Vintage Gear Exploration: Gillette Super Adjustable “Black Beauty”

Posted: November 5, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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black-beauty

The Gillette Adjustable. I have them all, other than weird hybrids or limited runs. From the Fatboy’s introduction in ’58 through the quiet departure of the Super Adjustable “Black Beauty” in the late 80’s, they were the premium option in Gillette’s lineup, and one of the prestige razors that you could purchase.

The last in the line, the Black Beauty was, essentially, the Super Adjustable. But…was it? Yes, the mechanism is quite similar, the 1-9 adjustment remains…but this is a somewhat different beast.

I have a long-handled Black Beauty that tracks to around ’82 or ’83, from all I can gather. The differences between my ’72 Super Adjustable are many, and significant.

For one, of course, you have the source of the “Black Beauty” moniker, with black plastic being used in the under-tray adjustment mechanism. The earlier, all metal Super Adjustables came in short and long varieties, so that carries through.

The handle knurling and finish, however, are changed. The earlier SA had an a lined handle that featured a hard finish that had a tractive surface, feeling almost as if it were rubberized or coated with some sort of ceramic. The same finish as the lightweight Superspeeds of earlier days. The Black Beauty featured normal checkered knurling of moderate depth, being deeper than the fine pattern of old Gillettes, but not as deep as a weightlifting bar. The finish is simple black paint, which is not nearly as sturdy as the previous finish.

The changes are not simply materials and finish, though. There are significant mechanical differences, as well. The basic design of the Gillette twist-to-open razor had been in place since the early ’40s, originating with the Ranger Tech model. It had remained unchanged through something like forty years, and served well. By the time of the last redesign that yielded the Black Beauty, double edged shaving was considered somewhat passe. It was on the way out as a primary shaving technology. It was the cartridge razor’s day, the electric razor’s day.

That may have been known to everyone in the cheap seats, but there was a long twilight still to go. In an effort to cut costs, the shape of the Gillette baseplate was simplified, with a square hollow in the center, rather than a diamond shape. Is square worse than diamond shape? I don’t know. It still works. It’s fine. It’s just different.

What do all these changes add up to? For one, a lighter razor. The long-handled version is palpably lighter than my normal-length SA of the previous generation. Some of that reassuring heft and sturdiness of the older razors isn’t there. It feels cheaper. Not cheap, but not the same.

I got my razor, as per usual, at Jitterbug Antiques in Salt Lake City. It was in good shape, hardly looking as if it had been used. I was able to pick it up for significantly less than the other adjustables I have purchased. I suppose this is probably because they are not quite as in demand as a Slim or Fatboy. Gillette’s heart wasn’t in it by this time.

During the cleaning process (I have an ultrasonic cleaner now! Yay!), I found out how fragile the black paint on the handle was, as a good percentage of it came off. I didn’t use harsh cleaners, and there’s no reason that the finish should have been thus deteriorated. No worries, though. I can repaint. It’s a project. Minor setbacks are expected.

How does it shave, though? In a word, gently. Contrasted with the other adjustables, that are all fairly close in aggressiveness, the Black Beauty is very mild. The 3 setting is just not quite enough to get a close shave, to me. I would say that 5 is fairly equivalent to the 3 setting with the others. Probably not quite as agressive as 3 with the Fatboy. It’s not a knock, but it’s a data point. There’s just not as many useful settings as the others, less aggressiveness in general. This has some to do with the redesign, some with the weight.

The “last quarter turn” has been a feature of the adjustables. Usually, the last quarter turn of the twist knob cinched it down solidly, but didn’t change the blade gap. With the Black Beauty, the blade gap decreases visibly during that quarter turn. I can only infer that this has to do with the design change. It is not an improvement. Far from it. It renders the razor much less aggressive and also less enjoyable to use, as last quarter turn is not nearly as pleasing to the hand or well engineered as its forebears.

Still, when cranked up to 5, it shaves well. It feels fine. It’s still a Gillette razor. I’m glad I picked it up, and it’ll stay in the collection. It just isn’t quite as special as some of it’s historical antecedents. To me, the last “real” Gillette Adjustable was the all-metal version of the Super Adjustable. This is, at best, a shadow of that razor, and therefore more of a collector’s curiosity than a must have.

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