Monday, June 15, 2015

Copycat Camera

QUESTION: I found what I think is a unique 35mm camera this week. I believe it’s from the early 1950s. However, even though I’ve looked, I can’t seem to find too much information about it. It’s called a Leotax, but I’ve never heard of this brand before. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: The Leotax isn’t the most prevalent camera on the collectible market, mostly because not a whole lot of them were made. It’s main claim to fame is that it was the Japanese equivalent of the then popular Leica M3, a rangefinder camera with excellent optics and precision.

In January 1938, Nakagawa Kenzo founded a company called Kyoei-sha, based in Nippori, Tokyo. Nakagawa, a former engineer of Konishiroku, obtained financial support from Minagawa Shoten.

By the end of 1938, Kenzo had renamed his company G.K. Showa Kogaku. Its main product was the  Leotax, a Leica-style 35mm camera, initially made with an uncoupled rangefinder. However during its early years, the company manufactured mostly Semi Leotax folding cameras.

Kenzo had a special fondness for Leica cameras, so he set out to develop a Japanese counterpart. But he ran into problems because of the numerous patents Leica had registered for its products. The camera design that Kenzo finally settled on was a rangefinder—a camera in which the photographer views his or her subject through a separate viewfinder. While Leicas had two viewfinders, the Leotax had only one round one, positioned in the upper left hand corner on the back of the camera. Kenzo’s major challenge was finding a way to circumvent Leica’s coupled rangefinder mechanism—that is connecting the viewfinder to the lens.

The Leotax had an uncoupled rangefinder mechanism which had to be set manually on the lens by looking through the viewfinder and rotating a control dial on the top of the camera for the measured distance. While not such a good solution, it did work.  This was the original Leotax camera.

Following World War II, Kenzo changed the company name again to Showa Kogaku Seiki K.K.  In 1942 with the introduction of the Leotax Special A and Special B, the company adopted a coupled short base rangefinder with a scissor strut arrangement for the sensor arm, presumably to circumvent the Leica patents. This sensor arm arrangement necessitated moving the viewfinder of the original Leotax from just above the lens to a position at the extreme left of the top cover as viewed from the rear. These cameras emulated the Leica III with exposure times to 1 second.

Early Leotax Leica type cameras had nicely finished exteriors but crudely finished interiors. By the time the Leotax DIV appeared on the market, the firm had produced a good camera with an equally fine interior and exterior.

Renamed Leotax Camera K.K. in 1956 or 1957, the company continued to produce cameras until 1961. It made only 50 of the pre-World-War-II Leotax models. This particular one seems to be the Leotax DIV (D4), the sixth in a line of 18 models made by the firm from 1938 to 1961.

By 1947, Kenzo had substantially changed the Leotax as a result of the invalidation of all the Leica patents by the Allies. So beginning with the Leotax DIII (D3), all Leotax cameras featured a coupled rangefinder mechanism. In 1950, the firm changed its name again to Showa Optical Works Ltd. and in 1956, underwent its final name change to Leotax Camera Company, Ltd.

In 1961, the company filed for bankruptcy, mainly due to the large quantities of the Leica M3 that had finally come on the market. This Leica featured the far superior bayonet mounting system for its lenses, something which the Leotax didn’t have. And despite the lower price of the Leotax models, they just couldn’t compete with the excellence of the Leica M3.

The final straw came with the introduction of the single lens reflex camera (SLR), with its instant-return mirror, motorized film advance, and modular construction. From then on, the makers of interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras were relegated to oblivion.

The Leotax Camera Company became the second oldest Japanese camera manufacturer, the oldest being Canon.  Of the many small Japanese companies that tried to copy the Leica cameras, the Leotax was the most well-known. A relatively small firm, it produced no more than 50,000 cameras during its lifetime.

Today, most Leotax camera fetch decent prices.  A model of the Leotax DIV in average condition recently sold for $336.  In mint condition, this camera can fetch nearly $1,000.

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