No other camera has ever been copied as much and as often as the Leica. As a matter of fact, several well know camera manufacturers of today started out by copying Leica cameras. The majority of these copies originated in Japan, but Leica copies were also made in the Soviet Union, Great Britain, China and the United States.
It is not the purpose of this article to list and describe every Leica copy ever made, but I hope to give a general account of how pervasive the business of copying Leicas has been.
Probably the best known company to get its start by making copies of the Leica is Canon. The company was founded in 1933. Their first camera was called Kwanon, a name that later evolved to Canon. At that time, Canon had not yet the capability to manufacture lenses. They came from a different manufacturer. The original Kwanon lens was a copy of the Leitz Elmar 50mm f/3.5 lens. Later lenses were supplied to Canon by Nippon Kogaku, better known as Nikon.
Nikon got its start by copying Zeiss and Leitz lenses. When they decided to enter the market as a camera manufacturer, they offered a copy of the Zeiss Contax, but with a Leica connection. The shutter of the Contax was of a rather complicated design. Instead Nikon opted for the Leica shutter which had proven to be substantially more reliable. Nikon maintained the use of the Leica shutter even with the original Nikon F. This camera was essentially a version of the Nikon rangefinder camera, converted to an SLR design.
The original Kwanon from 1933, a copy of the Leica II
Canon IIB, a further development, incorporating features of newer Leica cameras
Comparison of Canon IIB with Leica IIIc
Other, lesser known Japanese made Leica copies were, (in alphabetiocal order) the Chiyoca from 1950 and the Honor from 1954. It is ironic that a blatant copy of a Leica would receive the Honor label. Another prewar example is the Leotax from 1938, made by the Leotax Camera Company, the second oldest Japanese company to make copies of Leica screw mount cameras. The Melcon, made by Meguro Kogaku Co. Ltd. Was another post war camera which was first made in 1954.
At this point of the alphabetical order, the name of another well known Japanese camera manufacturers appears on the List, Minolta. Minolta was founded in Osaka, Japan, in 1928 as Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shōten, ironically meaning Japanese-German camera shop. It was not until 1933 that the brand name appeared on a camera, a copy of the Plaubel Makina, another German camera. The first Leica copy didn’t appear until 1947 as the Minolta 35.
The Nicca Camera Co. Ltd. started as the optical workshop Kōgaku Seiki Co. in 1940, founded by former employees of Canon. Its first camera, the Nippon, a close copy of the Leica rangefinder camera, was produced in 1942. Nicca also made cameras under the Peerless name and for Sears under the Tower name.
Tanaka Kōgaku K.K. was based in Kawasaki, Kanagawa (a distant suburb of Tokyo). The company started to work on a Leica copy called Tanack 35 in 1952, and released the camera in 1953. It was designed by a former employee of Kōgaku Seiki (predecessor of Nicca), who worked under Kumagai Genji on the Nippon Leica copy.
The last example of Japanese Leica copies was made by another well known manufacturer, Yashica. In 1958 Yashica bought Nicca and the YE is Yashica's first 35mm rangefinder copy of the Leica IIIF but with only a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second.
Next on this list are the Russian Zorki (meaning sharp-sighted) cameras. They were made in the Soviet Union between 1948 and 1978. Initially the cameras were close, but crude copies of the Leica, but later evolved to different looking models that were still widely based on the Leica.
The FED is another Soviet rangefinder camera, mass produced from 1934 until around 1990. Similar to the Zorki, the FED also started out copying Leica cameras with later models being somewhat redesigned, but still being widely based on the Leica.
Between 1958 and 1963 the Chinese state owned the ‘Shanghai Camera Company’. They started out by producing copies of the Leica III rangefinder, called the Shanghai 58. In 1964 the Shanghai Camera Company changed its name to the Seagull company and made cameras for the mass market.
Another interesting fact, as far as I know, is that the Chinese are the only country that also copied much later models of Leica cameras, namely the Leica M5, which was called "Red Flag."
"Red Flag" Leica M5 Copy
Reid and Sigrist was a British engineering company based at Desford, Leicestershire, England. They were an instrument manufacturer but later became a Camera manufacturer. After the Second World War the company was requested by the British government to produce the Reid camera based on Leica patents and drawings. The first camera went on general sale in 1951 and the company produced cameras until 1964.
The Reid III is based on the Leica III series and was first introduced in 1951. In 1958 they introduced a simpler version, the Reid I, also based on Leica patents and drawings.
Even the US was not above copying Leica cameras. They were made by the Premier Instrument Corporation under the direction of its Russian-immigrant president, Peter Kardon. Based on the Leica IIIa, the camera entered the market in 1941 as the Kardon to fulfill the Army’s need for an American version of the Leica.
Kardon, equipped with a Kodak 47mm f/2 Ektar lens
Thus our excursion into the world of Leica copies ends. I am sure there are other examples out there, but, as I said at the beginning, this wasn’t meant as a complete account of all the Leica copies ever made. However, I hope that I succeeded in giving a broad overlook of this intriguing segment of the history of the Leica.
For more information go to:
LEICA TECH IN NIKON CAMERAS