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Parker 51 review.

Parker 51 Review.

Parker '51' for sale collection

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'

There is a great deal of confusion about naming the 51 versions, but it is accepted that there are four main types.  Following David Shepherd's excellent 'Parker 51' book, I use the following scheme: 

Mk I - Vacumatics (1940 - 1948)

Mk II - Aerometric (1948 - 1969)

Mk III - Aerometric, square ended barrel, tapered 61 style cap, thin section ring, pearl cap stud (1969 - 1971)

Mk IV - Aerometric, square ended barrel, tapered 61 style cap, thick section ring, metal cap stud (1971 - 1975)

 In October 2002 Parker launched the 'Parker 51 Special Edition'.  This was, visually, a copy of the 1942 'Icicle' or 'Empire State' model made with 21st. century technology.  It retailed at $350 and met with a mixed reception from Parker 51 enthusiasts.

Twenty years later Parker produced another 51 version, the 'New Parker 51'.  It is still too early to decide on the success of this 'reimagined' 51 but the signs are not particularly good.

Why is the Parker 51 such a great writer?

The Parker 51 is the most successful pen ever made.  To achieve this, the pen needed more than high quality, robust build, reliability and attractive design.  At a time when pens were used on a daily basis, often for extended periods of time, the world's most successful pen had to be substantially better at it's job than  the competition, it had to be a really outstanding writer.

To write well, a fountain pen needs a good, consistent ink supply and a nib that will deliver the ink to the paper in a smooth, controlled, and effort free manner.  

Under the Parker 51 hood is a device that Parker called an 'ink governer', it is now usually referred to as an 'ink collector'.  I think the first term describes its function more accurately, it doesn't just collect ink, it 'governs' it.  The collector takes the form of a multi finned insert, ink is trapped between the fine fins and serves as a 'second reservoir' to make the ink immediately available to the nib point.

The Parker 51 nib is not a large, elaborate, and handsome affair as was often found on top quality pens at the time.  The appearance issue is largely irrelevant as the hood covers all but the tip of the nib.  It is a quite small, almost cylindrical nib, generally 14 Ct. Gold, although there are some 'Octanium' and 18Ct. versions around.  The nib design was not undertaken in isolation, it was an itegral part of a revolutionary complete ink delivery system that was to place Prker at the pinnacle of fountain pen design for decades.   

 Parker 51 Vacumatic:

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.

                             Read an assessment of the Parker 51 Vacumatic system

And here's one 'in the flesh':

A gentleman had inherited this pen from his father and had a very clear plan for its restoration.   It has a solid Silver cap which had suffered a few bad knocks and had been fitted with the wrong clip, the hood was also chipped at the point.  The owner, obviously,  wanted to keep as much of his father's pen as possible and had produced a detailed specifiaction along with a replacement 'Blue Diamond' clip and cap stud. When I dismantled the pen it was clear that the nib was not the normal Parker 51 tubular affair, but it was a 14Ct. Gold Parker nib, probably from a Parker Lady and had worked well previously, so we decided to keep it, although the hood was replaced.

The major dings were removed from the cap and the pen given a light polish.  It's now a good example of a conservatively restored Parker 51 Vacumatic, and, despite the adopted nib, is an excellent writer. 

Parker 51 Aerometric

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.

To reiterate which model should be called a Mk.I, Mk.II etc.:  The changes that can be considered 'Major' are the change of filling system in 1948 and the change of shape in 1969.  It appears, therefore, that a logical approach would be to call a Vacumatic the Mk.I, an Aerometric the Mk. II, and the square ended pen the Mk.III.  while the Mk.I and the Mk.II may be hard to tell apart at first glance the Mk.III looks quite different:

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. 

Parker 51 Special Edition

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 51 Special Edition

Parker 51 special edition

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 £90 to £140 looks about the norm for a Classic and up to about £170 for a Custom. 

Although they are rarely faulty it is very important to ensure that  a 51 has been serviced and fully tested.  Any vintage pen has usually been left, untouched for many years, often with ink still in the pen.  Some inks can be corrosive so it is essential that the 'innards' are checked, cleaned, and replaced if necessary.  Parker 51s have an intricate 'collector' arrangement as has been shown.  If it has been left for some time with ink present this will have dried and clogged the fins.  In this condition the collector is ineffective and one of the main reasons for buying a Parker 51 is invalid.  A comprehensive service is needed to ensure that the system works as it was intended.

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.

The Parker 51 Signet, renamed the Insignia in 1958, is a top of the range, all Gold filled 51 with a gold infilled clutch ring.  It's a beautiful pen, about as good as a Parker 51 Aerometric gets.


As mentioned earlier the colour of a parker 51 is an important factor in assessing the value of the pen.  The 'Cocoa' colour is quite rare and much sought after:

This is followed closely by the 'Forest Green' version:

The Gold capped version was named the 'Parker '51' Custom':

And the 'Lustralloy' capped pen was called the 'Parker '51' Classic' in England and the 'De Luxe' in the U.S.A.:

Parker 51 Special

The 'Parker '51' Special' was a cheaper version of the 51.  It featured a simpler, 'U bar' filler mechanism and the nib was not 14 Ct. gold but 'Octanium'.  This was so named because it was said to consist of eight materials, some have suggested that it was actually stainless steel with a posh name, but its components were: 40% cobalt, 20% chromium, 15% nickel, 15% iron, 7% molybdenum, 2% manganese, along with traces of beryllium and carbon.

The cap was polished stainless steel with a black cap stud, quite an attractive combination.  It was renamed the 'Parker '51' Standard' in 1957.

New Parker 51

In 2021 Parker introduced a '51 reimagined'.  It has, so far, received a very mixed reaction ranging from 'diabolical' to 'excellent'.  Broadly speaking the response seems to be polarised in that the enthusiasts who compare it with a 'real 51' are scathing and the people who buy, and assess it as a 'stand alone' modern pen seem to be quite happy.

The pen is a cartridge/converter filler with a screw cap.  The cap arrangement has drawn some criticism in that it matches the metal threads of the cap with the plastic threads of the barrel.  The concern is, of course, that this will inevitably lead to wear and failure of the barrel threads.  The purists also argue that it is a sin to call a cartridge filler a Parker 51.

There are two models, plus colour variations.  The cheaper pen, at £85, is a steel nibbed pen:


 The Gold nibbed version is priced at £225:

 This fairly comprehensive review is quite complementary: 

REVIEW: NEW PARKER 51 FOUNTAIN PEN | The Pencilcase Blog | Fountain pen, Pencil, Ink and Paper reviews

This review makes it clear that the pen should not be compared to the original: 

First Impressions: Hands On with the New Parker 51 Fountain Pen — The Gentleman Stationer

I think I'll give the pen a miss, for now.... O.K., I give up, I've bought one and here's my:

New Parker 51 Review

I think the reviews above do a pretty good job on describing the New 51 as a stand alone pen.  It is a good, reasonably priced modern pen in it's own right and shouldn't be compared to the original Parker 51, so I'm going to do just that!

I must admit that the appearance of the new pen is quite pleasing and it looks just like 'it says on the box', a new take on an old classic:

The box is decent quality and suits the pen well, it looks at home.  A direct comparison of appearance and dimensions of the two pens, capped and posted, shows that, on the surface, there is very little difference:

Looking carefully at the tip of the hood of each pen it is noticeable that the new 51 has a slightly broader, less tapered contour and, more importantly, the tip is not completely opaque.  Whether this was intended, or it is simply that the material is thinner or of lower density, I've no idea.  I don't like it though.

Picking the two pens up they feel about the same weight but the old pen feels somehow more substantial and differently balanced.  This isn't imagined, I did a series of blindfold tests picking up Parker 51s and could almost always tell which was which.

I suppose the two main differences between the pens, screw cap versus slip cap and Aerometric versus cartridge filling system is a matter of personal preference. There is, however, some concern that the metal threads in the cap would cause excessive wear on the barrel threads in the new pen, time will tell.

My 'New Parker 51' is the Burgundy pen with a steel nib and the original has a 14Ct. Gold nib.  The Gold nib is better than the steel one, by about £100 looking at the pricing of the pens.  This brings us to an important issue with respect to the comparison.  Given that a quite nice old pen would cost around the same as a steel nibbed new pen then this is the model we should use for the comparison.  I must stand up and be counted here, the old Parker 51 is by far the better pen, imho, as they say these days.  


I make no apologies for saying that I like the Parker 51 very much, I own quite a few.  It was designed at a time when a fountain pen was an essential piece of equipment for most people and Parker set out to make this the best pen money could buy.  Functionality and longevity were paramount but Kenneth Parker was also very aware that the pen should have great aesthetic appeal. He certainly got it right, Parker 51 sales exceeded $400 million.

The 51, now a vintage pen, still compares very favourably with the most expensive modern pens on the market.  It is an extremely fine writer, although the hooded design precludes any flexibility in the nib Parker have managed to achieve a very pleasing 'soft' feel making it very 'easy' and comfortable to use.

The concept of a multi finned collector as an 'intermediate ink reservoir' facilitates good ink flow and reliable 'starting' although 'clogging' can be an issue if the pen is left unused and full of ink for long periods of time.

Despite the metal cap the 51 is still a light weight pen when compared to many modern offerings, some high end Montblancs are twice the weight, and twice the price.  The weight issue is a major consideration if the pen is to be used for prolonged periods of writing.

Although the appearance of the pen is, of course, a very personal judgement most would agree that it has a slightly understated and classically distinguished look. 

So, if you are looking for a vintage pen that will write well, very rarely break, look good and have a certain amount of prestige then the Parker 51 is very well worth considering.