Home Feature Articles Leidolf Wetzlar: The forgotten brand from the home town of Leica

Leidolf Wetzlar: The forgotten brand from the home town of Leica

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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.

Leidolf Wetzlar

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

Now What is MacfilosMan doing with that strange camera that is not a Leica? Editor Evans gets to grips with the Lordomat on a visit to Northamptonshire.
Now, what is Macfilos Man doing with that strange camera that is not a Leica? Editor Evans gets to grips with the Lordomat on a visit to a Northamptonshire pub.


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The Leica Society

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in the December 2022 issue of TLS Magazine. Why not join The Leica Society to enjoy expanding your knowledge of the marque and mix with prominent Leica experts? Find full details here.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Hello Norbert. Thank you for your very interesting background about your time at Leidolf. Your personal working knowledge is historically valuable and it would be good to have your comments on the on-line kamerasamlig article mentioned by our editor Mike Evans. Do you think it is factually correct ? From an English perspective we really need a translation but this would be quite time consuming so perhaps a young language student might try it to help their studies !!! I have always enjoyed my (four) visits to your hometown of Wetzlar – for the April Historica meetings and Camera fair but will go to the Leidolf factory site next time. My own hometown Northampton is twinned with Marburg so my son goes there to play in their music festival and also knows Wetzlar well.

    Richard

  2. I am surprised to read all this positive comments and interest about Leidolf and there Cameras.
    I was born in Wetzlar 1947 and started in 1961 as an apprentice at Leidolf. I still remember the day when Fritz Meinhard passed away. People where searching for him in the morning and he was finally found just below the production in the garage in his car with running engine.
    We still produced some Cameras until 1963 but started also to work for Wild Heerbrugg in 1962.
    I finished my apprenticeship October 1966 and was sent to Wild Heerbrugg Switzerland in January 1967 and I’m still working for now called „Leica Geosystems“.
    By the way: the original Leidolf Building still exists in Wetzlar.

    • Thank you, Herr Lämmer, for this first-hand experience which greatly adds to the story. Our friend Lars Netopil, who is based on Wetzlar as you may know, made a visit to the old site and sent me a photograph. It looks like the old house is still intact, but the new building is under construction at the moment and it isn’t clear what they are going to do with the site. I am sure Richard, who wrote the article, will be interested in your comment.

      Mike

  3. Thanks John – That’s a very kind compliment. ‘Bit excessive maybe but kind. Mike has just uncovered much more info’ via a 1998 German language article on Leidolf history so more to be revealed. Richard

  4. Nice article, Richard. The Wild Heerbrugg connection is interesting. That company ended up with Leica Geosystems which is now based in Heerbrugg in Canton St Gallen in Switzerland. This company now lies under the Hexagon Corporation. The Leica name is not owned by Leica AG which produces the cameras, but rather by Leica Microsystems which is owned by the US based Danaher corporation. Leica Microsystems has a factory in Wetzlar, but it is a separate company to Leica AG which is based on the outskirts of Wetzlar in Leitz-Park. Leica AG uses the Leica name under license from Leica Microsystems which owns the Leica name. Leica Camera AG is 55% owned by Austrian investment firm ACM Projektentwicklung GmbH, and 45% owned by The Blackstone Group.

    So a lot has grown out of the original Ernst Leitz name. Leidolf headed into a company which is now separate from Leica AG and lies under Hexagon. I once nearly bought a Lordomat and went into a shop to buy one, but ended up coming out with a Leica M2. If I was doing to same thing today I would probably come out with the Lordomat, provided it was in good condition. The Lordomat is a very interesting camera and less common these days than an M2.

    William

    • Thanks William ! Tracing that maze of company acquisitions must have been a challenge. It has become apparent in the last few years just how important a credible brand name is in marketing a product – and therefore the maintenance of that credibility over subsequent product evolution. Leica revival in recent times shows how well they did in achieving prestige brand status. Sadly, Leidolf did rather less well. The market for any sort of prestige product in the immediate postwar period was very limited and after a brief attempt with the clever rangefinder Lordomat they reverted to cheaper designs. I was intrigued by the ’50s comparison of two such neighbouring companies. Having trudged the streets of Wetzlar to find the various Leica sites during past visits, it would be good to find the old location of Leidolf. Richard

      • Your comment prompted me to do some research, something maybe I should have done before publication. I found a very informative article on Leidolf (see below, it’s in German). The Leidolf factory was in the Garbenheimer Straße in 1927, in what appears to be a residential block. By the mid-fifties this building had been supplemented by a modern office block next door. The site was photographed in 1998 and it looks almost the same as it did in 1957. It will be interesting if anyone could visit the Garbenheimer Str and see if it is still there. Come to think of it, I will ask Lars Netopil if he can drive past. He might know the history anyway.

        From the opening paragraph of the article we see that Fritz Meinhardt (whom you mention in your article) was Leidolf’s son-in-law. The article was written (I suspect in 1998) by Gernot Monzen. These is a great deal of historical information, with photographs, that would make a fascinating sequel to your current article. The article, by the way, appears to be a PDF and published on a Danish site, Kamerasamling (Camera Collection).

        http://www.kamerasamling.dk/leidolf/Leidolf%20Cabinett.pdf

        Unfortunately, we can’t lift the text for machine translation, so it would have to be done manually. I don’t have the time at the moment, but perhaps a native German-speaking reader would oblige.

        Mike

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