60 Years of the Pilot Capless
A fountain pen that doesn't have a cap? A retractable fountain pen? It's unusual now, so back in the 1960s when the Capless was launched, it must have seemed really outlandish; either a case of 'it'll never catch on' (just as TV was thought to be a flash in the pan) or perhaps an assault on tradition, a bit like the newly-coined words 'selfie' and 'defo' could be seen as detrimental to the English language.
How could it possibly work, after all? A retractable ballpoint is fine; it contains oil-based ink that - at worst - will just get a bit sticky, but will become less so after a few initial strokes to get it going again. But a fountain pen uses water-based ink that is notorious for drying out: how can retracting the nib into the barrel stop the ink feed from clogging with dried ink? Surely you'd have to go to the trouble of emptying the pen of ink once the day's writing has finished? How inconvenient! And who'd want a retractable fountain pen anyway? The cap is part of the overall appeal - and it's where the pocket clip sits! What if you wanted to attach it to your pocket?
Despite any opposition Pilot may have encountered, the Capless - or Vanishing Point as it's known in America - did take off. For those of us who like fountain pens but dislike posting them (putting the cap on the back when using them) for whatever reason: too long, too weighty, just too unwieldy - a retractable fountain pen is a godsend. No putting down of a cap, only to realise that while you've been busily scribbling away, it's... gone. Fallen on the floor, rolled under a pile of paper, stuck between the cushions on the sofa - who knows? With the Capless, it's just a case of clicking the push-button, writing to your heart's content and then clicking again to tuck the nib safely away.
It's a bit like a ballpoint - only a fountain pen. But not quite. Retractable pens usually work by simply withdrawing the refill into the barrel. If you look down that barrel, you'll see the tip. And that's OK with an oil-based ink pen. But it's not OK with fountain pen ink. Why? Because despite being up inside the barrel, the nib is still open to the air, and that means... yes - dried ink on the nib and in the feed. And fountain pens don't like that.
The solution? A little spring-loaded door, for want of a better word. When the nib is extended, this door opens to allow its exit, and when the nib is retracted, the mechanism closes that door and - thanks to a rubber gasket - creates an airtight seal. It's had its improvements over the years (and tweaks! One being the LS version (luxury, silent) that clicks to extend and twists to retract) and the result is a very smooth operation indeed. After all, when it's a (mostly rhodium-plated) 18 carat gold nib you're seeking to protect, it's worth an investment in innovation.
So, if it's capless, what do you do when you want to clip it to your pocket (or indeed anywhere else?) Well, you can still do that; the clip is on the barrel, towards the nib end, which necessitates some careful positioning when it comes to fingers.
Now that we've dealt with the how it works bit, let's get onto how it looks.
Few fountain pens - let alone retractable ones - have the range of barrel colours offered by the Capless. If you're of the Henry Ford persuasion, there are plenty of black ones to choose from: matt black, stripy black, black with rhodium trim, black with gold... And if you like a brighter spectrum there's plenty of choice there too, from rose pink to purple. Like the look but wish it was lighter? The Decimo might be for you. It does everything the 'normal' Capless does, but with less heft. And if plain is not your thing, the Carbonesque, with its carbon fibre-inspired finish, just might be.
And we all like a limited edition, don't we? Pilot does not disappoint. There are annual editions, which have seen the Black Ice of 2021 and the Red Coral of 2022. But the 2023 Limited Edition is very special. Why? Because its sophisticated red satin barrel and definitive matt black trim - including a black 18 carat gold nib - celebrate 60 years of the Capless. 6 decades of innovation. Over half a century of everyday classiness. Almost 22,000 days when you didn't have to wonder where on earth you left the cap.