Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Underwood Crest: a last gasp

Here's an uncommon late Underwood portable that I picked up from a local seller. The Crest is one of many 1950s basket-shifted models that Underwood put on the market, often with interesting styling and colors. But I don't know that I've ever seen one in this particular shade, which reminds me of the '70s more than the '50s.

This light-blue Crest that sold on Etsy has an attractive golden strip around the keyboard. There's no sign of such a strip on my machine.

Does the Crest differ mechanically from other Underwood portables of the ’50s? I don't see how. Like many but not all other models from that decade, it includes a keyset tabulator with the wishful-thinking designation Quiet Tab.

You open the ribbon cover by pushing on the Underwood logo:




The machine came in a case with paper to protect its base, a brush, paper "gold medals," a typing instruction book, and a warranty.






The machine was sold on Cincinnati's Main Street, our "typewriter row" at the time. Peter Paul is still in business today at a different location. Despite the sales date of Dec. 15, 1959 (was it a Christmas present?), the serial number, BE2863273, probably dates the machine at 1957. So it's possible that this typewriter sat around in the shop for a couple of years before selling.




By the time this typewriter sold, Underwood had been acquired by Olivetti in "the largest-ever foreign takeover of an American company" at the time (follow the link for a substantial academic article about the acquisition). On October 2, 1959, Olivetti had become the largest shareholder of Underwood stock.



Although the company continued making standard typewriters on the Underwood pattern through the 1960s and even, it seems, into the 1970s, the Underwood portables were immediately discontinued when Olivetti took over. (Sixties "Underwood-Olivetti" and "Olivetti-Underwood" portables are Olivetti or Antares designs.)

Why were the Underwood portables scrapped? This Crest supports the answer that most typewriter lovers today would give: their quality was subpar. This machine came to me having seen very little use; it's almost mint. What I can say in its favor is that the carriage return makes a very nice purring sound, with no rattling at all. But ...

• I'm no metallurgist, but the metals used on this machine seem cheap and weak. Some typebars were a little bent and could easily be bent back into place. Under the back panel there was a patch of rust, for no apparent reason.

• The two springs holding up the ribbon cover were weak and could easily slip off. Just a little detail, but it shows that the "fit and finish" of this typewriter, as they say in the auto business, is not impressive.

• The Underwood logo on the ribbon cover release button was just barely hanging on. If two tiny pieces of plastic break, your logo is gone. I've seen another couple of Crests online missing this logo.

• The tabulator wasn't working. The solution was to "form" a piece, as the pros say. In other words, the thing was out of shape and had to be bent into the correct position. Just imagine doing that on a high-quality typewriter of the time, such as an Olympia: first of all, it wouldn't be necessary or expected; secondly, they used such high-quality metal that it would be very hard to do.

• Finally, check out this typing sample. The poor alignment isn't just a matter of bent typebars; the type has not been soldered on to the typebars consistently. Grade: C-.




Cute though it is, the Crest and its ilk are the last gasp of real Underwood portables. It's too bad, because the older, carriage-shifted portables are excellent, and the new basket-shift design was an improvement, in theory. Most of the mechanical principles remained the same, so that an Underwood portable from 1929 shows many parallels to one made 30 years later. But the decline in quality and precision meant that by the time the Crest was manufactured, the golden age was long gone.







PS: Here's a video found on YouTube of a Spanish-keyboard Crest that looks much like mine. Note that the Underwood logo seems to have been attached with new rivets or screws.



5 comments:

  1. weird. I've never seen one with those 2 pins holding the logo/button together. Mine's very like yours, but has no pins.

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    Replies
    1. Note that the Crest shown in the video is NOT mine.

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  2. I had one of those years ago...a truly awful machine. I've had other Golden Touch portables that I love using...not the crest. Usually I like vintage avocado greens, but not that one...

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  3. Would have been a fun cross-brand marketing opportunity for Crest toothpaste: "Keep your teeth as clean as your prose!"

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  4. Nice looking Crest. I've only seen a few of those. I agree with the cheap quality of Underwood during the 50s. I have a few because they look neat. I can't say much good about their typing action & build though. My pre-1950s Underwood typewriters are excellent and generally my favorite go-to typewriters.

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