The development of the Parker ’51’ was, in part, due to an attempt by Parker to market a fast drying ink, initially ‘Parker 51’ ink, then ‘Superchrome’. The material used to make the pen ‘Lucite’ ( a type of perspex) was resistant to the very corrosive properties of the ink, which was very alkaline, but unfortunately some other components were degraded by the ink and it was discontinued in 1956. With the hooded nib and ‘jet fighter’ profile the pen was an immediate success. The use of a collector to store ink inside the pen rather than relying on the fins on the feed maintained a good ink flow and a high quality circular Gold nib provided an excellent writing experience. The Parker ’51’ has often been described as ‘the best pen ever made’. The early Parker 51 was a ‘Vacumatic’ filler, the ink, which was stored in the barrel of the pen, was drawn in by the partial vacuum created by a pump unit at the end of the pen.
In 1948 Parker felt that the Vacumatic system was outdated and it was replaced with a ”Photo-fill’, later called an ‘Aerometric’ filler. Instead of being stored in the barrel the ink was stored in a reservoir made of a transparent material that Parker termed ‘Pli-Glass’. This was housed in a metal sleeve with a flexible bar which was pressed and released to draw in ink, it was a great success and was used for decades to come.
The Parker 51 chosen for this review is a U.S.A. made Aerometric dating from 1948 to 1949. It is finished in Burgundy, which is much more ‘Brown’ than Red. The colour of the American burgundy 51s is very similar to the ‘Cordovan Brown’ used in the earlier Vacumatic versions, the ‘English Burgundy’ is much ‘Redder’ and is sometimes referred to as ‘Bloody Burgundy’.
The cap, a Gold filled, push fit ,is stamped:
Made in U.S.A.
1/10 12K Gold filled.”
It has a pearl coloured end stud and a gold filled arrow clip. It is engraved with groups of five longitudinal lines with a clear space between the groups, tapering towards the top of the cap.
The pen has a capped length of 14cm. and 15cm. (6 inches) with the cap posted. The filler sleeve is polished Chrome and bears the inscription:
” Parker ’51’
To fill press ribbed bar firmly six times”
This inscription firmly dates the pen to 1948/1949 as a ‘Mkll A’, the inscription was changed from six to four presses in 1950.
The original ‘Pli-Glass’ ink sac is unstained on this particular pen, suggesting very little use.
The filling system works well and takes up a good volume of ink. A range of Parker 51 14Ct. Gold nibs were available, ranging from fine to broad, sometimes a stub type point. This pen has a medium point.
The 51 has a really good, high quality, solid feel. It is well balanced and a comfortable’ easy’ writer. This one lays down a medium line, perhaps on the fine side. It is very smooth and consistent, doesn’t ‘skip’, and has a slightly soft action. The date shown here should, of course, be 1949, not 1969, a slip of the pen by me.
The Parker ’51’ is not a particularly rare pen, older pens and ones in colours other than Black more so. The most sought after colours are: Plum, Buckskin Beige, Cocoa, and Forest Green. I have noticed that the English Burgundy is fairly uncommon in the U.S.A. but not here, in the U.K.
There are some very rare models out there, usually at seemingly outrageous prices. I say ‘seemingly’ because many of these will probably appreciate in value at a good ‘inflation plus’ rate. £1500 for a near mint ‘Empire State’ (icicle) 1940s vacumatic may well be a bargain but is still beyond the reach of most people for a single pen. At around £600, more for a mint example, a 2002 ‘Special Edition’ version of the same pen with a modern filling system and upgraded nib assembly may be worth considering.
These pens have the ‘Empire State’ cap and were made in two colours, Black and Vista Blue. The black pens have a Vermeil cap and the Vista Blue ones a solid silver cap.
Parker 51s generally hold their value as well as any vintage pen, partly because they are very good pens. Prices for a good condition 51 vary a good deal but £80 to £120 looks about the norm, often cheaper in Black. Although they are rarely faulty all those that are do turn up on eBay, along with some very good ones. If you happen to be looking for a decent pen as a vintage user, don’t mind Black and a dinged alloy cap plus a few scratches then perhaps it’s worth a punt on eBay for around fifty quid.
The main things to avoid are cracked or chipped barrels and hoods, I have seen quite a few with the tip of the hood missing or rounded. Having said that hoods and barrels can be bought at around £20, sometimes less but caps are a different matter. Parker 51 caps come in a huge variety of subtly different styles and materials, some are much more desirable than others. The most common is the ‘Lustralloy’ cap with a chrome plated clip and pearl coloured end stud, one of the most sought after caps is in Rolled Silver with a Gold filled clip.
Ding free caps are at a premium for obvious reasons, there were the same number of caps made as there were pens and a good number of the caps sustained dings, its a matter of supply and demand. There are a number of very good fountain pen people around who can ‘unding’ a cap but a special tool is required to draw out the insides of the cap and the results are usually good, but not perfect.
The ‘Lustralloy’ caps were produced with a most attractive ‘frosted’ surface. This effect is fairly short lived if the pen is well used and is very difficult to reproduce so if you find one with a pristine original frosted, ding free surface you should grab it, providing the price is right. A very good second hand lustralloy cap will probably set you back around thirty pounds or so.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a very good quality vintage fountain pen that writes well, won’t break down and looks good, but appreciate a little prestige then you can’t do much better than a vintage Parker ’51’, it is a great pen.