T51R is the Almost Perfect Cigar-Rollerball

When a emerging player from the fine stationery industry Retro 1951 announced that there is a T51R cigar in their Big Shot lineup, I let out my first “ooh” for a rollerball. After spending the last couple years collecting and using countless fountain pens and ballpoints, and finding them fulfilling my various writing needs, the idea of having a $32 retractable pen that theme after a legit cigar felt somehow still appealing and novel.

Long before stripping the package, I was unarmored by the heavily themed packaging paper of this oversized Tornado rollerball. The brown, gold and crimson color palette seems to be picked directly from a real cigar package, and the words in the label leaves no strong implication that inside lies a rollerball since in big font it says “T51R CIGAR”, along with words like “SMOOTH”, “PREMIUM” and “Bold.” If not a fan of stationery or google this brand in advance, one can easily be fooled by this packaging trick.

RETRO 1951 by FrankUnderwater - 2

Behind the package is a heavily-cigar-themed rollerball. Heftier and thicker than a regular Tornado, it sits snugly in the lower part of the package with a huge red dot pointing up in its flat head, mimicking a burning cigar. The majority of the pen’s copper trim has been wisely brushed in the same swirling direction, or polished to be more civilized.

RETRO 1951 by FrankUnderwater - 13

However, the apparent eye-catching feature of this pen is surely the surface texture of the “cigar leaves.” I imagined quite a lot about the textural feeling of this extremely cigar-like body before acquiring this pen. The primary concern is that other cigar-inspired pens such as Tombow Havanna or Monteggrapa Cigar have a glossy barrel, but here in this pen Retro sticks to the metal material. The result is brilliant. On the one hand, the acid-etched utter barrel has been well lacquered, with brown paint covers even for the smallest dots and a cigar label printed clearly in the center of the barrel; on the other hand, the barrel still features a surface not coated with clear lacquer, enabling an essential amount of handling. The feeling conveyed by such a combination of visual elements is both novel and serious, thus if you want a pen that could also be a conversation-starter, this one must stay in the top of the list.

Underneath the cigar camouflage, lies the great refill of every Tornado rollerball. With so many appraise been pouring into this little Schmidt refill that, the only thing I can add to them is that it produces a line darker and smoother than a LAMY refill thanks to its generous flowing, and it starts way faster than a LAMY as you can see in the picture.

However, it turned out that extra effort is needed if I want to get the pen capable enough to serve this great refill since the cone of it was rattling like crazy during writing.

Right out the box, I noticed that the hole punched in the cone was unnecessarily roomy for the tip of the refill, and every single stroke will lead the metal refill to wiggle springily in all direction within this metal hole. Surely an inelegant and uncomfortable feature, this flaw could easily become a deal breaker for someone who first tried Retro brand. Since I have spotted similar complaints about the Tornados with same brushed-copper style cone, so my best guess is that there lies a QC issue. I reached out to the company. However, the explanation from Retro 51’s customer service did not convince me at all.

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The reply I got from Retro 51

Retro 51’s best guess at the cause of my trouble is their designing effort to make the pen take either a rollerball or a G-2 ballpoint refill, and since the former one has a more substantial tip, they have to leave extra room here for the sake of compatibility. This “designing philosophy” sounds reasonable at first glance but it is simply wrong. They tried to explain it away by saying that the hole was “intentionally” enlarged to accommodate a rollerball while neglecting the fact that the pen I was reporting to them, like any other Big Shot, was already carrying a rollerball refill right out the box and it still rattled. Mind you that a standard Tornado with chrome cone never fails to fit a rollerball refill snuggly. Besides, I do not believe there is any general pattern that a G-2 style ballpoint refill always tapers thinner than a Schmidt rollerball refill. For a short fact-check, please check the following comparison shot.

RETRO2 1951 by FrankUnderwater - 1
From Left: Big Shot and Classic Stainless Tornado with factory refill, along with a third one with a Visconti ballpoint refill

In the same reply, the company representative also argues that the only thing I can do besides take the reality is to “turn the spring around.” I tried, and I do not believe that at all because that little spring is in no way to counterbalance the friction caused during a writing session.

However, even with this annoying issue and the self-contradictory reply from the company , I still believe this pen is creating a unique and peerless product positioning here. The retail price for all the oversized Big Shot products is only 12 dollars over a  normal Tornado, so does this Cigar; and when comparing with some discontinued “poppers,” limited run of novelty themed Tornados, its theme factor still holds. The Tombow Havanna in comparison comes with a 28-years design that has little flavor, a less impressive refill, and it costs almost 20 dollars more. The LAMY Accent Rollerball I always put aside when testing this pen ranks the highest level of precision and has a astonishing clip, but it costs over 100 dollars and just lacks a sense of humor. In the end, all you need to do to patch the rattling hole of this Big Shot is to wrap some tape around the end of the refill and you are OK to go.

RETRO 1951 by FrankUnderwater - 16

I have been using this Cigar for a week, and it successfully replaces the Parker Jotters’ role as my pocket pen thanks to its mixed characteristics of being both a fun gadget and a decent writer. The oversize body fits naturally into my palm, and the Schmidt refill even eclipses some of my nail-nib fountain pens. Moreover, the knurled twist top turned out to be a big deal when I was in attendance of one small-scale music salon since then it produces no sound during the concert when I want to take a note. Though the customer service reply I got from the company over this pen was an apparent frustration, the rattling issue is still an easy-to-fix flaw. Thus, if you love to carry this nearly perfect rollerball, (and have spare Scotch tape), do give it a try.

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