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Prewar Contax Collectors guide, part III

So you finally found a Contax, but it needs service…

So you have a Contax… maybe you received one years ago from a relative who brought back it from Europe after the war, or you managed to find one at a garage sale, or you just picked one up at an auction. However the camera managed to find you, it’s been a very long journey of many years and roads from the factory to your hands… and the odds are good that at some point it’s going to need some service.

Generally speaking most Contax cameras will need a “Clean, Lubricate and Adjust”, also known as a “CLA” (or CLA’d when referring to it in past or present tense) unless this has already been done. As the name implies, a camera cleaned, lubricated and adjusted inside and out. However what isn’t mentioned is that your camera needs to be disassembled to do this work and then reassembled afterwards. So actually I suppose it should be called a “DCLAaR” (Disassemble, Clean, Lubricate, and Reassemble) but I’m glad it isn’t, because it would be a rather clumsy acronym.

Even though “CLA” is a more or less standardized term among classic camera collectors and owners, there is no real standard as to what work is actually done. Service varies quite a bit in quality, detail and execution from shop to shop, repairman to repairman. To complicate matters, expectations also vary significantly from owner to owner. There are some owners and buyers that mistakenly believe that a CLA is the same as an overhaul or a rebuild. It isn’t.

A CLA is very similar to having the engine in your classic car tuned up. Image you own a late 1950’s MGA. You drive it over to a small specialized garage and give them the keys. There, with a touch of old world craftsmanship a mechanic patiently changes the oil, adjust the valves, check and set the ignition timing, adjusts and balances the SU carburetors and take it for a test drive to see if it has any obvious problems.

An overhaul is entirely different. If your MG’s engine needed an overhaul, it would be removed and completely disassembled. The engine block and cylinder head would be hot tanked, machined and repainted, the crankshaft journals ground, new pistons, rings, bearings and valves would be readied and then engine would be carefully reassembled and reinstalled…. In short, you would have a completely remanufactured engine.

In the real world of classic cameras almost no one “overhauls” a classic camera. The only exception would be extremely rare, extremely expensive and historically significant specimens. Overhauling a rare original Oskar Barnack prototype Leica found rusting away in a barn would be worth the investment…

But a true overhaul of your prewar Contax is not a good investment. It’s financially not feasible to disassemble the Contax shutter down to its very last little screws and components, then re-machine everything the gears, shafts and bearings and reassemble it into a new, shiny unit. Even if it could be done you would never get your investment out of it. What’s more, it’s not even necessary.

Anyone who tries to sell you an “overhauled Contax” is either mistaken, deluded, or dishonest. Think about it. When is the last time you heard about some one having their vintage clock or watch overhauled and remanufactured? The answer is never and clocks run often for 24 hours, seven days a week, for many decades and almost never show significant wear. All they really need is an occasional cleaning and oiling. In a worse case scenario (because you dropped, damaged or abused it) an honest repairman will tell you it’s not worth fixing your clock and that you should find another one… He’ll never suggest that you should pay him to completely disassemble it and rebuild it from the ground up.

A good vintage Contax shutter is much like a good vintage clock and it will more than likely outlive you. It will however need an occasional cleaning and shutter ribbons if you want to use it.

If you actual want to use a prewar Contax, rather than simply display it, you have three options. Service yourself, have some one service it for you or try to find a camera that’s been serviced recently and is ready to use.

DIY (do it yourself). An owner who is mechanically inclined enough to service his own camera, will undoubtedly enjoy it the most and understand it the best. A prewar Contax is a quirky camera. It sneezes, wheezes and clicks, depending on how its shutter speeds are set and even the best examples can occasionally misfire. Technically it’s shutter is a Darwinian dead end but it’s an enjoyable one. And just like owning a vintage MGA, tune ups can be an enjoyable process that puts you in touch with the machine and give you a deeper insight to the design and the era in which it was produced.

Some one else. Having some one else service your camera for you, is the most common approach for many owners. Despite the fact that these cameras are seventy years old, there are thousands of individuals and small firms worldwide who can and have successfully serviced them. Many individuals repair them simply out of passion rather than commercial interest, because if you really want to make money there are certainly more lucrative endeavors. Owners of these small shops are generally collectors themselves and just like the owner of the MG garage, they probably own some very lovely examples.

Finding some one for your Contax can be difficult but it can be done. Try asking around at the next camera show you visit. Collectors are often glad to share what they know. Or do research some research on the internet. There are some excellent repairmen in Japan (Zeiss products are immensely popular there) as well as in the UK and Europe.

However be wary of self-promoting firms or individuals that claim that they are the only ones in the world that can repair your Contax. Claims of unobtainable parts, secret arcane technical knowledge, expensive “overhauls” or scare tactics should be approached with caution. Expensive parts and services are definitely not what you want. Unscrupulous repairmen like this also enjoy plastering their own names all over the internet user groups with fake recommendations because it’s easy to promote their own services under assumed names. The best recommendations are first hand, from someone you physically know and who has had first hand knowledge. Everything else is hear-say and should be taken with a grain of salt. Here is an example of an owner dealing with a “recommended” repairman:

http://photo.net/neighbor/view-one?subcategory=1&neighbor_to_neighbor_id=346240

Find a ready to use Contax, Once again use caution and common sense. A good useable camera will cost roughly twice as much as an identical un-serviced example. If you can find one it will certainly save time, money and effort. Get documentation of the work and/or get a money back guarantee.

Here’s a nice link about CLA’s:

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/sm-03-06-22.shtml