With thanks to Thomas Fürtig.
While browsing ebay, it is easy to dismiss many of the machines there as ‘just a re-badged machine’. That phrase itself implies that it has no collectable or desirable characteristics, and is thus regarded as just another ‘also-ran’. It is also a very puritanical view that can leave out significant parts of our cultural history. Rebranded typewriters are often indicative of historic cultural differences, and they occasionally mark the birth of death of major corporate entities. Was the ‘Bijou’ just another rebranded typewriter? How about the Courier typewriter?
Do you think Jack Tramiel considered his typewriters as ‘Just another re-badged machine’? … but more about him in an upcoming post.
A couple of months ago I spotted this machine on Australian ebay. For the keen eyed amongst you, you probably will have noticed that it is an Olympia Plana. For the somewhat visually challenged, yet slightly keen eyed – you probably spotted that it isn’t badged as an Olympia. And I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people that read this blog – will have not seen this badge before.
Something was a bit amiss with this machine. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I bid on it, but having never seen any of the badges on this machine before I bid more than I typically would have out of interest. It certainly looked like an Olympia Plana, but when I got it into my hands that certainty abated.
The first thing that threw me was the material the cover plates were made of. Every other Plana that I had touched previously had been mode of Bakelite. This machine however was made from die-cast steel. And then there was the model badge ‘Modell A’ – which I had never seen before. I dropped a photo of this badge into Alan Seaver’s (Machines of loving grace) email and asked him what he thought about it, and like myself, he wasn’t even sure if the name was MODELLA, or Modell A.
There was at least something on this typewriter that could be easily identified – the pre-world war 2 Olympia logo above the model name was unmistakable.
Alan surmised that it certainly looked like an Olympia, but it could have been made under license in Italy, where the Modella name had been used on other machines. However this was just a wild theory which wasn’t supported by the ‘Made in Germany’ tag on the back.
So, I thought it was time to call on the local european experts.
It was time… to call…. Georg Sommeregger.
I dropped some photos into Georg’s inbox, but he didn’t have any real ideas on this model either, so he called on the expertise of Thomas Fürtig. Thomas confirmed that it is indeed a Plana, specifically a ‘Modell A’ – Which meant that it has a tabulator, whereas the Modell B does not.
This machine seemed to piqued Thomas’s interest a little, and he asked for high resolution photos the machine. The photos I’ve used in this blog are reduced size versions of some of the photos that I sent Thomas. I also asked Thomas if he knew anything about the ‘Commando’ branding. He didn’t, but he had seen other Olympias in Australia re-branded before. In fact, he even has one in his own collection – a ‘Ranger’ which appears to be based on the Olympia Elite series machines. Thomas kindly provided me with a photo that he had on file of this machine, and gave me permission to use it here.
I’m very thankful for Thomas’s help, however I still feel there’s a few questions about this machine that may need a bit more research. Thomas rightly identifies this machine as a post-war Olympia. However the ‘Made in Germany’ designation on the back seems at odds with the practice at the time of tagging products as ‘Made in West Germany’. Also, the serial number doesn’t fit in with the Olympia Plana series numbers, but does fit in with the ‘Super Modell’ series – but only before the war. Incidentally the serial doesn’t match any of the Optima machines either.
And then there’s the Elephant in the room – why re-badge an Olympia? Olympia was a company with a very strong and well deserved reputation along a very high quality product line. The name ‘Olympia’ was even important enough to the post-war reconstruction founders to go to legal war across the iron curtain post WW2, in order to keep the name. This was at a time when the new Olympia were struggling to find the finances to rebuild the business. Why rebadge a machine with a highly saleable brand?
More on that in a minute.
As for the typewriter itself, I have mixed feelings.
The machine is certainly well manufactured, and lives up to most of the expectations you’d have of an Olympia made machine. The ribbon covers are spring-loaded and lock back along with the spool-finger. It works smoothly, and feels well made and very stable. The design has a pleasing visual line through it, and for an ultra-portable (traveller) typewriter, it has some features that you don’t usually see on machines of its era. Namely the ribbon colour selector, and the tabulator function.
And I have to say I loved the positioning of the tab and tab set keys. Everything you could want is just a small finger-stretch away. If there is one thing Olympia did well, it was to make a damn sexy keyboard. I absolutely love the colour of this machine.
Olympia have made some very impressive typewriters. Everything from the SM series is revered by writers, and those machines are arguably some of the best typewriters ever made. The Modell 7 and 8 standard machines, along with the SG1 and SG3 are also very well respected.
There’s no question that Olympia made a lot of brilliant machines.
Unless you look at their ultra-portables. Unfortunately the Plana is the first in a long line of machines that were utter pigs to type with. Right from the outset Olympia never quite got the traveller typewriter design right. The Plana in bakelite is unexpectedly heavy and has a case that is only mildly smaller than the pre-war Simplex model. This version of the Plana with a die-cast steel shell is probably tough enough to take on a Commando raid and could potentially stop a bullet if needed, but is just as heavy as an SM. Also machine is far from stealthy to type on. Each key press feels awkward, and the machine makes a lot of noise for what seemed to be a very poor outcome. It types quite poorly overall, even after being serviced and adjusted.
The feel is similar to typewriters in the ‘Splendid’ and SF lines that followed this machine. It just doesn’t feel quite right, and when you are used to typing on other machines this typewriter takes a bit of getting used to. If you just dab your finger down to get the feel of the key it feels reasonably responsive. But in operation when you are typing it just feels like you are bottoming out on the keys harshly, and your fingers quickly feel tired.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m never going to find an Olympia traveller typewriter that I can cart off with me on a long drive. They fall well short of the standard set by the beautiful SM machines. I’d rather take an SM1 than this Plana. If anything because the type quality to weight ratio leans heavily in favour of the SM.
But the question still remains:- Why re-brand these Olympia machines?
The answer may have more to do with a particularly dark chapter in Australia’s political history, than it does with the typewriter itself.
During the early 1900’s the Australian government established a series of policies that were grouped under the name of ‘The White Australia Policy’. It was originally designed to just allow immigration from particular locations in Europe, with a very heavy emphasis on encouraging immigration from Britain. While at first it was was reasonably tolerant of German immigration at first, Germany quickly became ‘the enemy’ to most Australians by the time the first world war started. From then on, and up until some time after the second world war, Germans, like the Japanese, were subjected to some of the worst racism that Australia had to offer at the time.
German made goods were considered inferior to products that were British or American, and German brands were often avoided. This had a huge influence on Australian buying habits, and often stores went to odd lengths to make german sourced products more palatable for local consumption. Australian law from a very early stage established that goods could not miss-represent their origin of manufacture, so any modifications to products – such as typewriters, tended to need to retain a tag designating where they were made.
The White Australia Policy institutionalised racism and prejudice in Australia for decades, and still has an unfortunate impact on our society today.
I have two Royal portable typewriters from the 1940s. Both of these machines were made in Scotland, and had an ugly – and clearly haphazardly slapped on decal saying ‘Built in the British Empire’. These decals appear to be put on after-market, and by the positioning is clearly designed to highlight that this machine, which was sold in Australia, was of British decent. An odd selling point that would probably look strange to a lot of outsiders.
As for the Olympias, both of the re-branded machines that I have seen so far have been given very masculine names. Ranger and Commando? These machines sound like they were being marketed towards the budding Hemingways of the world. Hemingway was just as popular in Australia as he was in the United States. However names are an odd choice of considering that the target market for typewriters typically wasn’t gender specific. By this stage women were heavily considered in marketing, and largely typewriters featured gender neutral names. While some colours targeted women specifically, largely typewriters were androgynous in their design and marketing.
It is just a theory, but I think that these machines may have been rebranded specifically because of the affiliation of Olympia’s name and german manufacturing. Olympia had been a major supplier of typewriters to the Nazi party and the SS. And like many other well known Germany companies – such as BASF, they sold products under different marquees here in Australia in order to keep their foot in the door with trade. Often these products would be rebranded once they hit Australia’s shores, and there’s some evidence that this has happened with the Commando machine.
I might add that I have seen no direct evidence that Olympia were particularly supportive of the Nazi regime – outside of selling more machines to them. But that may be something for another historian to look into and talk about.
By the 1950s this hostility towards german products had turned around dramatically in Australia, and Germany and Japan became a major trading partners here. So much so that by the 1980s most high schools in Australia had ditched the traditional French language classes that were a common british tradition, and taught german and japanese instead. Incidentally I chose german.
I haven’t been able to dig up another example of a Commando branded machine so far, but I’m sure others exist. If I’m right, this machine’s rebranding makes it an interesting piece of Australian typewriter history, and I think it is a worthy addition to my collection of Olympia typewriters.
I’m never going to tap out the great Australian novel on this machine. Maybe I could write some Hemingway though… It looks like someone has already bled all over this keyboard.