We are processing your payment information...

Decoding the Pelikan M800

By Rick Propas
In 1987, having gone to the brink of extinction and being saved by Swiss bankers and Asian investors, Pelikan built its first oversized pen, based on the early postwar design of the famed Pelikan 400. The M800, as the new pen was designated, was intended to compete with the larger pens of its long-time rival, Montblanc. The new pen was a departure and, presumably, a necessary risk, for the company. The gamble paid off and over the next few years the Pelikan M800 emerged as arguably the finest pen of its era.

For years now, pen collectors have not just gathered up pens, but subjected them to intense study. Most of that effort has been devoted to vintage pens. Despite its status as a modern icon, the Pelikan M800 has not been studied with anything approaching the intensity of the Parker Vacumatic or Sheaffer Balance pens. Perhaps it is time to begin. 

What follows is an early first effort. It is not meant to be comprehensive nor complete, though I shall endeavor to be accurate and to label any speculation as just that.

Ever since the emergence of the new style Pelikan M800s with the screened captop about ten years ago, I have been interested in the older style pens, those with the little gold medallions at top and bottom. But in doing so I rather blindly assumed that all old style M800s were the same. I was wrong to do so, and probably should have known better. 

It has long been commonplace that mass production is something of a myth. The pens of the so-called Golden Age seemed to be continually under development. One can, for example, track early Pelikans almost to the month and year, depending on their features. The same applies to Parker Vacs and 51s. Even with the advent of highly mechanised and computerised manufacture, goods seem to continually change over time. So it is with the M800. So for the purposes of classification, I have divided these pens into three somewhat distinct periods.

The first period runs from the model’s inception in 1987 to around 1991. The most notable distinguishing feature of these pens is a political one. They were stamped W. Germany. The second of my periods then runs from around 1991 to 1998 or 1999 when the capbands of these pens were stamped Germany but were otherwise the same as the first period pens, or so I thought. Finally come the pens from 1998-99 to the present. As it emerges, however, there are several sub-sets within these periods. For the purposes of this article I am going to deal only with the so-called “old style” pens, those before 1998-99. But first, a bit of background as to how and why I undertook this examination.

Recently I acquired perhaps the most obscure model in the 800 series, an article that exists in no catalogues or other known examples, a tortoise Pelikan D800, the D prefix drawn from the German word for mechanical pencil, Druckbleistifte. Offered to me at the May 2009 Nürnberg show, this never-before-seen piece may be unique, the product of a lunchtime project in the company’s Peine manufacturing plant located about thirty kilometres northeast of Hannover near what used to be the boundary between East and West Germany. Or it may be a fake or fabrication. The truth is that no one knows. 

When the piece, presented as a set comprising ballpoint pen, fountain pen and pencil, was offered to me, I was skeptical. Earlier, another German seller had offered me a so-called tortoise 800 pencil which turned out to be nothing more than a ballpoint with a pencil insert, something easily done by virtually anyone with the parts. What makes a true Pelikan 800 pencil is the fact that the logo on the captop is enameled in gray. Unlike the earlier one this piece had the gray logo. So, on the face of it, it looked to be real. But, when dealing with obscure and uncatalogued pens, especially at the prices that tortoise M800s fetch, I had to decide, on the spot, if I was willing to make a substantial investment on a rare item whose provenance was based solely on word-of-mouth from the seller. It helped that this was someone I knew, respected and trusted. 

After brief scrutiny and thought, I decided to acquire the set, and between then and this writing have attempted to determine not just if this piece is real, but how it may have come to be. In the process I have inadvertently embarked on a journey of discovery regarding the M800 series as a whole. 

In trying to decode my tortoise D800, one thing unique to the pen became clear. All tortoise Pelikans, from 1950 on, have had brown acrylic caps, captops, sections and turning knobs. As I walked into the bright May sunshine and peered at the captops of the set I was offered in Nürnberg I was unable to determine if the captops on this set were truly brown. There turned out to be a reason. Once I got the set home and under an intense and highly focused LED, it became clear that the captops on the pencil and the K800 (ballpoint pen) were black, as were the dark plastic inserts dividing the gold filled cap rings. I might have thought this evidence of fraud were it not for the fact that the substrate of the caps, that part underlying the tortoise striped celluloid, was brown, just as you would expect it to be. 

In truth, I do not know what to make of that. But if the two pieces were made as personal projects, the maker may have had to do with available materials. Regardless, they are, to me, at least, a charming anomaly. 
But as I dug deeper, and scrutinised the pens, several things emerged, things I had not been looking for. First was that not all early 800 series Pelikan captop logos are created equal. As I looked more closely at the tortoise pencil, it became clear that the Pelikan logo was different than that on its companion M and K pieces, the fountain pen and ballpoint. At that point I began to wonder anew if I had not, indeed, purchased some sort of counterfeit, that someone had faked this thing and rather crudely at that, since the logo on the pencil was both more rough hewn and more detailled and appeared to be hand enamelled as opposed to the more finely wrought logos on its companion pieces. But no. 
As I went to my pen cases dragging out other Pelikan 800s for scrutiny, to my surprise I discovered that there were two distinct sets of captop logos. Most of the medallions were simply disks through which the Pelikan logo was punched. The logo was essentially a cutout. Not so with my tortoise D800 and not so, as it turned out, with a number of my early 800s. 
So, the question was, "What’s that about?" Here we enter into the realm of pure speculation, since there is no way of knowing about this variation. According to German corporate law as I understand it, companies are required to keep their records for only fifteen years after which they can and do destroy them. So, as far as I know, the production records for the Pelikan 800 no longer exist.

Lacking data, like any good social scientist I was free to make stuff up; but as a scholar and a teacher, I had to make an effort to theorise responsibly. 

As a Pelikan collector and one who trades in these pens, I have had more than a few 800 series pens pass through my hands. For my own collection, I have tended to keep the early ones, denoted by 14 K nibs and the W. Germany markings. Now I began to detect a pattern, all the pens with the stamped, as opposed to cut out, medallions were W. Germany pens and many had 14 K nibs. Thus I posited that the stamped, as opposed to cut out medallions had to be of earlier manufacture. 

Like my tortoise pencil, early 800s appear to have a medallion into which the logo has been stamped, but not punched through, and then enamelled in, possibly by hand, based on the appearance. (These differences are better illustrated in the accompanying images than described.) Moreover, the design of the logo, while seemingly unchanged from enamelled to cutout models is subtlely different, the “redesign” probably forced by the new manufacturing techniques. Fountain pens, mechanical pencils, ballpoints all have this feature. Why do I assume this to be early? It is simply the logic of manufacture. As I discuss in a forthcoming Stylus article on first year pens, first comes design, then manufacture and then cost-cutting. An enamelled captop requires more steps than a stamped cutout. Thus logic suggests it is earlier. 

For some time now, I have felt intuitively, rather than been able to illustrate, that the first year M800 was different than other early pens. Now, it would seem, I have data. Although this data is purely empirical, (since the records no longer exist) it suggests that my instincts were correct. 
But, back to my tortoise M800 set. Do these discoveries help clear up the mystery of the D800? Sadly no. In fact they raise several more questions than they answer. Why, for example, is the logo on the pencil of the first generation, the enamelled variety, rather than the cutout style of the fountain and ballpoint pens? 
Still, my close examination and study of this pen has satisfied me in several regards. Having taken the pen apart as far as possible without doing it damage, I am convinced that it is real and that it was made at about the same time as its companions. To be sure, Pelikan still has tortoise material, but the brown substrate of the cap suggests that the pencil was made early or at least not recently, at a time when the maker could easily obtain the caps, if not the tops and bands. But why, then, were the captops black, as were the cap rings? There I am mystified. Given the construction of the caps, it seems most likely that the person who made them simply did not have access to brown captops or cap band assemblies when he put them together. Or it is entirely possible that he did so using real materials in the factory somewhat after the fact. Or did he use the black parts to mark them out as non-production? There is simply no way to know.
For now, this set raises as many questions as it solves. At the same time, my intense scrutiny of this pen and other Pelikan 800s, has given us additional evidence in our quest to understand the genesis and manufacture of modern as well as vintage pens. 
But, perhaps the most intriguing question, at least for me, is whether this piece, the tortoise D800, is unique in the world. But that I may never know.
This article first appeared in Stylus Annual 2012 and is reprised here with their permission.