The Rollei story is quite typical of nearly all the major European camera makers – reputations largely established between the wars in the first half of the 20th century and mostly built on one very successful model concept, followed by years of complacency which left them exposed to the twin threats of the rampant post-WWII Japanese camera industry and the development of the microchip. The inevitable financial difficulties subsequently hobbled any meaningful R&D, and then digital imaging delivered the final blow.
Let’s face it, this would almost certainly have also been the Leica story, but for the intervention of a well-financed enthusiast, and thankfully for Leica, because the final decade or so of the original Rollei operation – with a pass-theparcel parade of owners – was painful to watch.
The Rollei name is still in use as the brand is now owned by Hamburg-based RCP-Technik GmbH & Co. KG which sells a range of badged consumer imaging products in Europe (and, incidentally, also holds the rights to the Rolleiflex brand). The last remnants of what could be traced directly back to the original Franke & Heidecke company – which was first established in 1920 – finally disappeared completely in April 2015. Reinhold Heidecke and Paul Franke were both young German engineers when they first met while working for Voigtländer in 1909. Heidecke devised what was essentially an ‘upside-down’ twin lens reflex (TLR) for use in the trenches of WW1, but it was never produced and so, after the war, he worked on converting it to civilian use. Despite the growing post-war demand for consumer cameras, Heidecke still couldn’t interest anybody in building his rollfilm TLR so he decided to go it alone, with the financing for the new company coming from Paul Franke’s family. As it happens, the first product from Franke & Heidecke was a stereo camera, launched in 1921 and which used glass plates. A rollfilm version arrived in 1923 and was called the Rollfilm Heideckeoscop from which the name “Rollei” was first derived. Heidecke’s TLR finally went into production in 1928 and, logically, was simply called the Rolleiflex. It was available with either an f3.8 or f4.5 75mm Zeiss Tessar taking lens and accepted 117 rollfilm which was advanced via a wind-on knob and gave six 6x6cm frames.
Sales started in 1929 and by the end of the year the company had back orders for 8000 cameras, which was enough to convince the bank to loan the funds for a new factory. This commenced operations in 1932 by which time 28,000 original Rolleiflexes had been sold and the first camera to be made at the new factory was the 4x4cm ‘baby’ Rolleiflex which used 127 film and had either an f2.5 or f3.8 60mm Tessar taking lens.
However, the most important development in this year was the introduction of the Mk.II 6x6cm Rolleiflex – now known as the original Standard Rolleiflex 620 – which used 120 rollfilm to give 12 exposures. This model also introduced a lever-type film winder and had a 75mm f4.5 Tessar lens (while the 621 model used a 75mm f3.8 lens).
with a growing number of cheaper Tlrs starting to arrive on the market, in 1933 f&h countered with the more affordable rolleicord which had a Zeiss 75mm f4.5 Triotar lens and was less than half the price of a rolleiflex. in 1937 the rolleiflex automat was launched and this model provided automatic recocking of the shutter when the exposed frame was advanced.
by 1938 300,000 rolleiflexes had been sold, and the 400,000 milestone was reached in 1940 although by then world war ii slowed product development and production. The rollei factory in braunschweig was damaged by raf bombing in 1944 and, at the end of the war, the town was occupied by the british army. however, camera production was restarted on a small scale, with the entire output sold to the british ministry of defence. in various versions, the rolleiflex automat continued in production until 1954 and was followed by the ‘3.5 rolleiflexes’ (so named because they all have an f3.5 taking lens of one type or another). The significant models were the 3.5e,
“the tlr staYed rolleiflex in volume Production for 50 Years, and then various limited runs kePt it alive for another threeand-a-half decades.”
which was the first rolleiflex with a built-in selenium-type lightmeter (introduced in 1956), and the 3.5f (1958) which progressed to a coupled lightmeter.
a parallel line of rolleiflex 2.8 models commenced in 1949 with the 2.8a Type 1, which had an 80mm f2.8 Tessar lens and was hurried into production primarily to complete with the hasselblad 1600f unveiled a year earlier. The millionth rolleiflex Tlr was sold in 1956. from 1958 to 1976 rollei marketed the T-series cameras, which were ‘economy’ versions of the 3.5 fitted with a 75mm f3.5 Tessar lens. when mamiya unveiled its 6x6cm Tlr with interchangeable lenses, f&h first offered the Tele rolleiflex (1959) with a Zeiss 135mm f4.0 sonnar lens and then the wide-angle rolleiflex (1961) fitted with a Zeiss 55mm f4.0 distagon lens. however, neither model was produced in significant numbers.
in the end, the rolleiflex Tlr in one version or another stayed in volume production for 50 years, and then various limited runs kept it alive for another threeand-a-half decades. as far as we can tell, the very last model was the fX-n, launched at Photokina 2012 and then essentially built to order by dhw fototechnik (which, incidentally, also made its 80mm f2.8 s-apogon Planar hfT lenses).
dhw was founded in 2009 and was the last of a long line of owners who tried to revive prestige camera marque under the rollei and rolleiflex banners. before it was franke & heidecke gmbh, feinmechanik und optik, formed in 2004 by the nephews of the original founders. There was a time under samsung’s ownership (1995-99), various management buyouts and at least two investment companies tried to make it work too. however, with too many eggs in the increasingly challenging medium format photography basket, the potential for any profitability was just too small… or, indeed, non-existent.
while the ‘old’ rollei undoubtedly basked in the glory of its Tlrs for too long, there were plenty of attempts at diversification, especially during the 1960s and 70s with the sl66 and slX 6x6cm slrs, the rollei 35 35mm sub-compact, 16mm ‘spy’ cameras, a line of slide projectors and the sl35 series of 35mm
SLRs. Rollei even ventured into the snapshooter market with 126 and 110 cameras, but with few of these projects actually making any money – and the mounting debt from a significant investment in a new manufacturing facility in Singapore – the company was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1981. Perhaps a little too much diversification. In most of these new areas, Rollei had simply been behind the times, but the SLX (1974) was a pioneering design, being the world’s first allelectronic medium format camera and well ahead of its time. After the company restructured in the early 1980s, it returned to what it knew best – medium format photography – and the SLX was the basis for a new generation of advanced 6x6cm SLRs called the Rolleiflex 6000 series which was launched in 1984. The 6006 had interchangeable film magazines with ingenious built-in darkslides, a motorised film transport and TTL metering with either manual or shutter-priority auto exposure control. Subsequent developments added a full set of ‘PASM’ exposure modes, a choice of metering patterns (including multi-spot), TTL flash metering, faster continuous shooting and, finally with the 6008AF in 2002, autofocusing. For a long time, the 6000 series Rolleiflexes were ahead of the competition – even from the Japanese – but limited resources meant they were never effectively marketed and didn’t do nearly as well as they should have.
The 6008AF was later essentially repackaged in a new body by DHW Fototechnik as the Rolleiflex Hy6 (2012) for digital capture backs, but again financial troubles stunted the project. Much great potential for Rollei ended this way, including back in the early 1980s, the Rolleiflex SL2000F, which was designed to bring medium format camera modularity – including interchangeable film magazines – to the 35mm world. It was another great idea that failed to fly through lack of funding… imagine if this system had lived long enough to include a full-35mm format digital capture back.
So, even if the latter part of the Rollei/Rolleiflex story is peppered with ‘what ifs’, nothing can detract from what became one of the most important cameras of the 20th century, ranking alongside Leica’s 35mm rangefinders in having a profound influence on photography.