One of my favourite vintage camera acquisitions, a 1951 Zeiss Contax IIa (Black Dial) with Zeiss Opton Sonnar 5cm f/2 – made in the post war Stuttgart factory of Germany under reparations to the US.
Approximately 40,000 serial numbers were allocated to Contax IIa’s over a 12 year production period (1949-1961), although I suspect less rolled off the production line.
It’s difficult to determine how many remain in circulation, but needless to say it’s probably the best value collectable camera around. Expect to pay anywhere between £200-£400 (on eBay) depending upon condition and whether its fully functional. However, a fully restored Contax IIa can command £1000 with values continuing to rise.
Luckily this £200 – 1951 model is in very good condition with only a couple of small “zeiss bumps” on the leather back and some minor scuffs on the base.
The green tinted viewfinder is clean and the rangefinder’s gold patch shows no signs of corrosion, is clearly visible and well aligned.
Shutter speeds seem OK for a 64 year old camera – lows are little fast, highs up to 1/500s seem spot on, while 1/1250s lags to ~1/1000s. The slatted aluminium “roller door” style shutter is quiet, dent free and well aligned.
The chrome plated solid brass Sonnar lens is nigh on mint, no dust, no oil on blades, no fungus and no balsam separation. The aperture ring rotates smoothly without sticking and is maybe a fraction loose (for my taste).
Many consider these post war Contax IIa/IIIa’s to be better constructed than Leica IIIs of the same period. Although the arrival of Leica M3 and CaNikon rangefinder copies inevitably led to the demise of Zeiss Ikon among others.
The chrome plated and leather clad Contax IIa is a very solid and precisely made camera. The quality of build, fine tolerances and attention to detail is incredible for a camera of this era. It operates like a swiss watch with unrivalled mechanical shutter speeds up to 1/1250s….no batteries required….and with no CAD/CNC being used in the making….just pencil, paper and traditional machine tools!
The lens’ focus helical is mounted inside the body and is operated by either a thumbwheel above the rangefinder or a twist of the lens – once the infinity lock is released.
The pre-war Contax II cameras had a 90mm rangefinder base however this was reduced to 73mm on IIa/IIIa models – still the widest and most accurate of any rangefinder from this period.
The Contax IIa with lens weighs ~700g (with film) and measures 135x78x75mm which is almost the same size and weight as a modern day Fuji X-T1 with XF35.
The 6 element Zeiss-Opton Sonnar lens is also the one of the first with full T* coating and has two sets of 12 aperture blades that operate in unison….a real masterpiece of engineering!
A 1951 advert (found via Google) lists these at $385 new + $12 for the ever ready case. That was ~£140 and about the equivalent of 6 month’s wages in the UK (source – MeasuringWorth.com).
I’m going to put some Kodak TMax 400 film through this 64 year old camera and depending upon how it performs decide whether to address the “Zeiss bumps” and give it a more thorough CLA.
The original leather ever-ready case was included in the sale and although intact, it was hard and dry. So, I’ve set about feeding the old leather with some Proofhide and applying some boot polish to help restore it.
I’ve owned dozens of cameras and have to say this little Contax IIa is really growing on me!
As a side note, if one likes the retro look and feel of the Contax IIa and only wants to spend £50 then the Russian copy – Kiev 4a is worth considering. Although bear in mind that Kiev’s build quality is at the other end of the scale and reliability can be hit and miss.