Around ten years ago, I first heard of Leidolf of Wetzlar, a forgotten camera brand from the same town as Leica in the German state of Hessen.
The springtime Sunday Photographica camera fair in Westminster, London, was then in its prime and still densely populated. One such day I made a late-afternoon unexpected purchase.
Already I owned my first Wetzlar camera, having bought a chrome 1935 Leica II a couple of weeks previously, and had been prowling the tables for accessories and items for my planned collection.
By four in the afternoon, activity was winding down when I suddenly saw the legend ‘Wetzlar’ inscribed on an unusual camera. It appeared to be a neat rangefinder design and wasn’t expensive. So I bought it on impulse out of curiosity.
I wasn’t to know how many rabbit holes that innocent purchase would lead me down. My curiosity was piqued anew as soon as I got the new purchase home.
The next day I consulted the vendor of my original Leica for information. We are lucky in Northamptonshire, here in England, to still have an excellent old-style independent camera shop, Skears Photographic, selling and repairing new and secondhand items.
Steve Skears soon told me that the Leidolf camera I had bought, dated from 1954, was indeed made in Wetzlar. My camera had a shutter fault, so I left it with Steve for repair and service.
Subsequent investigations revealed that Rudolf Leidolf established his optical company in Wetzlar in 1921, producing lenses for microscopes and binoculars. He may have been a sub-contractor of Leitz in the period up to 1948.
Wetzlar is a small community, and it is more than likely that employees in the local optical industries will have migrated between the two companies as employment opportunities arose.
Production begins in 1949
However, it seems that Leidolf Wetzlar did not produce its own cameras until the post-war period, with production starting in 1949. Strangely for an established lens manufacturer, the new cameras were fitted with lenses manufactured by other optical companies. Often first designed by Leidolf, the lenses were made by other German companies, including Schacht of Ulm and Enna-werk München.
Initially, Leidolf Wetzlar cameras were not conceived to compete with the high-quality Leica products but simply to take advantage of the thriving, cheaper end of the camera market in those austere times of the early 1950s.
The first camera, the Leidox, took 127 roll film and used a 50mm f/3.8 lens in a Vario shutter. It was followed shortly by the Lordox 2s with an f/2.8 lens and Prontor-s shutter.
By 1952, Leidolf was making its first 35mm film cameras, still called Lordox and available in several versions, with f/3.8 or f/2.8 lenses, the latter using Prontor-SVS shutters.
Wetzlar coincidence, or not?
Two years later, in 1954, Leidolf Wetzlar was starting to move somewhat up-market. This was also the year of the introduction of the first Messsucher Leica, the M3.
Can it be just a coincidence that simultaneously in Wetzlar, another new 35mm rangefinder camera with interchangeable (breech-lock) lenses and double-stroke lever wind was announced?
In fact, these two cameras were quite different concepts, with the new Lordomat camera still using a Prontor-SVS shutter and Schacht or Enna lenses, sometimes labelled Lordon or Lordonar.
However, the early Lordomat was certainly an interesting camera with proportions similar to a late-model screw-mount Leica. It had the advantage of an accurate long-base (65mm) rangefinder and a brass body. Variations of this design were made up to around 1957.
Leidolf Wetzlar problems upmarket
Leidolf’s attempts to move into the top-quality camera market seem to have faded some years before the end of production. From 1958 onwards, there was a return to a range of cheaper consumer cameras, probably just to survive in a competitive world of both German and now Japanese makers. The build quality of the 1954-57 era never fully returned, but certainly better designs, such as the Lordox Blitz continued up to 1961.
My regular visits to Steve Skears’s camera shop eventually paid off. One day he announced from behind the counter that, while the replacement parts for my ‘Photographica’ Lordomat had not been found, he had a C35 version from 1956. Would I be interested? By now, I knew that the Lordomat C35 was the then top of the range (selling in Germany in the mid-1950s for around 250 DM or €125). So Steve held on to my unrepaired camera, and some cash changed hands.
The C35 is an impressive and substantial (700g) piece of photographic kit with the same competent rangefinder specification as the standard Lordomat. But it adds an integral lightmeter and an ‘extra’ multi-lens frame viewfinder (35/50/90/135) as well as the coincident rangefinder/viewfinder.
Tragedy at Leidolf Wetzlar
The end of Leidolf Wetzlar camera production came in 1962 in especially tragic circumstances. The suicide of the then owner, Fritz Meinhardt, was the catalyst, but it is highly likely that the company could no longer compete on price in the expanding photographic market. This was compounded by the unusual wholesale marketing arrangement with a number of distributors, first with Wedena in Bad Nauheim, then through Quelle, the well-known German mail-order company, then based in Fürth, near Nürnberg. We can conclude that the cameras were no longer commercially viable.
The Swiss instrument and optical firm Wild Heerbrugg, famed for its surveying and technical products, purchased the company’s remnants.
However, in 1987 Wild Heerbrugg merged with Ernst Leitz GmbH, so the Wetzlar connection was finally reinstated. In 1990 it became wholly owned by Leica. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Meanwhile, down in the local pub
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