I like obscure cameras. Not necessarily rare and valuable collector’s items (though I won’t say no to them), but oddballs, one-offs, occasionally awkward, often flawed cameras that you just don’t see every day. When I find one that’s affordable and not too badly broken, I usually end up buying it. Such was the case with our subject here today, a rarely-seen Mamiyaflex Automat A, one of the earliest examples of a Japanese TLR based on the template established by Rollei.
First off, it’s a very solid camera, compact but heavy. Build quality is really very good, especially considering what the state of Japanese industry must have been only a few years after the war. The control layout is logical and efficient, with the shutter speed and aperture set by small knobs below the taking lens; these do not have click-stops or a readout on top of the lens unit, so you do need to look down at the knobs themselves to see the setting. The film advance and focus knobs are on the right side of the camera, as is the shutter release, the latter a large, easy-to-use bar rather than a small button; it is fitted with a lock to avoid accidental triggering. All of the controls are surprisingly light, with the exception of the film advance, but given that the advance also charges the shutter, this is to be expected.
The shutter is a Compur-Rapid copy made by Seikosha, with the typical 1/500 to 1 sec plus B speeds available. Manufacturing quality of this unit seemed high as well. This brings me to the lenses, which are unusual: they are not made by Mamiya, but by Olympus! Apparently, Mamiya was only making triplets at this point and farmed out the four-element, three-group Tessar types to Olympus. The viewing and taking lenses appear to be identical – both are coated Olympus Zuiko F.C. 7.5cm/3.5.
The Automat A, first produced in 1949 and continuing to the mid-1950s, is the most advanced model offered by Mamiya at the time; the Automat B had some of the same features as the A, but with Sekor triplet lenses made in-house rather than the four-element Olympus pieces on the A, while the most basic Mamiyaflex used front gear focusing and required red window viewing for advancing the film.
I applaud Mamiya’s designers for doing something that most camera manufacturers neglect: making the camera easy to service. Rather than hiding all the screws the hold it together under the body covering, Mamiya put them through it, leaving the heads exposed and the camera very easy to disassemble without damaging the finish. I cannot overstate how pleased I was to discover this, especially since the camera did require a CLA and some repair.
Besides general clean-up and lubricating the shutter, this camera had a problem with the automatic frame spacing, specifically that it was failing to reset the counter. When I opened up the side panel to investigate, I was confronted with an array of gears, levers, and springs the likes of which I’ve rarely encountered outside of a mechanical watch movement or a time machine. Since I found essentially zero repair documentation, it took all of my meager collection of brain cells working in rare cooperation to figure out exactly how this thing was supposed to work, what it was actually doing, and how to bring the two into alignment. Turns out the counter is supposed to reset not when you open the door, but when you close it. One of the arms was a little tweaked, and some of the lubricants weren’t lubricating, so the fix was relatively quick once I figured out what needed doing.
In use the camera is a real pleasure. As long as you don’t mind the weight (I don’t), it’s a very nice example of the TLR shooting experience. The lens is clearly unmodern and typically Tessar in its rendering – very much what you’d expect from this sort of camera. I haven’t shot it with color yet, so I’m not sure how it will do with that, but with black-and-white the results are quite nice.
So there we are, another weird old camera put back into service. Unlike some of my oddballs, this one is really quite capable. As much as I love my Rolleiflex, it’s fussier to use than the Mamiyaflex and I do worry about its fragility (probably more than I should, given the rough life it clearly led prior to my acquisition of it); as a result, the Mamiyaflex may just find itself in the position of go-to TLR when I feel like looking down and shooting squares.