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History of Retro 51 and the Tornado

Retro 51 pen in its packagingRetro 51 pens are quite retro in style. There’s a bit of a hint in the name, really. The name isn’t a hint to when they were founded, though, that was in 1990. The aim was always to make pens ‘like they used to’, with nostalgic styling and build quality.

And the pens from their early days, which you can see in their archive of old catalogues, were, well, nice enough. But, to be honest, they looked like many other pens. But that changed in 1997.

But let’s start with the basics - they were founded in Texas, to make special gifts, but the emphasis was on pens from the beginning. And they’re no longer under the same ownership, but for positive reasons. The founder retired in 2021, and the company is now run by a group of three fans of the brand, collectors of their pens. They arrived just in time for the 25th anniversary of the Tornado, in 2022. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves - the Tornado?

The Tornado was the pen that really made them - a design that still had some of that retro charm, but with a design that was really something special. It’s hard to say quite what makes the Tornado so special, because the design is so simple - just tapering towards the tip, with a knurled twist-knob at the top to extend and retract the tip. But it is special, and nothing else looks quite like it.

For the first year or so, the Tornado just sat at the back of the catalogue, but it was picking up a wide range of new colours and finishes even then. By 1999, it was featured on the cover, claiming “This pen will blow you away!”

Retro 51 Tornado Dog Rescue Pen Retro 51 Tornado Flying Scotsman Pen

By 2007, the catalogues were more Tornado than anything else, featuring a wide range of different finishes. It’s a great design for this - most of the body of the pen can feature full colour designs, or the usual resin can be replaced with various metals. And with such a huge choice of styles, one pen design can suit many different people, and feel special to them all.

Retro 51 plays well with others, too. Many of the special and limited edition Tornado pens are produced in conjunction with other companies or charities, museums or art galleries, often raising money for good causes. They’ve made artistic and historic designs with the Smithsonian, honey bees with NW Honeybee Habitat Restoration, cats and dogs with rescue charities, an assortment of stamps with the USPS, and William Morris patterns with The Met.

Retro 51 Tornado Classic pen in purpleAnd where something is outside their own area, they work with the right people - for fountain pens, they use JoWo nibs, and their pen cases are made by Rickshaw. Refills are by Schmidt, and most of the pens use their much-loved rollerball refills, for a super-smooth writing experience. If you prefer a ballpoint, though, they’re compatible with the huge range of G2 ‘Parker-style’ refills available.

So if you just want a nice pen, the Tornado has enough choice to make it special for you. If you want a rollerball and a pencil, you can get a matching pair of Tornados, or mix it up so you can tell them apart more easily. And you could even have a fountain pen, rollerball, ballpoint and mechanical pencil, all Tornado pens.

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