I must confess to becoming a little obsessed with Contax cameras, there’s something quite unique about Zeiss Ikon engineering of the 1930s and 1950s. So when the opportunity arose to bid on a 1938 Contax II with collapsible Sonnar lens, I set a price limit and waited.
Contax II prices vary between £200-£500 depending upon condition and buying off eBay can be a gamble, especially from a private seller (no returns). Anyhow, £170 later I had a prize piece of pre-war german engineering history.
The Zeiss Contax II was the follow up to the boxier black Contax I. Made in the Dresden factory in Germany between 1936 and 1942 and priced at eye-watering £55.
The Contax II offered improved shutter reliability, the first ever combined viewfinder and rangefinder (with wide 90mm base) and a new chrome / leather finish. The Contax II (dubbed a miniature) instantly became a hit for war-time photographer Robert Capa.
Upon arrival and subsequent inspection, the camera was found to be in quite bad condition, heavily used and been through wars. The camera had a musky odour and obviously hadn’t been stored well. However, looking on the positive side, I pondered on how many moments a 77 year old camera had captured.
Winding the shutter for the first time, I could feel that the camera needed a full CLA. I also noticed that the shutter curtain was skewed when cocked and speeds were erratic.
Cosmetically, most of the leather was intact but dry and hard with some minor “zeiss bumps”. The chrome shells and facias were dented and showed brass rub through.
The self timer was seized and the most of dials were gritty and tight. The focus helical was equally rough and the rangefinder was barely visible.
My guess is that it was recently used as a period film prop……so I would grade the camera as fair and the lens as poor.
So was it worth £170?, Well, given their collectability, increasing rarity and the below average price. I’d say it could be!
I didn’t hesitate to pull it apart – there’s no point owning a 77 year old dysfunctional paperweight.
Off came all the exterior dials, shells and facias, aged leather was carefully peeled back and the shutter cover was removed.
The shutter ribbons seemed to be in relatively good condition but one of the brass clips on the lower curtain was bent and didn’t connect to upper curtain when tensioned. This was the root cause of the alignment problem, erratic shutter speeds and rough winding.
The shutter clips were removed, reshaped and replaced. I then decided to flush out and clean all mechanisms with Naptha and compressed air. It took a couple flushes to get rid of 77 year old grime and congealed oil. Once dry, I carefully applied light watch oil to all pivots, bearings and pins and let it soak for a while.
Upon winding, it was immediately evident that the camera felt different, everything seemed to operate smoothly and quietly, with shutter speeds being more consistent and zippy. Not surprising (after some delicate coercion) the self timer came back to life!
The next job was to tackle the focus helical stiffness and clean the rangefinder.
The helical assembly was removed, ultrasonically cleaned and re-assembled with only a tiny amount of watch oil applied to the helical to prevent further oxidation.
I also took the opportunity to measure the film-flange distance (at each of the 4 screw positions) as there was quite a bit of wear evident on the film rails. I used some of the old shims to set the dimension to 34.85mm (factory spec). However, based on the number and size of original shims, I estimate that this was originally set to 35.00mm.
All rangefinder elements were then removed, cleaned and re-assembled. The helical assembly was then installed and aligned with the rangefinder set on infinity.
From this point forward, I ultrasonically cleaned all remaining metal parts, dressed and re-assembled the facia and shells, installed a new light seal and finished off with some minor cosmetic touch up.
Next up was the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5cm f/2 lens….!
To be honest the lens was never going to be a silk purse, it was damaged, missing screws and heavily scratched. I decided to dis-assemble, internally clean, remove the oil from the aperture blades, dress the dents and dings (as best I could) and re-assemble.
The whole restoration took about 12 hours – the shutter now operates almost perfectly at all speeds below 1/50s and is approximately 20% slow on all speeds above 1/125s (tardy ribbons).
Overall, I’m happy with camera and may consider replacing the leather trim and shutter ribbons at a later date. However, I will keep an eye out for a substitute Sonnar lens in better condition from the same year….assuming I can find one!
Luck would have it that I found a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5cm f/2 lens on eBay.
Mechanically and cosmetically this lens is in much better condition than the original, although there was some early signs of fungus. So I didn’t hesitate to pull it part and clean it.
This Sonnar was manufactured in 1938 and is the same year as the Contax II.
This version has an uncoated front element and the seller told me that the lens was sent to Harry Scherer for a service in 2010. I have the receipt and note that the front element was indeed replaced.
Optically this lens gives a classic Sonnar glow but without a coating it is more susceptible to flare!