Go to Home Page

This is an example of a Fall 2002 Zeiss Historica Article

An Unusual Contax I

Stefan Baumgartner of Lund, Sweden

About ten years ago, when I visited the British Museum in London, I noticed in a showcase (Figure 1) a strange looking Contax I that strongly resembled one I had acquired some twenty years ago. While I had originally thought that my camera was the result of the work of a camera enthusiast who wished to have visual access to the mechanics of a Contax I, the occurrence of another one just like it in the British Museum made me believe that the resemblance was probably more than a coincidence. It appeared that these special cameras were produced in the Zeiss factory.

A showcase in the British museum (photo taken in 1990) reveals a demonstration Contax with its back side cut open.

Note below the photo of Oscar Barnack, designer of the Leica.

I do not know whether this camera is still in the showcase, as it can be assumed that the museum changes items exhibits from time to time.

(Figure 1)



The differences

What makes my camera (Figure 2) different from a normal Contax I? First of all it should be noted that it is functional, with shutter and rangefinder working perfectly. The shutter speeds are from 1/1000 to 1/25 second and Z ("Zeit" or "Time"), and taking other features into account it appears to correspond to model 3. The body number, V32713, presumably places the production year somewhere to 1933; as we shall see, the lens cannot be assigned to a particular year.

The front view of this interesting Contax I.

Four holes have been drilled into the front part showing the interplay of the rangefinder gearing.

The lens is a modified 5 cm, f/2 Sonnar


(Figure 2)


A number of holes of various sizes have been cut out from various parts of the body to demonstrate the mechanics of the camera. The back of the camera has four rectangular holes, leaving most of the back open for inspection of the shutter and the film-transport system (Figure 3).

Back View.

Two rectangular areas of the back and on the sides have been milled out to reveal the mechanics of the shutter and the film transport system.

The middle section of the removable back was left to give some structural integrity to this special model.

(Figure 3)


The camera number, normally embossed into the left side of the camera back, has here been embossed into the small metal rim that separates the two bigger holes, most likely because there was no other location available (Figure 4).

The camera serial number

Embossed into the area of the metal that remains

(Figure 4)


Finally the sprockets that move the film forward, usually very sharp, were filed down (Figure 5), thus preventing that any person would get hurt.

Details of the gearing of the film transport mechanism.

Note that the sharp sprocket teeth are filed down

(Figure 5)


The camera seen in the British Museum showed a number engraved on the back, "1935-488," a feature not seen on my camera. It is not clear to me whether this number is for internal use, or whether it corresponds to an official Zeiss number. The number appears to be engraved by hand, which points more to the former possibility; for example it could mean the year of acquisition and item number.

The top part is also cut open (Figure 6), allowing us to inspect the upper part of the shutter and parts of the rangefinder system. Notably, all the knobs are present, that is, the one for rewinding the film, the shutter release and the exposure counter.

Different portions of the top plate have been milled out to give a good view of the shutter area and of the rangefinder mechanism.

Notice how precisely the removal of the metal around the shutter release was done.

(Figure 6)

The front part contains four holes of 4 to 5 mm diameter, each located at positions where the teeth of the gears belonging to the focussing-distance adjustment system mesh together. Thus, the observer can figure out how the rangefinder movement on the top of the camera triggers the different wheels in between, and how it ultimately moves the focussing ring and the lens.

The lens (Figure 7) appears to be a 50mm, f/2 Sonnar from the first series (cf. Kuc, auf den Spuren der Contax, page 174). However, this one differs substantially from the one shown in the book. First, its apparent aperture range is extended to f/32, compared to the f/22 of the normal lens. Second, the lens contains no diaphragm at all, and the diaphragm setting is blocked at f/8. Third, the numbering is 0000000, which at least now might explain why this lens is an uncommon one.


The Lens:
The lens is a 5 cm, F/2 Sonnar from the first series
with the unusual serial number of 0000000.

From another perspective, notice the diaphragm listed on the barrel of the lens - it states 22 and then 32. I have not found any such opening on any available black F/2 Sonnar lens for the Contax.

Some later but not all chrome lenses closed to 22.

(Figure 7)

What was this camera used for?
It appears logical that such a camera has all the features to demonstrate the technical abilities of the Contax I. The question is only which clientele should become convinced. Was this camera used to persuade clients in a camera shop to buy a Contax instead of a Leica? If this was the case, then I expect that there should be still a handful of these cameras existing in the world, as Zeiss would not have produced only a few of them for this purpose. Or was it a camera used for demonstration purposes for the photo dealers and journalists that Zeiss invited to Dresden, because Zeiss did not participate at the important Leipzig fair in March 1932 (cf. Kuc, loc.cit. page 33)? Or was it just for internal use and teaching purposes?
As I have not heard of the existence of similar cameras other than the two presented here, nor do I have a clue as to their purpose, I would be grateful if information could be provided to me and the community to shed some light on this camera.

Our site is located on the following pages. Click on the name of each area to go to that page:

1. An overview of historical Zeiss Companies and a list of their collectibles
2. Our Zeiss Historica Publications
3. A sample article - The Contax camera's migration to Kiev, Ukraine
4. A second sample article - An unusual Contax I
5. An index to all of our published articles
6. Links to other interesting web sites related to Zeiss and photography
7. Membership Information
8. Famous Zeiss Designers and Personalities

Go to Top Return to home page For any questions or comments e-mail us - Click on this text