Shooting the Pontiac Super Lynx I – Camera Review

Shooting the Pontiac Super Lynx I – Camera Review

2800 1575 James Tocchio

The Pontiac Super Lynx I is one of the most beautiful 35mm film cameras I’ve yet seen. It’s also a rare camera. Finding one in excellent condition (and with the SOM Berthiot 50mm F/2.8 Flor lens) took nearly two years of intermittent searching. But I’ve finally bought one, and over the past few months I’ve run a few rolls of film through this unusual machine.

It’s not the easiest camera to shoot, and it doesn’t create the sharpest images. Its bokeh isn’t phenomenal, and its viewfinder is pretty dismal. Its shutter is limited and its methodology is archaic and clunky. But all of these complaints are largely irrelevant. The Pontiac Super Lynx I is a striking camera, and I love it. For me, this is what shooting and collecting classic cameras is all about.

A Brief History of Pontiac Cameras

We’re going to spend most of this article examining the Super Lynx range, and the Super Lynx I specifically, but a brief history of the brand that made the machine can’t hurt. We’ll make it quick, and save in-depth details for a larger retrospective (if readers seem interested).

MFAP, an acronym for Manufacture Française d’Appareils Photographiques (French Camera Maker), was as the name suggests, a French camera company. MFAP released numerous models under the brand name Pontiac, beginning with the original 1938 Pontiac Bakélite, a folding 6×9 camera made predictably out of Bakelite. Later models in the 6×9 range were made of cast aluminum, a characteristic that would define the aesthetic of Pontiac cameras. These were called Bloc Métal 41, Bloc Métal 45, and Bloc Métal 145.

Contemporaneously released alongside these larger folding cameras was a series of smaller, fixed lens machines utilizing 127 film. The first of these, the leaf-shutter-equipped Lynx I of 1942, is an incredibly rare and gorgeous machine, its cast aluminum body showing the intricate and uniform machining that was (and remains) so unique to Pontiac cameras. Like rows of wheat or woven strands of fiber, the areas of the body that would be typically covered in leatherette on other cameras is a work of metallic sculpture on the Lynx. And while it looks gorgeous and interesting, this materials choice was likely driven by necessity – during the time when the camera was made, leather was most certainly hard or impossible to find.

The Lynx camera would see numerous evolutionary models release over the next eight years. The Lynx II changed the original’s leaf shutter to a more capable focal plane shutter. This camera was manufactured in various outfits, with a choice of fixed 50mm lenses of differing complexity and speed. A luxurious model for night shooting, the Lynx de Nuit followed and featured a blisteringly quick, seven-element 55mm F/1.5 lens (I am on the hunt for this one). The Lynx Standard of 1948 boasted a wider 40mm lens. Toward the end of Lynx production in 1950, the Lynx III was announced and advertised to offer interchangeable lenses that were intended to be compatible with the larger 35mm Super Lynx II, but the Lynx III would never come into existence.

As the production cycle of the Lynx was nearing its end, Pontiac developed and released a new 35mm film camera. This was the Super Lynx I, of 1948. A more modern camera compared with the original Lynx, the Super Lynx I featured a focal plane shutter, film frame counter, self-timer, an optical viewfinder, and one of three available fixed lenses. It was followed in similar fashion to the Lynx by a series of variants on the core design.

In the same way that the Lynx Standard was the wide-angle version of the Lynx, the Super Lynx Standard was a wide-angle version of the Super Lynx I. Released around 1950, it replaced the Super Lynx I’s fixed 50mm lens with a 35mm lens, and today it’s incredibly rare.

In 1951, production of all Pontiac cameras was moved from Paris to Morocco. These cameras are easily distinguished from earlier machines – the makers mark, which on French cameras had read “Pontiac Paris” within a stylized lens formula, was replaced with “Pontiac Maroc,” and the bodies which had been formerly exposed castings were now covered with leather.

Following the move, which may have been an effort to reduce production cost, a simplified Super Lynx was released. This Super Lynx (which dropped the “I” from its name and faceplate) deleted the Super Lynx I’s self-timer feature and was only offered with one lens, the SOM Berthiot Flor 50mm F/3.5.

The Super Lynx II of 1952 was an improved version of the Super Lynx I, and featured a range of interchangeable bayonet-mount lenses spanning focal lengths from 28mm to 90mm. All of the Super Lynx cameras were made as scale-focus machines – a rangefinder version was announced, but never produced.

In 1954, production of all Pontiac cameras ceased.

A Closer Look at the Super Lynx I

The Super Lynx I is an uncommonly balanced combination of mechanical functionality and artistic craftsmanship. Its polished aluminum body gleams like the Mithril of Tolkien’s fictional elves. Its gears and film transport are made of brass and aluminum. Its body has all the weight of a carved idol. On top of that, it’s a capable, and even impressive, machine (for 1948).

There’s a self-timer, an optical viewfinder, a shutter-release cable socket, a film frame counter (manually set), a film rewind lever and knob, a tripod-socket on the bottom, and a swing-away hinged film door, and strap lugs are built into the body casting.

Its focal plane shutter is capable of various speeds, which aren’t measured in uniform increments like the cameras of today. Instead of speeds which halve or double with each adjustment, here we see irregular speeds of 1/25th, 1/40th, 1/50th, 1/75th, 1/100th, 1/200th, and 1/500th of a second.

In front of this shutter sits a fixed, collapsible lens. In the case of my camera, this is the SOM Berthiot Flor 50mm F/2.8. The ten-bladed aperture stops down step-lessly from F/2.8 to F/16. Focus is achieved by estimating distance and setting the lens scale to an appropriate setting from infinity to one meter (the focus scale is registered in meters only). There’s aperture marks on the barrel to facilitate zone focusing, and a convenient infinity lock.

Other Super Lynx I’s may come equipped with different lenses. Beyond my 50mm F/2.8 there are two other options; the SOM Berthiot Flor 50mm F/3.5 and the extremely rare Sagem Hexar 50mm F/2. This is arguably the most valuable and most coveted version, due to that camera’s stunningly large maximum aperture.

Shooting the Super Lynx I

Last week, it was fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit and I was feeling great. After two weeks of snow and sub-freezing temperatures, the sudden balmy weather had me eager to get out and shoot. I loaded a bag with far too many cameras and hit the city streets.

Within minutes of unpacking the Pontiac, I discovered a serious annoyance. Holding the all-aluminum camera was like holding a block of ice. Even in near-to-early-Spring-like temperatures, the Super Lynx was frigid. I felt a sudden urge to become the founding member of the “Camera Leatherette Enthusiasts Society of America” (requests for membership can be written on the back of a twenty dollar bill and mailed to the office).

Once gloves were donned, shooting became less painful. The operative word here being “less.” The Super Lynx I is not an easy camera to shoot. It’s a product of its time, a camera that’s seventy years old. Every action is an exercise in care, and rapid shooting is a study in concentration.

Since the shutter speed selector is a spring-loaded unit that rotates when the shutter is cocked, it has two index marks, one for use when the shutter is cocked and one for when it’s not. Knowing which is which is the responsibility of the user. To set a different speed, we need to lift up the dial and twist it to the desired setting. When the shutter’s released, we need to remember to keep our fat (or gloved) fingers away from the dial as it flicks back to its rest position.

Nothing on this camera is marked for ease. The film advance knob has a spring-loaded button in the center, and you’ll never know what it does unless you read the manual (which you can’t find because it’s rare, and you can’t read because it’s French). Luckily I’m here to tell you that pressing the button allows us to set the manually-set film frame counter.

The self-timer has no markings to tell us that it’s a self-timer, nor does the self-timer release button. The film rewind lever is similarly lacking in any identifier. Only by opening the back and observing the actual gearing change when this lever is actuated did I know for certain its function. The focus scale assumes we know metric measurements, but it doesn’t actually say that it’s measuring in meters. And there’s quite literally nothing in the viewfinder to help with frame lines or focusing.

Before every shot we need to remember to choose a shutter speed, choose an aperture, and make sure to dial the focus. Easier said than done; a capability to measure light and distance from target will be essential. Fail at either and we’ll just be wasting film. Since I’m not a very good measure of light or distance in meters, wasting film is something I do fairly often. And even with honed ability, taking photos with this camera is a slow process. To increase my slim chances at getting the right shot, I bracket, taking three or four photos at various shutter speeds and apertures. This brings my time per sequence of shots up to about ninety seconds.

All of this old-world methodology means that the Super Lynx I is not just a camera for people who know how to use cameras, it’s a camera for people who know how to use cameras that were made in 1948. Frankly, there’s not a lot of people like that still around.

[I wanted the samples gallery to have an old look, so I chose to shoot in the dead of night with expired Kodak TMax P3200. Lots of grain, no light, a difficult 70-year-old camera, and a general lack of photographic talent yielded these results.]

[Shots in the samples gallery below were made with Arista EDU Ultra.]

With practice, however, things start feeling real good, real fast.

Part of that pleasure comes in knowing you’re shooting a unique camera with a unique lens. The shutter actuates with a soft hiss. The levers, dials, and knobs ratchet and click like a wristwatch. The six-element SOM Berthiot renders with the gorgeous imprecision of classic lenses. There are lens flares and ghosts and plenty more supposed flaws.

It reminds me; when I was a guest on the Classic Lenses Podcast, the hosts asked me what sort of photos I like to make. I told them, in too many words, that my favorite types of photos are ones that are imprecise. I like the idea of a photograph more than I like the clinical precision of a photograph, if that makes sense. Compare the images from a modern Canon lens on a digital SLR to ones made with a Carl Zeiss Sonnar on a Contax II and you’ll get the idea. The lens of the Super Lynx I makes the latter type of image.

Focus might be a little bit off. Sharpness is certainly not very high. These are not clinically excellent images. But they are beautiful. For lack of a better term (and I don’t say this with any assertion that my photographs are worthy of the word), old lenses like this make photos that are art. Whether I can make art or not, I love the way these old lenses render.

Buyer’s Guide

I’ll start the consumer reports section of this writeup with a disclaimer – I’m not a good source for sensible advise on collector camera shopping. I’m too in love with mechanical things. And don’t forget that I’m an idiot who can’t help but be impressed by shiny metal objects.

I also spent my formative childhood years watching a Japanese cartoon that taught, among other things, the value of teamwork, to have belief in one’s self, and to be kind to Jigglypuffs. Good life lessons, but what Pokémon really instilled in me was a profound and unslakable need to literally “Catch ’em All.”

You see the problem. I am the type of person who must catch ’em all. I must own every Lynx camera. But let me try to help anyway.

There’s a lot to unpack when advising a potential buyer on which Pontiac camera to buy. If you want to shoot 35mm film, the only answer is the Super Lynx range, since as mentioned, the other Lynx cameras shoot 6×9 or 127 film. Within the Super Lynx range, the Super Lynx I shown here is probably the best choice, since it’s the most common of these uncommon cameras. Finding one in fully functional condition is not easy or inexpensive, but buying one that doesn’t work seems like a horrible idea. I can’t imagine that anyone is servicing this machine.

Any other model will be harder to find and more expensive. The Super Lynx II, with its interchangeable lenses and general improvements, may be a better buy for those looking to make serious photographic use of a Lynx. But they made fewer of these than they did the Super Lynx I, so prices will jump. And then there’s the Standard, the wide-angle variant, with that enticing 35mm lens. This version will cost more than double the price of any other model.

See, it’s a real challenge, and my best advice for anyone interested in a Super Lynx is to spend their life trying to catch ’em all.

Final Thoughts

There’s no other 35mm film camera that will look better in a collection. The Pontiac Super Lynx I is a visually stunning machine, and just about the prettiest object I own. I’m obsessed with it. I even framed a fantastic print ad that I found in a 1949 French design magazine, and this gorgeous art sits just behind the Lynx on a shelf in my office. It’s beautiful.

But more than just a pretty face, the Super Lynx is also a functional, usable camera, even today. The characterful lenses make lovely images. The clockwork mechanisms of its body make all the right sounds. If you’re lucky enough to find one in working condition, give it a shot. Load it with film and spend a few months with it. If you don’t love it after that, sell it and make your money back. These cameras have been around for a long time, and they’re not getting any cheaper.

Want your own Super Lynx?

Find one through eBay

Find one through our own F Stop Cameras

For more articles like this one, follow us on Facebook and Instagram

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
1 comment
  • I used to own a Pontiac Lynx II ( 4×3 images on 127 film ) It looked very similar to this Pontiac Lynx II.
    I agree with your statement about finding and buying the right Pontiac camera. Here in France, they pop in classified ads from time to time in various condition. The one I bought ( and resell since ) had the Som Berthiot Flor 5cm f3.5. Not bad at all at full aperture. I didn’t liked the non-clicked aperture ring. However, for its time it might have been a very decent camera. The fact that it is a product in occupied France in a time of lack of everything and still working today is a testimony of the building quality. The leathered shape surface made of aluminum is a consequence of the lack of materials. In terms of usage the one I own was quite compact with the retracted lens. I real joy to use. You feel special when using a camera that is so unusual.

Leave a Reply

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio