Kodak’s Fabulous Flop: The Chevron Rangefinder

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by hunter_compton, Feb 5, 2021.

  1. Part 1: History

    The name Kodak, while familiar to any photographer, is not one normally associated with high-end photographic instruments. Indeed, one of the philosophical principles first put forward by George Eastman is the vast distribution and use of inexpensive snapshot cameras, the use of which ensured the continued sale of Kodak film. This philosophy has been associated with the Brownie camera and its successors, perhaps unfairly branding Kodak with the reputation that they were only ever capable of building low quality cameras.


    However, if one is observant of history it will be apparent that there are several Kodak cameras which challenge this assertion. These examples originate from an era or approximately 1936 to 1956 in which American photographic manufacturing was given a brief opportunity to compete on the world stage against foreign competition. The looming and destructive war in Europe and Asia, gave American manufacturers a window in which German and Japanese competition did not besiege their products. Only in the aftermath of the war was international optics manufacture once again able to displace American products.


    Taking advantage of this window, manufacturers such as Argus, Perfex and Clarus put their products on the market for American consumers. However, the cameras built by these companies are not comparable to their foreign competitors of the pre-war era. Perfex and Clarus have a reputation of poor quality control, and while Argus was quite successful, I doubt anyone would claim the C3 as matching the specifications of a pre-war Leica or Contax.

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    The Eastman Kodak Company, the largest producer of photographic products in the United States at this time, was not to abandon this opportunity either. Where other companies were content to target the market for the advanced amateur or snapshooter, Kodak built a number of cameras which largely targeted the professional market, and in doing so created some of the most technologically advanced cameras to ever come out of an American factory. In 1936, Kodak announced the Bantam Special, a miniature camera designed for the 828 format, it featured a striking geometric appearance and the 44mm Ektar f/2.0 was at the time the fastest lens Kodak ever put on a still camera to come out of Rochester. In 1938, Kodak released the Super Six-20, the first camera to have aperture priority auto exposure, a feature which would not be common until the late 1950s. In 1941, Kodak released two more cameras for this intended market. The Ektra was a 35mm system camera with interchangeable coated lenses of varying focal lengths, removable film backs and a slew of other features which made it the most advanced 35mm camera of its era.

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    The second of these was a unique solid bodied medium format rangefinder called the Medalist. The medalist was unusual in that most medium format cameras of the era were folders. The engineers at Kodak Park dispensed with delicate leather bellows, instead giving the Medalist a double focusing helical. The camera took eight pictures on a roll of 620 film, could be fitted with auxiliary sheet film backs, and was fitted with a superb 100mm f/3.5 Ektar lens. The Medalist was arguably the most successful of Kodak’s flagship products, earning a U.S. Navy contract, a contract with the British air force and a successor called the Medalist II with some small feature changes.


    While the Second World War proved the Medalist’s worth, the postwar market was a different matter entirely. Inflation made the production of these cameras untenable. Kodak elected to not continue production of the Super Six-20 after the war, and the Bantam Special, Ektra and Medalist II were not listed in Kodak catalogs after 1948. At the time of its discontinuation, the Medalist II had a retail cost of $312.50. When adjusted for inflation, this is the equivalent of over $3400 in 2020. Kodak’s flagship products had failed to gain sufficient traction in the market to continue their production.


    This was not, however, the end of Kodak’s ambitions. In 1951, the company released the Signet 35. This 35mm rangefinder camera was nowhere near as ambitious as the prewar Ektra, possessing a nice 50mm f/3.5 Ektar lens and a functional four-speed shutter. This camera did attract U.S. Army and Air Force contracts and was popular in the consumer market as well.

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    Perhaps seeing the interest in the Signet 35, or lamenting the loss of the Medalist, in late 1952 Kodak once again attempted to introduce a flagship medium format rangefinder camera. The camera designed to fill this role was the Kodak Chevron.


    A dealer introductory brochure entitled Kodak Presents: The Kodak Chevron Camera provides some details of the camera’s genesis. It states that the design principles of the Kodak Signet 35 work equally well in the Chevron. It also suggests that the Signet 35 and Chevron share a common prototype, but that the 35mm Signet made it to market earlier. This is apparent in the similarity in body styling between the two cameras, with aluminum castings and strong horizontal lines being prominent features.


    In an introductory brochure dating from October of 1953, Kodak states that interest in a camera such as the Chevron came from “letters and conversations with amateurs, professionals and dealers” who sought out a camera that combines “the Kodak Ektar lens, the Synchro Rapid 800 shutter and a coupled rangefinder in a roll film camera at the lowest possible price.” Given the high price of the Medalist II, the introduction of a similar medium format had to take into effect cost cutting measures, evident in the Chevron from its $215.00 price (approx. $2100 in 2020), down from $312.50 of the Medalist II.


    I have personally been conducting a serial number survey in order to determine estimated production figures and trends for the Chevron. Currently encompassing 43 examples, I am willing to draw a few conclusions. I would estimate based on body serial numbers that Kodak produced approximately 3500 cameras. This number could be slightly higher if new data emerges, but I would believe that 5000 produced would be a maximum. Furthermore, all examples except for two seen in Kodak literature have “RM” (1953) lens date codes, suggesting that all lenses if not all cameras were produced in that year and then assembled and sold up until 1956. There is little correlation between body and lens serials, suggesting that the lenses were produced first and the cameras later assembled by pulling from stores.


    With only a single year of production and three years of sales, it is difficult to call the Chevron a success. Perhaps Kodak was seeking a military contract that never came. Regardless, the Chevron must be relegated to the great but short-lived line of Kodak’s flagship products. As a result of the few examples produced and their unique styling, these cameras are desirable within the collector market and regularly command $300+.
     
    ], ericphelps, johnfantastic and 3 others like this.
  2. Part 2: What is it?

    The Kodak Chevron is a medium format solid bodied rangefinder camera which produces twelve 2 ¼” x 2 ¼” (6 x 6 cm) images on a roll of 620 film. The first thing a user will notice about the Chevron is its striking body styling, the second thing they will notice is its weight. This is not a small camera, and weighs in at 2 Pounds, 9 Ounces (1160 grams).

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    The camera is fitted with a Kodak Ektar lens with a focal length of 78mm and a maximum aperture of f/3.5. The lens is a four-element unit focusing Tessar design. It is constructed of high quality optical glass containing Thorium Oxide which has optical properties of high refractivity and low dispersion, allowing the construction of a lens which requires lower curvature and minimizes chromic aberration. The Kodak Ektar name signifies a lens which “is of the highest optical quality” and not a specific lens design.

    The lens is mounted in a Kodak Synchro Rapid 800 shutter. The Synchro Rapid 800, which had previously been used on the Kodak Tourist and in mounts for Speed Graphic cameras, is one of the fastest between the lens leaf shutters ever built with a top speed of 1/800 of a second. In order to achieve this the Synchro rapid has an unusual shutter blade configuration. On a conventional shutter, the blades need to rotate 180 degrees out of the aperture, stop, reverse direction and accelerate back into the aperture to close the shutter. This acceleration, deceleration and acceleration again in the opposite direction takes time and is the reason why most leaf shutters do not exceed 1/500 of a second. In the Synchro Rapid 800, the shutter blades are double sided and in rotating 180 degrees a single time, they open and close the aperture as one side clears it and the other promptly enters. Wollensak used this same principle on the Optimo shutter in 1909, allowing it to be the first shutter to break 1/300 of a second. The tradeoff in this design is that due to the construction of the shutter blades, the aperture opens every time the shutter is cocked. This necessitates a second set of blackout shutter blades which shield the film from light exposure when the shutter is being cocked. Adding a second set of shutter blades increases the complexity and cost of the shutter, and the Synchro Rapid 800 has a reputation for unreliability.

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    The external controls for the camera are largely situated around the shutter. A manual cocking lever on the top of the shutter housing must be manually operated before each exposure. A milled aluminum bar protrudes from a hole in the body casting, connecting to the trip lever on the shutter. There is also provision for a cable release. Apertures ranging from f/3.5 to f/32 are visible both on the top of the shutter housing and on the front faceplate. A chrome lever under the shutter housing allows the selection of apertures. Shutter speed is set by a dial on the circumference of the shutter housing, much like a Deckel Compur design. Flash synchronization is available via an ASA bayonet fitting on the shutter housing and is continuously variable between X, F and M synchronization via a lever on the faceplate for electronic and bulb flash. The front of the lens mount is threaded for series V filters and a retaining ring is integral.


    The body of the camera is composed of three large aluminum castings. The shutter and lens assembly is mounted to a single aluminum helical mount which extends from and retracts to the body via an amply corrugated focusing ring. The focusing is very smooth due to a series of 50 ball bearings operating about the circumference of the focusing helical, similar to the Signet 35. A distance scale is visible on the focusing ring and a depth of field scale is mounted on the body just above it. The one remaining control on the body is the film advance release lever, which the user must press after very exposure to unlock the automatic film advance stop.

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    The top of the camera has the large Chevron badge, and an unusual control labeled “Finder Full-828.” The purpose of this control is to adjust the viewfinder’s field of view. On full, the finder displays what will shot up on the square 620 negative, on 828, a mask drops down into the finder to display what would show up on the 28x40mm negative of 828 film. Kodak offered an adapter kit for an additional $4.25, encompassing a film plane mask and two spool adapters to allow the use of this film format. The manual makes a point that with the smaller negative size, the Chevron’s lens operates like a telephoto and that “the perspective is more pleasing” for portrait work. This seems like a weak argument, and I would contend the only practical reason for this implement was the use of Kodachrome which was available in 828 but not larger roll film sizes.

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    The only other control on the top of the camera is the film indicator dial, which is numbered 1-12. The user loads the film and advances it to the first frame via the red window, after turning the dial to 1, the film will automatically advance the correct amount and all that is necessary is to press the release lever on the front of the camera after each exposure. Film advance is accomplished via a chrome lever on the top rear of the camera. I found that the film advance lever is nicely placed for use by my left thumb, but the fact that it takes 5-6 strokes to advance each frame makes this advance lever not so rapid.

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    At the top rear of the camera are the viewfinder and rangefinder windows. These are conveniently placed atop each other, and it is possible to get a sight picture of both simultaneously. The rangefinder is of the split image variety, where a vertical object must be lined up between the upper and lower fields. Despite some assertion to the contrary, removing the top plate reveals that the rangefinder is mirror based, unlike the prismatic rangefinder of the previous Medalist II. However, it does not use any beam splitter, owing more in design to the pre-war Kodak 35RF than its contemporary the Signet 35.

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    The viewfinder is atop the rangefinder and is adequately bright. In addition to the 828 masking feature, the viewfinder also has automatic horizontal parallax compensation based on distance. To the left of the viewfinder window is a small silver lever, pushing this to the left inserts a smaller mask for the rear viewfinder eyepiece. The manual suggest that this can improve the view for eyeglass wearers, however, I find that it simply makes the viewfinder dimmer.


    Below the VF/RF window is the red window for advancing film to the first exposure, its blackout lever and surrounding the window is a neatly designed indicator for remembering which type of Kodak film is loaded. The back is hinged on both sides and can be swung to either or removed entirely to load film.

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    Overall, while the camera is heavy, the handling is good and the controls are conveniently placed.
     
  3. Part 3: My Results


    My camera was purchased off eBay in an untested state. Upon receipt, I found the shutter would not fire reliably and the rangefinder was askew. In order to give the camera the best possible evaluation I spent several days stripping and cleaning the shutter, helical, rangefinder mirrors and viewfinder. Upon completion the rangefinder was accurate at all distances, the viewfinder clear and the shutter fired reliably at all speeds. Thus, I loaded up the camera with film and went shooting. I chose a slow black and white film as I wanted to evaluate the lens wide open and several of the shots below were taken at f/3.5. I used Ilford Pan F+ and developed it in HC-110 Dil. H.

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    To say I was impressed by the quality of these images would be an understatement. Even wide open, the lens delivered corner to corner sharpness, as well as contrast even in shadow conditions. I will soon take this camera out again loaded with some Ektar 100.


    In shooting, I found the handling to be better than anticipated. In playing with the camera unloaded, I found the viewfinder to be a bit small and the shutter release seemed to lack solidity. However, upon actually shooting with it, I did not find these to be a problem. The viewfinder and rangefinder were both adequately bright, and all of my images are framed properly and are in focus. The shutter release and film advance were both easy to manipulate with gloved hands (which is appreciated in Michigan winters) and I had no problems with camera shake as I had feared earlier. The shutter and aperture adjustments were a bit more difficult with gloved hands but still manageable.


    I want to give the Chevron high praise, but one thing prevents me from doing so. Its predecessor, the Medalist is objectively better. It seems unfair to compare these two cameras, as a Medalist would likely have been out of the price range for a photographer who bought a Chevron. However, the only objective improvement the Chevron has over the Medalist is the addition of a 1/800 top shutter speed. Despite the high quality of the images, the four-element Tessar lens of the Chevron feels like a downgrade from the five-element Heliar design of the Medalist. The prismatic rangefinder and viewfinder of the Medalist are bigger and brighter than those of the Chevron. The body mounted shutter plunger of the Medalist is superior the projecting bar of the Chevron and the frame counter and revolving distance scale mounted under glass on the Medalist show a certain quality which the Chevron lacks. Finally, my biggest gripe with the Chevron is that it lacks any type of double exposure prevention, something which both versions of the Medalist and the Signet 35 had.


    While these comments may sound disparaging, it is important to remember that the Chevron was a camera built to a budget. It is not as feature filled or finely fitted as the Medalist, I reiterate that the image quality is superb. It is a camera which I will not hesitate to add to my list of frequent shooters.
     
  4. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Scholarly, enjoyable, and very interesting. Good photos as well. Thank you!
     
    Ricochetrider likes this.
  5. Great! An excellent article on a truly iconic camera, accompanied by very competent illustrations of the camera itself. And, of course, some very fine results. As a Medalist and Signet 35 user I've often been tempted to acquire a Chevron, but the online reviews have always been less than encouraging. However, your fine essay tends to rekindle my interest... Many thanks for your efforts, Hunter; posts like these hark back to the Forum's good ol' days.
     
    ericphelps and Ricochetrider like this.
  6. Superb write up on the Chevron, thank you.
     
  7. Great write-up! Though I have a Signet35, I had never heard of the Chevron.
     
    Fiddlefye and ] like this.
  8. ]

    ]

    Awesome essay on the Kodak Chevron. While it's not quite as good as the Medalist or Medalist II, it's still a very nice camera and has a fine lens and shutter. And nicely styled. Wonder if anyone's converted one to 120 rollfilm? Any ideas for adapting 120 rollfilm. Love the sharpness and contrast of that Ektar lens.
     
  9. Great report on the Chevron. Don't know if I'll ever get one but if a functional one turned up at a good price I'd be tempted. BTW, the TV series M*A*S*H had either a Medalist or Chevron as a prop in a couple of their episodes. For period correctness the Medalist would be a better fit as the Cease Fire was in 1953, the same year the Chevron debuted. I believe that Frank Burns used the camera and since his character left the series maybe it was more likely a Medalist. However props department might have still used a Chevron. I would have see that episode again and hope for a better look.
     
  10. I like. Thanks for posting.

    The lack of 620 film nowadays makes it harder to use, and I don't think 120 film will work without respooling.

    Its biggest disadvantage for me is that, like the Signet, its control system is antiquated and antique for its time.
     
  11. For those asking about the use of 120 film:

    If you do want to modify the Chevron to use 120 film, it seems it would be quite easy, at least compared to the Medalist. The film spindles are spring loaded and the compartments have ample vertical space. A 120 film spool will fit with some resistance, but will not roll easily. If you are mechanically inclined, a bit of work with a Dremel would easily free up the space on the sides. The hardest part would be modifying the key for the take-up spool, as the slot in a 620 spool is shorter and narrower than that of a 120 spool. I'm not going to do that with my example though, as I consider re-spooling 620 film to be a trivial endeavor, requiring only a few minutes and a dark space.

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  12. Great work! Thanks!
     
  13. Wow, I applaud your efforts, all the way around. Excellent write up and great photos. Really good to see the old camera getting some love.
    Thank you for posting.
     
  14. Excellent Article.. Full of great info. I wonder to what extent the pre-war American market was influenced by Asian imports? I suppose the German cameras were highly desirable ..and likely expensive. I suppose too Bausch&Lomb were a leading optics manufacturer in the US and certainly built the Tessar unde license . I would like any of the Kodak offerings Batam,Signet,Medalist or Chevron. Very fine results. Envy your repair skills too.
     
  15. Thank you for sharing. I always learn something new from our Forum. :)
     

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