Early ASAHI-PENTAX Cameras
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(c) Frank Mechelhoff                                                                      update 26. Nov. 2006

Asahi Pentax 1957

 End of 1950's a new star in camera business appeared and managed to come form almost unknown into the top four within five years - Asahi Optical Co. from Yokohama in Japan. How did they get it?
  • They have ideas (first instant return mirror, first TTL-metering)
  • They have a unique Design, modern and more functional than all others

  • They continue to improve their cameras year by year
With this strategy they reach technical leadership and within ten years number one in sales of "prosumer" (middle-class) camera market worldwide, enhance SLR share on market dramatically. Togehter with Nikon they make quite nobody asks for Rangefinder cameras anymore, for quite three decades..!

Pentax got a Synonym for a form, for SLR..just not to say, for cameras in general. They made the public thinking for three decades that a professional camera looks like a Pentax and nothing else!

So how they start, where they coming from? Since 1939 Asahi Optical made its name in manufacturing aerial cameras, after WW-II of Jupiter small binoculars (6x15) and coated lenses for micor cameras. Early factory history was described by the Italian Asahi Optical Historical Club. 1950 they looking for new ideas and the president ordered his two engineers Nobuyuki Yoshida (responsible for camera bodies) and Ryohei Suzuki (lenses) to build a compact high-performance 35mm film SLR camera competitive with the best Rangefinder cameras of the world like LEICA and CONTAX. In 1935 president Saburo Matsumoto had privately bought a German "Reflex-Korelle" (build by Franz Kochmann, Dresden, 6cm x 6 cm film SLR) which they used as a starting point for cosntruction. Some sources guess they also had known the  "Praktiflex" of Kamera-Werkstätten Guthe & Thorsch in Niedersedlitz near to Dresden which was shown 1939 at the spring fair in Leipzig and build from 1940 in 14.000 numbers.. not a small number for third 35mm film SLR camera of the world und ancestry of the East-German Praktica.
Anyhow if the Praktiflex had influenced PENTAX or not, it was directly influenced by the pre-war camera industry of Dresden.

Pentax (1957)

Asahi Pentax 1957 (Original)

The first prototype was finished in Nov. 1950and build 1952 as Asahiflex-I and Ia  (~18.000). This first camera, similar looking to the Praktiflex, also had its semi-automatic return mirror. While Praktica get back to the no-return-mirror 1945, Asahi Optical advanced this technique with a trigger-coupled movement mechanism, inventing the "instant return mirror", in production since 1954 for two models,  Asahiflex IIa (~ 20.8000) and the more simple IIb without slow-speed-dial (~16.100 ). The "black hole" after pressing the trigger of a SLR was gone... Not too bad for the first Japanese SLR..!
Matsumoto, Yoshida, Suzuki and his colleagues turned out to be a successfull team. Of 1953 a "Family picture" exists where they were amongst the 80 head staff in front of a barack-like manufactory buildings. At this time Asahi Optical wasn't more than a small-scale enterprise. 27 years later it was No.1 in camera business beeing the first producing more than 10 Mio cameras.

The early SLR history I have described here ... now to my cameras... these are PENTAX before the mass production of the sixties, before the SPOTMATIC (1964), when Asahi Optical was a small, dynamic and innovative start-up firm at which cameras were build by hand in relatively small batches. You recognize that on finish. Without inbuild light meter they didn't see much sun in the last two decades typically - or were even used in professional appliance. You even hardly recognize their age because they are so similar to the newer ones! But they are great user cameras if you ever learned to use a camera without automatic exposure and a handheld meter.. so if you own one, use it - or at least, keep and prevent it.

ASAHI PENTAX - 1957 - the first "Pentaprism-Pentax"

Asahi Pentax (1957) with Takumar 2.0/58mm - most uncommon, fastest and best of the three original  standard lenses.
Above: The first pentaprism prototype, still engraved "Asahiflex" and similar looking to the Asahiflex II with the same M37 lens mount - but already with fast film advance - just invented by LEICA with its M3 - plus film rewind crank - this an Asahi Optical invention. This camera was shown 1954 at a japanese camera fair. It took three more years bringing it to serial production. In the first years, until 1959, the production of prisms was quite expensive.
"Asahi Pentax" (1957) with the fastest Takumar lens available in 1957 - the lightweight and rare short telephoto 1.9/83mm. See seperate page for Pentax  fast telephoto lenses.
Pentax 1957
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In May 1957 Asahi Optical introduced their first SLR with pentaprism to market, named just "Pentax". The rights on the name had been acquired from East German VEB Zeiss-Ikon/ Pentacon. The great design (which won a Japanese national prize) and the engraved name gets such a high profile that later the whole company labeled themself PENTAX like this camera model. Nowadays collectors have a hard job to appoint this particular modell
. It was the first SLR with film rewind crank and fast lever advance, and, like the Asahiflex-II, had instant return mirror. It was not the first SLR with a pentaprism (this honor is given to the East German Contax-D) but it has a much brighter finder due to its first fresnell-lens matt screen. So this was the smallest, lightest, best looking and comfortably operated camera at the market. It was the first Japanese SLR camera with M42 screw mount, for which more than 300 lenses existed on the market at that time.
The prism-finder of the Pentax was by far the brightest and best of all SLR cameras available in 1957. Plus the camera has a very straight, attractive look, which became a world standard and was not need to change for the next 20+ years. The original "Asahi-Pentax" was build in ~19.600 units - just in one year, a great run! Eventually up to 1/3 of them were sold without the AOCO logo in the US market as "Tower 26" or 29, but just differs in engravings of the top plate nad share the same overall S/N range.

1957 with DIN

Another "Original Pentax" with a 2.4/58mm Takumar... this one (film chamber with label of a Swedish dealer) has a German DIN (Deutsche Industrie Norm) film speed memo ring unlike the above ASA-setting..!  That is the only one I know of. In these years no Pentax were sold in Germany,

As can be seen, the shutter speeds are the "old-fashioned" arrangement: 1/500, 1/200, 1/100, 1/50, X, 1/25-1. And on the slow speed dial 1/25, 1/10, 1/5, 1/2, 1s and T This looks a bit crude on this modern looking camera body!
The Asahi-Pentax 1957 shows a little bit more chrome than later models: film rewind crank and frame counter edge.

The case made of nice strong brown leather - typical for Pentax cameras until 1960 before they changed to black. The front part is removable (different kinds of connectors were used). I believe the version with the "AOCO" logo is the oldest type. Others have engraved "Pentax". Versions for the 1957-1958 cameras have the characteristic slow speed dial cut-off. Despite of the  attached small straps, which in most cases becoming quite crumbly now - be carefull with it ! - most of my cases are in good usable shape - great tools when used as "half case" - and looking great together with the camera. If Stephen Gandy declaimed Voigtlander makes the best cases, I have to add that the 1950's Pentax are on the same quality level!


PENTAX K - 1958

Penmtax K (1958) mit Half-case

Only one year later the "ASahi-Pentax" was replaced by the "Pentax K". This is my "K", in its case as well. Notice the cut for the "slow speed dial" with shutter speed times of 1 - 1/30s.

Pentax K

The Pentax K was enhanced at two features: First, it has a 1/1000s top shutter speed on the (still) rotating top speed dial with the "new" arithemtic arrangement established by Leica in 1954. Second, and more important, it has a trigger mechanism within the lens-mount for automatic diaphragm mechanism, which allosw the photograph to focus at the brightest aperture of the lens used, and in the moment he triggers the shutter, the camera sets the aperture to the setted value. This required a new setup of lenses which supports this feature, marked as "Auto-Takumars". Infact, these first lenses were only half-automatic because they need to be cocked by hand before operating the movement. You can see the cocking-lever in above picture beneath the "Feet" labeling. If you want to see the depths-of-field you have to look for it before cocking. Later full autmatic "Super-Takumars" (which don't need to be cocked) works also excellent on this camera

At use this is a very comfortable camera with quite modern feeling, with the exception of the the rotating speed dial. Joyfull  with older, not so fast lenses is particular the bright focussing screen with fresnell rings.

K mit 1.8-55mm
This was the fastest SLR lens of the time - an Auto-Takumar 1.8/ 55mm - "Zebra-Style", standrad lens solely for the Pentax K model. There were also complet black lenses for the (rare) black camera body. Photographers who want higher speed at that time needs to buy a Rangefinder camera - the fastest that day was a  CANON 1.2/50mm for CANON VI or screw-mount LEICA.. but weights a bit more too..!

In Germany there was no Pentax sales office until 1968, and German photo.shops didn't sell Japanese cameras. In USA the price was avout 250USD (Mail-Order; incl. lens). This was a competitive price for a high-class camera that it was. A LEICA M3 was about 350 USD, Nikon SP 329 USD, Exakta VX Automatrik 398 USD (with ~f/2 lenses). In 1960 sellout prices for the "K" body  dropped to 100 USD (without lens). Like the "Asahi-Pentax" of 1957, the "K" model was produced one year only - 21.5000 units - a respectable number..

PENTAX  H2  (1959-1961)

(...Sorry, translastion isn't finished yet!)
This is my Pentax H2 (1959-1961), fully mechanical, 1-1/500s, B, T, without light meter yet, S/N 207860. Yet Pentax wasn't a million seller... the finish is superior to the later mass products, level to the quality of  the best Nikon und Canon RF cameras of that vintage. I got this beauty for a low price and they seem to be not discovered from collectors yet. The dual-color lenses (first light alloy barrells) match the "black"-look created from Japanses companies and - now standard - around 1958 very new,  exclusive and unique. The focussing screen is complete of fresnell rings and considerable lighter than standard of that era.  The f/2 lens is a quite fast modern Planar type with 6 elements similar to modern lenses except there was no multicoating. At 12 o'clock position is the cock lever for semiautomatic diaphragm which is released by the trigger and need to bes re-cocked after exposure when you want to focus with wide-open diaphragm  (therfore named "Auto-Takumar" ) - nothing needs to be closed manually before exposure - very comfortable and fast.
Huge difference between this camera and the Asahiflex IIB 3 year before, isn't it? Doesn't justified it the Mega selling success?

Pentax H2

H2 with Auto-Takumar

The frame counter needs to be zeroed by hand after film change yet - no real effort. You see the whole circle. The speed dial is divided arithmetically and don't rotate when the shutter is fired. This was a bit odd with old focal plane shutter cameras, and fault-prone if you touch it unintentional at that second. Also the fast film advance-lever wasn't a standard yet - all feautures invented by the LEICA M3 in 1953, except the single-stroke advance lever which is Japanese...
Around the film rewind crank - another Japanese invention - is a ASA-dial for easy remembering speed and type of film (B/W, daylight, or tungsten light color film).. not setting the light meter which isn't present in that camera, but became standard at this place later.

The "Original-Pentax" is somewhat lower in size than later SPOTMATIC-models, und looks more delicate.. One of the nicest SLR's ever and a great picture-taker. If you use a handheld meter and set speed and aperture to environment from time to time you are instantly ready to shot with this beauty! Film advance lever, rewind crank, auto-diaphragm were more important to speed-up photography than everything that was invented since then, like Automatic Exposure,  motorized film advance and Autofocus. All M42 lenses fits to that camera - there are millions...

The Pentax H2 weights 568g (78g more than my MX von 1975 which is somewhat smaller, 2g less than my CANON P which feels heavy for her volume.The Spotmatic weight 60g more  - same as a small handheld meter. The electronic multi-automatic SLR CANON A-1 of the later 1970's weights exactly the same, 584g - but most of the A-1's haven't put away their 30 years so well like our 50 years oldies... The Auto-Takumar 2.0/55mm with 170g (46mm Filter) isn't a heavyweight likewise but nicely compact - the later  SMC "M" (compact series for ME, MX cameras) 1.7/50 of 1975 has 180g - not lower.

1/3 of the area of the viewing field of a Asahi-Pentax (1957) - one of the first SLR featuring Fresnel lens viewing screen - note the small concentric rings around the darker inner circle which is the "regular" matt screen. If you stop-down the lens the darkness of the center increases, but the outer erea keep good visible. It would be worse with matt screen in the outer zones. In 1957 - with a lot of slow lenses without automatic diaphragm this was an important advantage. Pentax enhanced this this fresnel screen until the Spotmatic and  kept it for a long time.
For unknown reasons for my Pentax MX (1976) featuring changable screens this isn't an option!
Inventors of der Fresnell lens screens are Edgar Sauer and Dr. Hans Rühle, Zeiss-Ikon (Patent  DE954970 of 12.Nov.1952, first camera Contaflex-I)

1962 - PENTAX  S1
This was an "econmy model" missing the 1/1000s - at least missing marking on the dial but there is a lock for that as well... you can put a modern cds-meter on the prism of the camera and spoil nice line... but at least it isn't unremovable build-in like the outdated selen-cell of the Contarex.

S1 mit 1.4-50mm

This is the 1.4/50mm S.-M.-C.-Takumar of 1971 (for open aperture metering). Nearly all M42 Takumar lenses will work with older Penmtax cameras, and therefore, old lenses often get replaced by newer ones.

Pentax Meter
The same camera with contemporary f/2.2 standard lens (this one missing the cocking lever). You set shutter speed on the meter, set it on, and it shows the correct aperture. Two areas: "H(igh)" with black numbers for daylight - and "L(ow)"/ Red numbers for low light. Fast and easy to use. Can be used with newer (PX625) battery types as well.

As can be easily seen, all PENTAX models from 1957 to the Spotmatic look very similar and technically based on the same construction, sharing many if not most parts. To distinguish them from the Spotmatic-family (slightly larger body) the whole line is called Pentax S-series.

G.v. Oosten notes that the following numbers of the S-series were build  (the Spotmatic-series was produced in about 4 Milion numbers total):

Pentax S
ca. 4.900
Pentax K
Pentax S2/ H2
Pentax S3/ H3
Pentax S1/ H1
ca. 46.500
Pentax S2 super
ca. 52.500
Pentax SV
ca. 481.696
Pentax S1a
ca. 135.352


You may not have noticed it because this is so common nowadays. But in the late 50's it was hot, and new stuff: black lenses and cameras. The Germans had chromes. Japanese are different - faster, more compact, lighter in weight...their design is exceptional, and attractive... Of course there is some weird stuff but they leave it to the market to sort it out....and they are black. Light metal which is required for the outer parts of the barrel to save weight cannot be left untzreated without damage on the long run. It needs to be annodized, and that is best done in black... why do the whole world thinks that a professional use camera has to be black ? Why is black = cool ? American camera buyer often pay much higher prices for black cameras even if the black is the solely color for a particular model. Now this lasts half a century, and it's coming from Japanese companies: NIKON, PENTAX and CANON starts around 1955 making lenses in black or chrome-black/ dual-color. It was a guarded changeover. They startet with a few lenses and recognized that the customer likes them. In the pre-WWII time there were quite some black lenses but only paited, and not made of alloy. In wartime lenses completely made of alloy were common (expecially in Germany) because brass were reserved by war ministry for bullet jackets. After the war there were proud again of "chromed" brass. Weight was no issue. It were the Japanese who changed that thinking. A lens partly made of alloy can be faster, contain more elements and still can be hand-held.It was a great changeover, which happend within three years. Then quite all Japanese lenses were made in black. The lenses didn't just get lighter but the mountings even more complicated!
Probably the first standard lens in that fashion was the Canon RF 1.2/50mm - in 1956 fastest lens in the world. Pentax had the "black" started with the "Asahi-Pentax" 1957. Compared to what is common nowadays the lenses than were mostly smaller and wimpy - take a Canon "Serelux"  (with 55mm Filter and 322g weight a big lens then) on a Leica-III and compare sizes. NIKON Fans - please  forgive me and give a proof when I'm wrong..!
Fitting to the lenses, there were the first handpicked black bodies for press photographs. The public wants them too.. although the first black paint on the cameras isn't quite duarble... black chrome-plating for cameras is to invent much later.
Sadly, German companies keep tenacious about it, rating this a fashion-foolery, thus violating their customer needs for products not only be funtional but nice looking as well..! Nowadyas most LEICA's are finished in black. At that to manufacture the first black seriens of f/2 standard lenses for its high-class model Contarex took ZEISS-IKON nearly 10 years, until 1965...

...(cont.) Part 2: My Early Takumar lenses

Noch ein schwarzes

Bilder und Texte copyright beim Autor Frank Mechelhoff
contact: Frank.Mechelhoff "@" gmx.de

noch mehr Pentax: All Pentax Takumar lenses 1952-1962
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