From time to time, I will post some interesting articles on collecting the cameras of Asahi Optical Company (AOC) and Pentax Corporation. Since I have a life otherwise, please don't expect a rapid turn-over in the articles. I will be posting articles on production, distribution, model identification, rarities, unusual pieces, collecting strategies, and other topics.
I primarily specialize in the screw mount Pentax models. My real knowledge, however, covers those cameras introduced before 1959. The pre-1959 cameras are the Asahiflex and Asahi Pentax penta-prism cameras with serial numbers less than approximately 180000. I welcome any articles that people would like to post on their favorite area of Pentax collecting. Any articles should be relatively brief and may contain a few images. Of course, I reserve the right to refuse any material based upon my judgement of appropriateness of content, and, I will not post any material that is critical of other collectors or articles. If you are interested, contact me by e-mail.
Other than being manufactured by Asahi Optical Company (AOC), what do the Pentax ESII, Pentax K2DMD, Pentax Super Program, and the Pentax SF1n all have in common? Unless you are a rather enthusiastic user of the full line of Pentax cameras, you probably do not recognize these cameras as peak design/technology points within the Pentax model line. Similar to the Canon 7sZ, Retina IIIC, or Minolta XK, these cameras represent the highest point of evolution before the occurrence of a substantial change in functional concept. Although rarely discussed in collectors' magazines,
AOC camera development technology had several peaks even earlier than the automatic aperture/electronic shutter ESII. One of those peaks is represented by the Asahiflex IIA. As some Asahi collectors readers are certainly aware, the Asahiflex IIA was released for sales in February 1955, and is a direct descendant of the 1952 Asahiflex I; Japan's, and AOC's first 35mm SLR camera. Quite different from the later Pentax line, the four models of Asahiflex had a waist level viewer, and a 37mm screw mount lens system. The model IIA represents the peak of the Asahiflex line because it has an instant return mirror, and has additional shutter speeds from 1/2 to 1/25th of a second. The first Asahiflex had neither of those refinements.
The Asahiflex IIA appears to have been the most advertised model of the Asahiflex line. Advertisement in the U.S. did not begin until approximately the fall of 1956 with the model IIA selling better than any of its predecessors. In 1957, at least six articles in the U.S. magazine Popular Photography provided information on the Asahiflex IIA. In addition, the model IIA was featured in at least three full page advertisements in Popular Photography and Modern Photography (also a U.S. publication) magazines. Production of the camera ceased in April 1957, and with the introduction of the new Asahi Pentax penta- prism model one month later, advertising and promotion of the Asahiflex IIA ended rather sharply.
Depending upon the retailer, the Asahiflex IIA sold for a price from $100.00 to $130.00 with a standard lens. The most common lens to find on a model IIA is the 58mm f/2.4 Asahi-Kogaku Takumar. The other standard lens available for the camera was the 50mm f/3.5 Asahi-Kogaku Takumar. Accessory lenses manufactured by AOC for the Asahiflex IIA were the 83 f/1.9, 100 f/3.5, 135 f/3.5, and 500 f/5 Asahi-Kogaku Takumars. Non-lens accessories included a copy stand, a flash unit, a fitted case, and lens hoods and filters. To make full use of the SLR concept and the advantages it provides in close-up photography, extension tubes, a bellowscope, and a microscope adaptor were also available for the Asahiflex.
The Asahiflex IIA was sold through many retail stores in the U.S., both on a localand national mail order sales basis. Perhaps the single most successful retailer of the Asahiflex IIA was Sears, Roebuck and Company of Chicago, Illinois. Sears marketed the model IIA under their own brand name; the Tower 22. The Tower 22 was first introduced in the spring 1957 general merchandise catalog and came only with the 58mm f/2.4 Asahi-Kogaku Takumar for $118.50 plus shipping. In 1959, as competition grew stronger from the newer penta-prism models, Sears reduced the price of the Tower 22 to $89.50. Sears offered a full range of accessories for the camera, including a 35mm f/2.5 wide angle lens. Occasionally, Tower 22 outfits can be found on the collectors' market that contain the camera, wide angle lens, and a telephoto with extension tubes or bellowscope for close-up photography.
Since many of you may enjoy collecting and using Pentax 35mm cameras, I am sure that you will find considerable pleasure in the Asahiflex IIA. I have used the camera many times for wildflower and close-up photography, and have taken them on backpacking trips to the mountains of West Virginia. Even though the waist level viewer is rather cumbersome compared to a penta-prism, the lenses and accessories are easy to use and produce wonderfully sharp photographs. The shutter speeds down to 1/2 second allow for low light photography, and when used with a modern electronic flash system, the Asahiflex IIA can provide crisp images under a wide variety of conditions. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable activities to experience with the Asahiflex IIA is the use of lens extension with one of the 100mm or 135mm telephoto lenses. The bellowscope comes marked with two scales calibrated for use with either the 58mm f/2.4 or the 50mm f/3.5, and the 100mm f/3.5 Asahi-Kogaku Takumar lenses. The bellowscope allows for reproductions up to 2X. The extension tubes are best used with the supplied exposure compensation tables to avoid having to manually calculate the appropriate exposure compensation value.
"Well," you ask, "just how much will it cost me to acquire a camera and a few accessories"? The Asahiflex line, as with many other of the initial models of major manufacturers, has been climbing in value over the last five to seven years. While one might speculate that the current value is dependent on the Japanese buying market, it appears that nothing could be further from the truth. In 1989, the major Japanese export buyers in the U.S. would offer no more than about $100 for a mint model IIA. At that same time, the camera with standard lens sold in the U.S. for $200 to a collector. Now, that same camera will sell for at least $400 to $500 to a U.S. collector while collectors in Canada have informed me that finding a mint Asahiflex IIA under $500.00 is near impossible. In the U.K. and Europe, collectors are finding that a mint Asahiflex IIA costs well over $500.00 (£375). It should be remembered that these prices would be considerably higher for an Asahiflex I or IA.
Whatever your reason for starting a new relationship with a vintage Pentax camera, you will find the Asahiflex line practical for simple snap shots or for more demanding close-up photography. The Asahiflex and early Pentax line has one further advantage; unlike Nikon, Canon, Leica, or most other manufacturers, it is still possible to complete a rather nice collection of the early models. Good Luck.
If you are interested in joining a club that specializes in collecting Pentax and early Asahi cameras, just look under the Pentax Collectors Starter's Page and contact Dario Bonazza at the Asahi Optical Historical Club.
This article provides information on the first three penta-prism models of AOC; the Asahi Pentax, Asahi Pentax S, and Asahi Pentax K. Hopefully this will provide a good starting point for those Collectors readers not familiar with the early Asahi Pentax cameras. The primary focus of the sales and distribution information is on the North American market.
The Asahiflex camera line was exhibited at the Brussels International Trade Fair in 1956, and AOC was ready to advance to the front line and become more involved with the promotion and sales of their cameras in the United States. Previously, AOC apparently relied on contracts with larger independent retailers in the U.S., and sold their cameras without the aggressive marketing strategies of many of the other manufacturers. To enhance sales in North America, AOC engaged the services of The Wexton Company on Madison Avenue in New York City. The Wexton Company, through its sales representative, George Gilbert (noted author on photographica), began the task of educating the photographic dealers and the general public on the attributes of the AOC cameras and accessories. Sights were set on the International Photographic Exposition (IPEX) show, to be held in Washington D.C. in March 1957, for the formal debut of the Asahiflex camera line in the U.S.
AOC president, Saburo Matsumoto, and Takuma Kajiwara, Japanese photographer for whom the Takumar lens line was named, flew to New York to be present at the IPEX show. During their stay in the United States, Mr. Matsumoto was the guest of honor at a press breakfast in New York City, where he explained the background of AOC and the development of the Asahiflex IIA. The IPEX show debut was a success, and drew complimentary reviews in magazines and photography sections of newspapers. AOC made the trip to the U.S. to promote the Asahiflex, to gain an impression of the large North American photography industry, and, most certainly, to get ready to market a newer camera that was already in production; the Asahi Pentax.
While the AOC reported release date of the Asahi Pentax camera is May, 1957, it appears that this new penta-prism model did not effectively reach the North American market until October of the same year. Information collected on serial numbers indicates that the initial production lots were more aggressively marketed in Japan until the camera's promotional debut in the North American and European markets.
AOC established a marketing plan that included national advertising, public relations, and point of sale promotional materials. Prior to the release of the Asahi Pentax in the U.S., AOC entered into a contract that appointed Osawa & Company of Japan as the exclusive North American importer/distributer. The stage was set for the release of the Asahi Pentax camera, and AOC had was getting ready to firmly establish itself on the North American market.
The Asahi Pentax camera was an improved version of the Asahiflex IIA with its instant return mirror and slower shutter speeds. The major advancement was the addition of a penta-prism. The Asahi Pentax also had a push button rewind release, a brighter focusing system, a more reliable exposure counter, a shutter speed dial that always showed the selected speed, and a 42mm lens mount. AOC added a 1 second shutter speed to the camera, and also made the model available in an all black finish. Mr. W. L. Fadner, in his 1988 Shutterbug magazine articles on AOC cameras, provided an excellent summary of the advancements of the Asahi Pentax. In addition, he reported that the camera was the first SLR with a right hand rewind lever, a fold-up rewind lever, and to combine the eye-level prism with the instant return mirror.
According to AOC information, viewfinder research had been an ongoing interest since the completion of the Asahiflex I. Through the use of manual grinding techniques, AOC produced a prototype Asahiflex pentaprism camera in 1954, and displayed the unit at a 1955 photography show in Japan. It would take more than two additional years for AOC to develop the mass production techniques required to place a pentaprism camera on the open market.
The Asahi Pentax was the first AOC camera to carry the Pentax name. Over the years, collecting literature has provided a number of proposals as to the derivation of the "Pentax" name. Several recent accounts have speculated that the name is a combination of "pentaprism" and "Contax". According to unpublished AOC information, the name "Asahiflex" was the result of combining "Asahi" and "reflex", and, "Pentax" was subsequently developed from "pentaprism" and "Asahiflex". Finally, the Asahi Pentax is sometimes referred to as the "AP" by collectors and collecting literature. No such references were located in AOC publications produced at the time the camera was promoted.
Three standard lenses as well as a number of redesigned accessory models, were available for the Asahi Pentax. AOC dropped the "Asahi-Kogaku" designation from the lens information ring, and in its place put "Asahi Opt. Co". Available standard lenses consisted of a 58mm f/2.4, 55mm f/2.2, and a 58mm f/2.0 model. AOC provided redesigned versions of the 83mm f/1.9, 135mm f/3.5 and the 500mm f/5 Asahiflex lenses, and, introduced a 300mm f/4 telephoto. All of the new Takumar lenses now came in black enamel finish. AOC dropped the 50mm f/3.5 model developed for the Asahiflex line, and planned for the release of their first wide angle; the 35mm f/4 Takumar. The 35mm f/4 Takumar has on at least one occasion been reported as the first Japanese 35mm SLR wide angle lens. AOC also manufactured a 58mm f/1.8 Takumar, but apparently did not export the lens outside of Japan. Finally, AOC offered mount adapters to allow for the continued use of the Asahiflex 37mm mount lenses on the newer Asahi Pentax.
Promotion of the Asahi Pentax was aggressive. The Wexton Company planned a series of news releases and visited stores with demonstration displays. The Wexton Company used a blindfold to illustrate the advantages of the instant return mirror and developed full page advertisements for major photography magazines in the U.S. The Asahi Pentax, with a standard lens, was available through national mail order houses for approximately $150. According to AOC, production of the Asahi Pentax was discontinued in April 1958.
Asahi Pentax S
In April 1958, eleven months after the initiation of sales of the Asahi Pentax, AOC released the second of the pre-1959 pentaprism models; the Asahi Pentax S. The model S was the first AOC camera to carry the model designation on the body. The substantive design alteration of the Pentax S was the movement to a revised progression of shutter speeds equivalent to those found on modern day cameras. With the exception of the aforementioned differences, the Pentax S was essentially identical to the Asahi Pentax.
The model S was introduced just one month before the release of the Pentax K. It is perhaps most appropriate to think of it as a less expensive alternative to the Pentax K and not as a transitional model. A major advertisement in a U.S. photography magazine featured both the Pentax S and the Pentax K, and promoted the cameras based upon differences in features and price. As with the Asahi Pentax, the model S was available in an all black enamel finish. Asahi Pentax S examples have been reported without the S designation, however, such cameras appear to be non-AOC hybrids of S models and an Asahi Pentax body top. The Pentax S was produced concurrently with the Pentax K, and was discontinued in May, 1959.
The Pentax S was identified as having two standard lenses; the 55mm f/2.2 Takumar, and a 55mm f/1.8 Takumar. The 55mm f/1.8 was a newly developed model, and is perhaps the predecessor to the 55mm f/1.8 Auto-Takumar introduced with the Pentax K. It should be noted that a review of AOC literature indicates that by the time the model S was available, AOC provided photographers with a full range of optics which included 35mm f/4, 83mm f/1.9, 105mm f/2.8, 135mm f/3.5, 300mm f/4, and 500m f/5 models. In addition, AOC information indicates that the 1,000mm f/8 Takumar was released in May 1958, just one month after the release of the Pentax S.
In the previous account provided on the Asahiflex cameras, I stated that it appeared that the Asahiflex I was the second least produced standard production AOC SLR model. I made that statement because information collected during my review, as well as a study of serial number clumping characteristics indicates that fewer Pentax S cameras were produced than any other standard production model. When I refer to "standard production" models, I am excluding motor drive bodies and special use pieces for medical or law enforcement purposes. For this reason, the Pentax S is a very difficult camera to locate in any condition. Collectors building an AOC collection, should purchase examples of the Pentax S whenever possible.
Asahi Pentax K
One month after the introduction of the model S, AOC released the final camera to be constructed along the lines of the original Pentax; the Asahi Pentax K. The model K brought with it improvements in lens operation, shutter speeds, and image viewing. The model K was the first AOC camera to have a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. The major innovation, however, was to provide for the automatic release of the lens diaphragm prior to exposure.
The standard lens for the Pentax K, the 55 f/1.8 Auto-Takumar, was specifically designed to allow the lens diaphragm to close to the preselected aperture just prior to exposure. The lens can be immediately identified by the chrome patches on the lens barrel, and the chrome diaphragm charging lever. The lens is activated by a small metal plate in the base of the camera lens mount housing. When the shutter release column is pushed, the small plate moves forward, pushes on a release pin in the lens mount, and activates the semi-automatic diaphragm. While no other Auto-Takumar lenses were available at the time the Pentax K was released, AOC did introduce the 35mm f/2.3 and the 105mm f/2.8 models during the period the Pentax K was in production. Before moving to the Super Takumar models associated with the post-1959 models, AOC provided three more non-standard Auto-Takumar lenses for the Pentax K: 35mm f/3.5, 85mm f/1.8, and 135mm f/3.5.
The Pentax K is a strikingly attractive camera. It is easily identified by the model designation engraved just below the serial number on the top plate of the body. In addition, and when the standard lens is present, the camera can be spotted across even the most cluttered trade show expanse. Pentax K cameras are more frequently seen at trade shows than any other model, however, clean examples are getting very difficult to locate.
Several sources reported that the Pentax K was shown at the 1958 Photokina. Certainly, AOC had to recognize that their products would easily win a portion of the available photography market, and that the Pentax K was a step in the right direction. The Pentax K received a respectable amount of promotional effort in the U.S. market. The Wexton Company provided full page Pentax K advertisements in national photography magazines that promoted the model as the camera with the "built-in memory". Photography magazines provided very complementary reviews of the Pentax K. The camera first appeared in U.S. magazine mail order sections in December 1958 at a price of approximately $250 with the standard lens. By late 1960, the camera body could be purchased at what appears to have been close-out prices, of $100. As with the previous Pentax models, the model K was available in an all black finish with a matching black 55 f/1.8 Auto-Takumar lens. It was interesting to note that both Life and National Geographic magazines tested the Pentax K and then purchased cameras for their photographers. AOC reports that production of the Pentax K ceased in May 1959.
As a final note, the Pentax K was sold in South Africa as the Asahi Pentar K. According to published reports, the Pentax name was changed to "Pentar" to resolve a patent dispute with Pentagon of Dresden, Germany. This has been confirmed by an independent source in South Africa.
As collectors of photographica, we all have our areas of interest. We scurry about looking for the parts and pieces to be added to our collection, and, we search for the best sources of information to base our purchases on. Like many collectors today, I have selected a well defined area of interest. I enjoy collecting, using, and learning about the cameras and accessories of Asahi Optical Company (AOC), also known as Pentax. Although I enjoy the full line of AOC equipment, my particular area of research has been in the initial models; those introduced prior to 1959. The pre-1959 models may constitute as little as one-half of a percent of total AOC SLR production to date, and, are represented by four models of Asahiflex and three models of Asahi Pentax cameras. These are the cameras that started AOC down the path to being one of the leading sources of quality photographic equipment. I would like to tell you a little bit about the initial cameras. In addition, I am going to provide some information on sources of data for collectors, and, make you aware of a guide that I have that explains the history, production, distribution, and equipment associated with these very uncommon to rare early AOC cameras (maybe this is an infomercial-like situation).
The current Asahi Optical Company and Pentax Corporation (Pentax) find their beginnings in 1919 in the creation of Asahi Optical Joint Stock Company of Tokyo, Japan. The company was created for the purpose of eye-glass lens manufacturing. In 1952, AOC began marketing their first camera and Japan's first 35mm SLR; the Asahiflex I. Although it appears that the Asahiflex I, with its waist level viewer, was introduced with a very limited number of accessories, it did provide for a 37mm interchangeably screw mount lens system. In 1953, AOC introduced the Asahiflex IA. The Asahiflex IA represented an improvement in the overall function of the model line in that it now contained both "FP" and "X" sync posts and a better defined progression of available shutter speeds from 1/25th to 1/500. In 1954, AOC released the Asahiflex IIB that, along with another number of improvements, contained an instant return mirror system. In 1955, AOC released the last of the Asahiflex line; the Asahiflex IIA. The model IIA represents the peak of design refinement in the Asahiflex line with an instant return mirror and slow shutter speeds down to ½ second. By the time the model IIA was available, AOC had introduced the last Asahiflex lens and to provide a range of focal lengths from 50mm to 500mm. In addition, the accessory line was expanded to include lens hoods, filters, extension tubes, bellowscopes, a copy stand, and a microscope adapter.
In 1957, AOC introduced the Asahi Pentax camera and departed rather substantially from the previous Asahiflex design. The waist level viewer was replaced with a penta-prism, a film advance lever took the place of the knob wind system, and the lens mount was changed to accept 42mm screw lenses. Asahiflex system enhancements such as the instant return mirror and the slow speeds below 1/25 second were retained. The Asahi Pentax design and function was a winner, and AOC knew it. After approximately a year of production, AOC came out with the Asahi Pentax S in 1958. While the model S showed slight cosmetic variations, the primary difference between it and the Asahi Pentax was the change to the conventional shutter speed progression found on current Pentax cameras. Shortly after the introduction of the Pentax S, AOC released the Asahi Pentax K. The Pentax K also brought with it enhancements such as improved fresnel screen focusing and a 1/1000 shutter speed. The most notable change in the Pentax K was the initiation of a system of semi-automatic diaphragm lenses: the Auto-Takumar. In 1959, AOC introduced computer technology into manufacturing, and the production of cameras increased dramatically. In fact, the production of the Pentax S2 (Heiland/Honeywell H2) of 1959, exceeds the total production of all of the initial AOC models.
If you are interested in collecting and using Pentax cameras, you may have from time to time wished you could find out more about the initial models of Asahi Optical Company. What is the rarest AOC standard production model? What are the most difficult cameras to locate for your collection? How many cameras were manufactured? Are there any variations that you should be aware of? What lenses and accessories were made available, and, when you see one, how should you I know when to pass it by or snatch it up? These are the questions that AOC collectors, as well as collectors of other photographica categories, ask themselves. So, what's the problem? Well, up until now, information on the initial AOC cameras has been fairly limited. Historical literature by AOC is essentially non-existent, technical information from AOC on the initial models is extremely difficult to locate, and, post-manufacturing period publications have generally ignored the initial models in favor of the later screw mount and bayonet mount cameras. With only several exceptions, historical accounts on the initial models in books published since 1960, have been confined to several pages in an introductory chapter.
The information crunch began to lift in 1990 with an extremely welcome book on the AOC models by Danilo Cecchi through Hove Publishing Company. Cecchi's 1990 book, Asahi Pentax and Pentax SLR 35mm Cameras 1952-1989, provides a wealth of information on historical aspects of AOC and on the models up to the autofocus SF10 (SF7). While the book is one of the landmark publications on Pentax, it still did not provide many of the answers I was seeking concerning the initial AOC cameras. Also since 1990, there have been numerous articles by AOC collecting enthusiasts such as Dario Bonazza (Italy), W. L. Fadner (U.S.), Ian Shephard (U.K.), and Derek White (U.K.). Such articles represent the efforts of knowledgeable collectors, and serve to keep pushing the limits of available information on the wide range of AOC cameras and accessories. Other than the new information provided by such researchers, collectors have had to rely prior historical accounts, or, conduct their own literature reviews. As mentioned in several places on this homepage, there is a comprehensive source of detailed information on the initial AOC cameras, lenses, and accessories has been filled by a new guide: Asahiflex and the Pre-1959 Asahi Pentax Cameras: A Guide to Identification and Collection. The guide is an appropriate addition to the library of collecting literature, in that it fully details the four Asahiflex models, and the first three Asahi Pentax penta-prism models. The guide was a self-publishing effort, and contains a logical progression of chapters that review the cameras, lenses, accessories, model variations, sales, production, and distribution. The guide represents the results of data collection over a five year period, and is based upon a review of hundreds of pieces of equipment. For more information on the guide, read the detailed description.