The 1970s were a great time for camera geeks. The decade brought us the apex of professional mechanical 35mm SLRs in the Nikon F2, and the beginning of the amateur 35mm SLR segment as we know it today, spearheaded by the Canon AE-1 and Pentax K1000. These cameras were well made (well, most of them were) and they sold in incredible quantities. One could argue that most of the world’s biggest camera manufacturers reached their peak of sales success and cultural relevance in the ‘70s.
Well, unless we’re talking about Leica.
While Nikon, Canon, and Pentax were flying high in the decade of disco, Leica would rather forget the 1970s ever happened. This is the decade, after all, in which Leitz invented the auto-focus lens and then sold the patent to Minolta (Leitz said that their customers knew how to focus).
Leica of the 1970s (or more accurately, Leitz as the company was then known) was free falling towards the hard ground of bankruptcy. An unwillingness to keep up with a professional market that was shifting to the SLR format cost them dearly. Leitz tried to hold onto the rangefinder dream with the redesigned Leica M5 in 1971 but only succeeded in alienating their remaining fans and nearly running the company into the ground. Leitz also attempted to join the SLR gold rush by further developing the Leicaflex series of SLRs, but it was too little, too late. Astronomical manufacturing costs as well as a comparatively disappointing feature set prevented Leica from competing in the cutthroat professional SLR market.
It’s strange to think that a company as storied as Leitz could fall so far from grace, and stranger still to think that they would ask for help. But Leitz did both of those things. In 1972 Leitz entered into a cooperation agreement with Japanese camera and optics company Minolta, hoping that the two manufacturers could combine their strengths and improve their fortunes in the ultra-ultra-competitive world of camera making.
No Ordinary Love – The Birth of Leitz Minolta, the Leica CL, and the R-Series
The Leitz Minolta partnership was formed in part to solve Leitz’s SLR problem. The Leicaflexes of the 1960s were by all accounts stellar cameras, but also lagged significantly behind their competitors when it came to feature sets and lens variety. They were also incredibly expensive for both the consumer to buy and the manufacturer to produce, with Leitz losing money on each unit of the Leicaflex SL2 produced.
Enter the Minolta Camera Company. Minolta had already built a reputation for being a progressive camera company with a successful SLR line (the SRT series) and had a knack for introducing new technologies years ahead of anybody else (CLC metering – the predecessor to matrix metering). Partnering with such a progressive company made sense for the traditionally conservative Leitz, and looked like the answer to their SLR woes.
It would then seem strange that the first child of the partnership was not an SLR, but a rangefinder – the jointly designed but Minolta manufactured Leica CL. Released in 1973, the Leica CL was the antidote to the M5. Whereas the M5 was big and chunky, the CL was small and sleek. And whereas the M5 was meant for professional use, the CL was meant as a cost-effective consumer alternative to the Leica M-series.
The CL was released with two new M-mount lenses sold under Minolta’s Rokkor badging – the M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 and 90mm f/4. The M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 was a Minolta lens manufactured by Minolta in Japan while the M-Rokkor 90mm f/4 was a Leitz designed 90mm f/4 Elmar made in Wetzlar. Both offered performance equal to the best from either brand, and helped the Leica CL sell well, at least in comparison to the M5.
For all of its success, the Leica CL was a foreshadowing of the doom that would eventually befall the Leitz Minolta partnership. Though the CL was never meant to compete directly with the flagship Leica M camera (a point we stressed in our CL review), it was perceived by Leica shooters as an inferior product. The CL’s liberal use of plastic and electronics was antithetical to Leitz’s philosophy of stripped down mechanical excellence. This contributed to the CL’s unfair reputation as a sub-par Leica M-camera (a reputation that would haunt every camera made through the partnership).
After a brief entertainment of Leitz’s rangefinder fantasies, the SLR problem would be addressed in the cameras that followed immediately after the CL. For this round it would be Leitz that would help Minolta in developing their new electromechanical SLR, 1974s Minolta XE. Leitz contributed much to this camera, the greatest contribution being the uncommonly smooth electromechanical Leitz-Copal shutter. The XE became a much smoother, higher quality camera than the previous offerings from Minolta, thanks in large part to Leitz’s signature refinements.
While the XE was great in its own right, it can also be seen as a guinea pig for Leitz’s new soon-to-be flagship SLR line – the R-series. The Leica R-series was to be the successor to Leitz’s well-built but ill-fated Leicaflex series, and the answer to Leica’s prayers. Not only was the rebrand a renewal of Leitz’s efforts at making an SLR, but a statement of intent. By collaborating with SLR-savvy Minolta, Leitz intended to take over the SLR market that had almost killed off the company years earlier.
1976’s Leica R3 was about as definitive a comeback statement as a manufacturer could make. It combined the smoothness of the XE with an even sturdier build and a few extra features, namely an updated Leitz-Copal shutter mechanism, a spot/center-weighted meter to complement the normal averaging meter, and the all-important R-mount which could mount those famous Leitz lenses.
The new Leica R-mount played host to a slew of brand new Leitz-Minolta collaborations designed to complement the legendary Leica lenses developed for the Leicaflex. The Leica Elmarit-R 24mm f/2.8, 16mm f/2.8, and Vario-Elmar 70-210 f/4 would be based on Minolta’s own 24mm, 16mm, and 70-210mm MD mount lenses respectively. Like the M-Rokkors, these lenses performed up to Leitz’s signature standard of optical quality, no compromise or improvement needed.
Giving You The Best That I Got – Leitz Minolta’s Finest Cameras
Following the XE and R3, Leitz Minolta quickly went to work to update both brands’ SLR lineups – the Minolta X-series and Leica R-series. This came in the form of 1977’s Minolta XD. The XD signaled that the partnership had truly hit its stride. Not only was it compact and elegant, and built to a standard worthy of Leitz, but it also set the industry-wide technological standard in signature Minolta fashion. The XD holds the distinction of being the very first multimode 35mm SLR with both aperture-priority and shutter-priority auto-exposure modes, as well as a full manual override. It was a landmark achievement for the two manufacturers, and proved to be a popular and well-regarded camera in its day.
Like its predecessor the XE, the XD formed the basis for another Leica R-mount camera, 1980’s Leica R4. The R4 improved upon the original XD design by adding an AE-lock, an explicitly labeled program mode (it technically exists on the XD, but isn’t labeled), a spot metering mode, and the usual Leitz accoutrements of an updated shutter mechanism, mirror box, and tighter build. The R4 would go on to become the best selling camera of the entire R-series with 125,000 copies being sold worldwide. Things looked promising for Leitz, and it looked like they were going to finally get their piece of the SLR pie.
Leitz Minolta seemed to be on a hot streak in the early 1980s because the era also produced one of the finest M-mount rangefinders ever made – the Minolta CLE. The CLE introduced a bevy of new technologies to the aging rangefinder format, including TTL OTF (through the lens, off the film plane) metering, aperture priority autoexposure, and an LED metering display in the viewfinder. The release of the CLE also brought a new roster of M-Rokkor lenses with updated multicoated versions of the previous M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 and 90mm f/4 lenses, as well as a brand new 28mm f/2.8. These lenses formed the 28/40/90 Rokkor triumvirate that still forms one of the best and most versatile M-mount kits to date.
This camera, the CLE, is arguably the best camera to come out of the period of time in which the Leitz Minolta agreement existed. However, Leitz wasn’t involved in its development at all. The CLE is a purely Minolta creation, and its feature set wouldn’t be equaled by a Leitz-made camera for twenty-two years by the Leica M7 of 2002.
But as great as the R4 and the CLE were, they would ultimately be the best that Leitz-Minolta could do. The relationship began to suffer in the 1980s due to a sudden divergence in camera philosophy. This difference showed itself in Minolta’s X-700 in 1981, a camera which competed not with the all-metal professional to advanced amateur SLRs of the day, like the previous XE and XD had, but with consumer-oriented SLRs like the Canon AE-1, presumably to boost overall sales. Unlike its predecessors, the plastic fantastic X-700 would not receive the Leitz treatment, and neither would any subsequent Minolta SLR.
Forget Me Nots – The Final Leitz Minolta Cameras
The subsequent Leica R5 of 1986 would only improve upon the previous R4 by adding a 1/2000th of a second top shutter speed, a TTL flash mode, and improved weather sealing. Welcome improvements, but the R5 was now a noticeable step behind contemporary SLRs such as the Nikon FA and Olympus OM4-Ti, both of which introduced technologies like matrix metering, and multi-spot metering. Adding insult to injury, the R5 was significantly more expensive than either of those SLRs, which put it at a significant disadvantage in the marketplace.
Leitz responded in typical Leitz fashion, with reduction instead of expansion; simplification instead of complication. The Leica R6 of 1988 represented a return to the all-mechanical, minimalist sensibilities the brand was known for. The R6 was essentially a mechanical version of the R5, with naught but an all-mechanical shutter that topped out at 1/1000th of a second and a light meter.
Leitz was back on brand, but suddenly found itself in an awkward position. Like the R5, the R6 was outclassed by its contemporaries; professional mechanical cameras like the Pentax LX and the advanced amateur mechanical cameras of the day like the Nikon FM2 and Olympus OM-3 were much more capable, not to mention cheaper, alternatives. Leitz tried to play catch-up by bumping the shutter speed up to 1/2000th of a second shutter speed with the R6.2, but just like the Leicaflex SL2 a decade prior, it was too little, too late.
The final R-series camera with Minolta DNA would be the Leica R7, released in 1992. The R7 saw the return of electronics to the R-series and introduced a digital display in the viewfinder, fully automated TTL flash metering, mirror lock-up, and a rather unique selective/integral metering system. It seemed that Leitz had finally caught up to the pack with the R7, but again they were caught flat-footed. The 1990s unleashed autofocus upon the world, and Leitz got caught with their pants down messing about with manual focus. The R7 faded out of existence, and though Minolta continued to manufacture lenses and accessories for Leica well into the 1990s, the later years of the decade brought an end to the Leitz Minolta collaboration.
In the years and decades following the breakup, Leitz would continue trying to develop upon their SLR system with the radically divergent R8 and R9. But they eventually gave up on the R-series altogether. They released a digital camera in 1996, but it cost $30,000 and the company only made 146 units. By 2004 and 2005, the brand was almost totally ruined.
Minolta meanwhile transitioned into the amateur and professional autofocus SLR market throughout the 1990s, produced some fantastic point-and-shoots and consumer-grade cameras, and did pretty damn well for themselves for another couple of decades. But, in one of the great tragedies of camera history, they failed to successfully transition to the ultra-competitive digital SLR market. Their parent company sold the consumer photography brand Minolta (then Konica-Minolta) to Sony in the early years of the new millennium.
Stronger Than Pride – The Legacy of Leitz Minolta
The legacy of Leitz Minolta is a complicated one to parse. On one hand, nearly every camera and lens made under the agreement still carries the undeserved stigma of being “not quite a Leica.” Mention the R-Series and the CL or CLE rangefinders in casual conversation with an older photo geek and you can expect the words “basically a Minolta” to be said with a hint of scorn. It doesn’t help that Leitz’s attempts at modernization, particularly the usage of more automation and plastic, were then and are still now looked down upon by the Leica faithful. It’s this catch-22 that seems to define Leica’s transitional past – modernize and risk upsetting the fan base (as happened with the Leica M5), or cling to tradition and be left in the dust (Leicaflex SL2, Leica R6). Leitz couldn’t win, and the only answer was to quit playing the SLR game entirely.
On the other hand, we are now left with a collection of truly great, but overlooked cameras. The Minolta XE and XD are two of the best Minolta SLRs ever made, and make great user bodies today. The pro-grade Leica R-series now sells for relatively cheap compared to typical Leica fare and they offer access to Leitz’s incredible and storied R-lenses. And the oft-maligned Leica CL and Minolta CLE remain some of the best M-cameras ever made, with some of the best glass ever made for the M-mount.
Was the Leitz Minolta collaboration a failure? We could argue, yes, since one company no longer exists and the other can’t hold a candle in sales volume to the dominant camera makers in the world (Sony, Fujifilm, Canon, Nikon). But we could also argue that it was a success. It lasted more than twenty years, even if Leitz never got the share of the SLR market they wanted and Minolta never got the recognition they deserved. History would argue that it’s a win for photo geeks – together these two great camera makers left behind a collection of incredible cameras and lenses for us to enjoy and remember, decades later.