any accidents overnight. Happily (and this really has been a lucky story so far) there were no signs of any leakage.

So how does it write? Well, the nib is far softer than any I had experienced. A little pressure spreads the narrow tines to produce a lovely characterful broad wet stroke. Without pressure the pen writes a very fine line. I was pleased with my ink choice. The nib wrote smoothly when writing with my left elbow tucked in to my side (I am left handed) but when writing in my ungainly, overhand slanting style, with paper tilted and my left hand above the line (a bad habit from childhood to avoid smudging wet ink), then the nib was a bit scratchy. So I will go with what it likes best.

I amused myself trying the pen on every available type of paper. It suits smooth papers best. And I discovered a new source of amusement, in writing with the reverse side of a vintage extra fine nib, to give an extra extra fine line! This enables you to write in such miniscule letters, aided by a magnifying glass as you go, that you can achieve up to six lines of writing in one row of an exercise book. I then attempted the Lord’s Prayer which I managed to fit into three rows,  which is less than one inch deep. This is of limited application I know, but fun to try nevertheless.

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3 thoughts on “Studying the classics – the Pelikan M400 vintage tortoise.

  1. To me, the vintage Pelikan 400 tortoiseshell is one of the most beautiful of all pens. The deep brown of the caps and the golden colour of the celluloid binde around the barrel are so striking. And yes, the modern M200 and M400 nibs are interchangeable which gives you a lot of options! Very nice review.

    Liked by 1 person

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