Leica M4-2 : dog or bargain?
A quick glance through lists of 2nd hand Leica cameras will quickly reveal something odd. Although good condition M3's, M4's, M4-P's, M5's and M6's all hover around the $US 1000 mark, similar condition M4-2's can only fetch little more than half that. What is going on?
Well children, the story goes something like this…
Leica found themselves in deep financial trouble in the mid 1970s due to the M5 being a dud, the SL2 too expensive and general rangefinder sales in steep decline. So after making one final batch of M4's, they decided curtail all M production for a while. This caused an unexpected furor amongst Leicaphiles, so much so that after a few months Leica pressed the M4-2 into production to silence critics and meet the sudden resurgence in demand. Due to the company's financial troubles however, cost savings had to be made. This was done by redesigning the body mechanism and manufacturing process, and by moving the entire production run to the Midland plant in Canada.
So far so good. Moving to Midland wasn't that big a deal as Leica was moving a lot of their production there anyway: the 50mm M Summicrons, the 90mm M tele-elmarits and indeed even the 900 much-sought-after black-paint M4s were all made there in 1974. So clearly our Canadian friends knew what they were doing. Right?…
What caused the controversy was the many cost savings in the new M4-2's interior workings. The self-timer was deleted; the top-plate was stamped rather than engraved; the rewind knob spinner economised; the engraved metal exposure counter was replaced with a stamped plastic version; stiffer, less rubbery vulcanite was used; steel gears instead of brass; substitution a flat metal disc for the film reminder rather than the mechanical dial used on the M4 and (horrors!) simplification of the rangefinder optics by removing a condenser.
Some of these shortcuts backfired however. In April 2002, Andy Piper related the following story about his problematic M4-2:
My M4-2 frame counter quit turning (stuck at 34). I could hear the mechanism functioning properly (I could even hear it 'reset' when I took the bottom plate off) - but the numbered dial just sat there.
Here's the inside scoop from John van Stelten (Focal Point).
The Leica-M frame-counter dial is a silver numbered disk that rides on top of a larger, thicker metal disk (see the M7 brochure for a picture of this mechanism uncovered). The underside of the large disk is hollowed out and has 40 'inside-out' gear teeth inside the rim that get ratcheted ahead 1 notch ever time you wind, moving both disks 1 frame number.
In the M2/3/4 this disk was a solid piece of metal with the teeth machined out of the metal itself.
In the M4-2, to save machining costs Leica molded the teeth into a plastic insert that fits inside the hollow disk - a plastic 'denture' if you will.
In my case this plastic piece has separated from the metal parts - it's turning and resetting just as it's supposed to, but no longer turns the metal disks along with it. I.e. the teeth didn't strip - the whole intact plastic piece just - disconnected - from its metal shell.
According to JvS, Leica realized their mistake and corrected the part back to all-metal in later cameras (Query: anybody know when? Late M4-2s? not until the M6?). So he's replacing the original with new Leica all-metal part(s).
Alongside camera-part design changes, Leica realised they would also have to alter the method of camera assembly and manufacture if they were to save any money. With prior M models, Leica used an artisan-based system where technicians would lovingly file and fit and fiddle and adjust each part until it worked perfectly. With the keep-the-costs-down M4-2, this had to be abandoned in favour of assembly of the camera from parts made to certain tolerances.
Of itself tolerance-assembly is no problem (it is after all how every other camera manufacturer makes their cameras), but sadly it did cause a problem with the initial M4-2's because Midland's tech's had to learn from scratch how to work this way, using production methods essentially alien to them until that time.
As noted by John Collier in Feb 2002:
Finally I must admit that all the complaints about SOME early M4-2s are accurate. Gerry [an experienced Leica-trained technician] said that the early cameras were subject to a very large sample variation; or, as he put it, some cameras were assembled on Mondays and Fridays. While my camera was a good one, except for previous bodging, he had recently spent THREE WHOLE DAYS adjusting one M4-2 to get it into spec.
It wasn't as though the Midland people were slack or stupid, it just took them a while to iron out the kinks and learn how to do things using a more-efficient (and less expensive) non-artisan technique. An unfortuante consequence was that the few hundred M4-2s they made during this time ended up being - erm - "problematic".
Some good news
Once they ironed out the production bugs however, subsequent runs of the M4-2 became just as tough and reliable as later Leica Ms.
Consider this… The M4-2's interior shutter mechanism is markedly similar to that of the current M6: a steel gear and shutter layout which works well and reliably after 20 years of hard use. Of course the M4-2's RF optics were modified and cheapened from that of the M4, but as all the latter Ms until the MP inherited this cheaper scheme, we can hardly complain about it. Ditto the rewind knob simplification and self-timer removal - decisions retained in the M line for over twenty years, not dumb mistakes dropped ASAP (c.f. the Leica M5's and CL's shutter speed dial or lightmeter-on-a-swinging-stick).
Furthermore the M4-2 has also inherited some good things from the M4, like the uncluttered RF frameset (only 35mm, 50mm, 90mm & 135mm), the use of top and bottom brass body shells (later Ms until the M7 use a less malleable & cheaper to manufacture zinc alloy) and even the much-hated-at-the-time plastic tipped film advance lever. Then there is the built-in, off-the-shelf motordrive support due to the use of steel gears - the first M Leica to do so.
It thus appears that the entire M4-2 production run has become unfairly stigmatised by a poor reputation earned by the first few hundred cameras. Provided you steer well clear of these (serial #s: 1 468 001 - 1482 000), it makes little sense to dismiss the entire production run. Granted it is not as exquisitely crafted as an M4 (what is?), but it is still clearly part of the evolutionary line which lives today as the M7 & MP.
The M3s & M4s are coveted because they were made during Leica's golden days in the 50's and 60's in Wetzlar. M5s, although despised when released, have because of their rarity become a must-have object f or fanatical collectors. M6s had high resale prices because they were for a long time the current production model.
M4-2's alas are in the doldrums and despite only 16 000 of them being made, remain not collectors items - unlike M4's ( 60 000 ) M5's ( 33 000 ) and SL2's ( 22 700 ). Surely it is only a matter of time?…
See this July 2003 discussion at <Photo.net: #005cPi> about the transition back to the M4-2 after the M5 flop. It also has interesting information on how Leica dealerships were awarded back then!
Finally, in June 2006 a "Leica M4-2 Experience" Blog was launched at <leica-m4-2.blogspot.com> — may be worth checking out.