The Pelikan M491: A Pen History

By Michael W. Harris

My fountain pen history began in May 2013 with the gift of a Pelikan M200 in marbled green. While it took another five years for that gift to flower into a full-blown hobby, because of my first fountain pen being a Pelikan, the brand has retained a special place in my heart and mind. So much so that I hope to acquire a number of Pelikans to compliment that first M200. Call it a “flock” of Pelikans, if you will.

A Flight of Pelikans

To date, I have picked up three additional pens from the brand: a Special Edition M120 in Iconic Blue, a M200 in blue marble (a pre-1997 model at that with slightly different features), and the subject of today’s post: the M491 from the 1960s. This last pen is all sorts of weird: from its left oblique nib to its model number, the M491 is just an oddpen from the usually rather sedate and venerable German Brand.

Word of caution: this is not going to be a typical pen review. Rather, this is going to be more a history of this writing instrument, how it came about, what makes it so odd, how it came to be in my collection, and why I love it…quirks and all.

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The M491

Let’s start with how the M491 ended up in my possession. Not too long after falling into the hobby of fountain pens and the initial binge of wanting to try “all the things” on “all the pens,” I had a few that I wanted to resell. I had gotten some pens to in order to try out aspects of pens to discover what I liked (brands, filling systems, nib sizes, etc.), and discovered that a few really didn’t work for me. This led to joining the Pen Addict Slack group and the “sell-trade” thread. Naturally, while selling these pens, I was also on the look-out for ones to pick up.

A Pelikan with an left oblique nib is weird enough since they don’t really make obliques any more. And while it was an older model (billed as an MK30 or so), the nib was something I had wanted to try out, plus it was a gold nib, and at $60 the price was right as well.

M491 nib and body

Once I got it, though, two things just struck me as very odd and made me think that it can’t be the MK30 or really any of those older models: 1) the nib is lacking any specific Pelikan branding, and 2) it is a cartridge/converter pen.

For those who know Pelikans, that last point should make you go, “huh.” As The Pelikan’s Perch blog recently laid out in an amazing infographic, Pelikan model numbers that being with “M” are piston fillers (M standing for “mechanik-füller”). All credit to the seller, though, the body of the pen is certainly that of the MK30, right down to the blue tinted ink window (which while useful on a cartridge/converter, is really not as necessary as it is on a piston filler). However, everything else about the pen is wrong for the MK30.

But if not the MK30, then what the heck was it? Two websites, thanks to picture comparisons, helped to solve this riddle. First was “Werner’s info page,” where I was first able to identify the pen as an M491 (scroll down to the very bottom of the linked page), which included the cryptic note of “only for export,” and the indication that it was, indeed, a cartridge/converter pen. So I had found my pen, but what does that mean? Only for export? And export to where?

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The Slack seller I purchased the M491 from told me that they had bought it from another Pen Addict slack member who had gotten it from a well-known member of the group who had also done some light restoration work on it. Where that person had gotten it from they could not recall. But, regardless, the pen had been kicking around the community for a while.

This pen is one of those objects with a history, a story, that had existed long before me and will hopefully continue on after the pen has left my possession. While it might have been made in Germany “for export only” to somewhere for “reasons” that I do not know, it is still a tangible object. A physical object with materiality, which at the end of the day, is the singular thing that the physical—analog—has over digital.

But why makes this pen? It is so clearly grafted onto a pre-existing Pelikan model except without its iconic nib branding and piston filler, so why not just export the original pen? Why this pen, the M491 “for export only?”

I am still unsure about most of these answers, but I can tell you one thing: this pen from a German manufacturer was intended only for export to one of the world’s largest fountain pen markets, one whose enthusiasm for the instrument is rivaled only by Europe itself (at least in my mind and anecdotal observation): Japan.

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The M491 finial

The second website that yielded some answers to my questions was Dominic Rothemel’s Pelikan Collectibles (again, scroll down to the second to last section of the page “Pelikan M4xx – Japan Models”). Knowing that the pen was a M491, I was able to locate the pen on the site and again, confirm it via pictures and learn a bit more about these models. It here that I learned they the pens they were sold in Japan in the mid-1960s with designs “very similar to the pistons fillers which were solid in this period in Europe.”  Additionally, as to the curious model number, it says that, “We presume the reason for this type of numbering was that these [pens] were fitted with a converter by Pelikan.”

This section includes plenty of photos, and most interestingly to me, advertisements for the pens, which illustrates how this line was basically a Japan specific version of cartridge/converter pens. But why did Pelikan do converter pens and not piston? Does it have something to do with trends in the Japanese market? Were they more drawn to cartridge/convertor rather than piston (come to think of it, even for high end Japanese pens, they are almost also convertor)?

Curiouser and curiouser, but sadly this is where the information trail stops for now. These M4xx Japan only pens came in a variety of models, nib materials, and nib sizes. So, while the left oblique of my pen might be a bit of an oddball today, my understanding is that they were more common in previous decades. Also, the 18 caret gold nib does seemingly mark it as on the higher end of this product line since they also came in steel and 14 caret. But even here, while some of these pens featured a rolled gold cap along with other furniture, the M491 only has a black plastic cap with gold bands, a gold clip, and some gold on the finials.

It is worth the time to click through the pictures on the Pelikan Collectibles site: there are some great mid-60s designs on display. I would not mind getting the M495 Gold Doublé for myself! This odd period in Pelikan’s history is one that I would like to uncover more about.

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“But how does the pen write?” I hear you ask. I said that this will not be a traditional pen review, but I will offer a few thoughts on this utterly weird and unique pen.

As with most older pens, it is small and more akin to a typical ballpoint pen today in size. As you have seen, branding is minimal, and the color is just flat black (though a red model was also available).

The oblique nib lays down a wide, juicy line…when it is working. My one complaint with this pen is that it sometimes has a tendency to hard start, especially if it has been set down for a few moments. But even between pen lifts it can sometimes be a bit tricky to get it started writing. However, it does eat up the ink when it is going, leading to not only some great line variation with the nib (which has a bit of flex), but also some fun shading. A sheening ink, I suspect, would look amazing with this pen. (I am looking at you Organic Studio Nitrogen!!)

But the hard starting is frustrating and I am considering taking it to a nibmeister for some work if it would help (I am not sure what the problem is, though the tines are quite far apart relative to my other pens). But if I change that, I might lose the mega-ink flow that this pen has.

M491 Writing Sample

The bottom line is, though, that this pen is a lot of fun to use. It is definitely not an everyday writer and would absolutely destroy non-fountain pen friendly paper, but the line it lays down is incredible to look at. And even better, for me at least, is that it is the union set between my love of Pelikans AND Japan (along with being just a damn weird pen). It was definitely worth the $60 and I wouldn’t mind acquiring a few more Pelikans from this era and the Japan export line.

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