Nicca

Ancestor of Yashica's Leica Copies

Contents

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Japanese Leica Copies - a Potted History
Nicca Story

Origins & Background
Serial Numbers
Checking for Fakes
From Nippon to Nicca Models
Tower Models

Lenses

Shutter Speeds
Accessories

Japanese Leica Copies - a Potted History

What is a Leica copy? Leica copies generally follow the design parameters of the German Leica designed by Oskar Barnack and launched by Ernst Leitz in 1925. A basic criterion is the use of 35 mm film using 24x36 mm negative frame sizes (a few of the models mentioned below started smaller, e.g. Nikon, not a Leica copy, and Minolta). The first production Leica (now known as Leica I Model A) did not have an interchangeable lens so Leica copies are usually compared to the Leica I Model C released in 1930. That introduced the use of the 39 mm Leica Thread Mount (LTM) lens mount with a 28.8 mm lens flange to film distance (not exactly that until 1931). The shutter must be focal plane - nearly all examples copied the Leica cloth type fairly closely. The inclusion of a coupled rangefinder is not mandatory (it didn't appear until the Leica II and was absent on the Standard models and others), however most Leica copies end up looking like a typical screw mount Leica with rangefinder, either the earlier slightly smaller stamped and assembled body type (except notably for early Chiyoca cameras, Japanese examples were typically Leica III based with separate slow speed shutter dial), or the later slightly larger but stronger die cast type (introduced by the 1940 Leica IIIc), the Minolta 35 and some later variations by the more prolific makers, less so. The later variations borrowed elements of design from the Leica M3, most commonly the improved viewfinder and the associated “bulking up”, with lever wind film advance and/or improved film loading often already appearing earlier. However, these still at heart remained Leica screw mount copies.

As an aside, in 1937, future Yashica lens maker, and eventually acquisition, Tomioka (perhaps in association with Sankyō Kōgaku - Camera-wiki.org), produced several prototypes (Lausar and Baika) of what looked like a rangefinderless Leica copy complete with 5 cm Leitz Elmar-like collapsible lens but it wouldn't qualify for the purist definition because it used 127 format roll film (the 35 mm type re-wind knob was in fact a dummy for appearance sake).

The first Japanese 35 mm camera and sort of Leica copy was the Seiki Kōgaku made “Kwanon” which appeared as a prototype in 1934 and was released as the “Hansa Canon” in 1936 (“Hansa” was a name used by the distributor). The company became “Canon Camera” in 1947. The earlier models sought to be different from Leica because of patent concerns and it wasn't until after the War that Canon initially more or less met Leica specs for what is considered a true Leica copy, particularly in regards to mount. By then, pre-War German patents had effectively been extinguished.

The next was the 1940 Leotax made by Shōwa Kōgaku. It looked more like a Leica but to avoid patent issues, the rangefinder was not initially coupled and the following iterations used viewfinders and rangefinders with odd window arrangements and mechanisms until after the War. Its lenses were mainly sourced from Tokyo Optical, later Topcon (Simlar and Topcor lenses), however, at least three of its last normal lenses were branded “Leonon” and one has a part to play with the Yashica YF, as is featured on the YE & YF page.

Approaching the War in the Pacific, desirable German cameras became difficult to obtain and in 1941, the company that became Nicca was given a military order to develop a faithful Leica copy with the first example being delivered in 1942 (story below). Aside from Canon, which developed its own unique features and style, and the Nikon, if considering interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras rather than just Leica copies, Leotax and Nicca cameras are generally considered to be the best of the rest. However, perhaps that mantle should belong to the Minolta 35 introduced by Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō in 1947. It seems to be largely ignored, perhaps because by some definitions it is on the margins of what is considered to be a true Leica copy. But it was a better mousetrap with hinged back door and single viewfinder/rangefinder window already, 7 years before the Leica M3.

The Reise made Chiyoca first appeared circa 1951 as a viewfinder only model, then later with rangefinder and finally with a name change to Chiyotax. The production volumes were very low but there are some interesting connections linking several of the copy makers (next paragraph). Then followed the Tanack (1952), Melcon (1955) and Honor (1956) cameras, the first two with opening backs, the Honor with removable back. Apart from the backs, they were faithful Leica copies but some of the later models did things differently, e.g. both the Tanack SD and the Melcon II copied the Nikon but used Leica lens mounts and the Honor SD was a copy of the Canon L1 as were the Tanack V3 and VP.

As we shall see, there was a link between the origins of Nicca and the company that became Canon. In a similar way, the designers and founders of Reise (Chiyoca and Chiyotax), Tanacka (Tanack) and Meguro (Melcon) seem to have been early employees of the company that became Nicca.

There were other Japanese Leica copies but none of these were produced in significant numbers and the makers quickly disappeared from the marketplace.

Although the Nippon Kōgaku made Nikon rangefinders are not Leica copies per se, the company had a very important role in the category. For the record, the 1948 Nikon I copied the Contax II look and bayonet lens mount but also used the Leica cloth focal plane shutter type and modified Leica style rangefinder. Whilst the Nikons would eventually prove themselves as highly desirable and successful professional level cameras, Nippon Kōgaku's greatest contribution was its Nikkor lenses, also first used exclusively on the early Canon cameras (pre-LTM and also early LTM) before Canon developed its own Serenar, later renamed Canon, series. In addition to the early Canon lenses and its own Contax mount lenses, Nippon Kōgaku made Nikkor LTM lenses for the general market from the late 1940s onward. They were also standard fitments on both the Nicca (most post-War models) and, with one budget spec'd exception, the Melcon models.

Nikkor lenses debuted on the world stage when a New York Times article reported their use by Life Magazine photographers covering the Korean War. The Nikkors surprised professional photographers and in some cases, were regarded to be equal to, or even superior to, their German counterparts and almost certainly outperformed them in terms of price/performance ratio. By the mid-1950s, the Nikkors signaled the beginning of the end of the world-wide dominance of the German photographic industry and the beginning of the rise of the Japanese. There were other highly regarded Japanese lenses too by now and the changeover was about to accelerate with the Japanese enthusiasm for developing the SLR from a niche product to mainstream mainstay of both professionals and photography enthusiasts alike. By the start of the 1960s, most of the Leica copy makers had exited the market, or were about to, the specialised and highly developed Canon 7s remaining until 1968.

In 1959, into the now very difficult interchangeable lens rangefinder market place stepped Yashica with its Nicca based YE and YF models. In 1960, it too departed.

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Nicca Story

Sources for this story include Peter Dechert, Sugiyama/Mikio Awano, McKeown, Massimo Bertacchi (Innovative Cameras) and my own research and observations. Peter Dechert's “Contax Connection” published August 1, 1990, available as a web archive, traces the Japanese 35 mm camera from Canon through Nicca to Yashica to Contax. Peter was the author of “Canon Rangefinder Cameras 1933-68” among other books, Shutterbug columnist, professional photographer and recognised authority on photographic equipment. Note, “Contax Connection” is well researched but he is not immune from idle speculation and some of it misses the mark, e.g., because of the “Nicca” name on front of the YF, he is convinced that the YF was a ready to go Nicca update of the III-L and Yashica simply assembled it from already produced parts.

Origins & Background

The origins of Nicca date to 1940 when Kōgaku Seiki-sha (Optics & Precision Co.) was founded as a Leica repair shop by former employees of Seiki Kōgaku Kenkyūjo which was later to become Canon (the similarity in company names is surely no coincidence). In fact, Kōgaku Seiki-sha also became an official Canon repair agency. As noted above, in response to a military order, it delivered its first camera, a faithful Leica copy, in 1942. It was initially patriotically named “Nippon”, a name adopted by the company for itself in late 1947. Although both innovation and the reality of economics would eventually erode faithfulness to some extent, all of Nicca's future cameras would be Leica copies, typically bottom loading and with separate viewfinder and rangefinder viewing windows except on the final model (and also a version of the first model which was without rangefinder, e.g. for scientific work). Only small numbers of the Nippons were built. The original lens was a K.O.L. Xebec f/2 5 cm collapsible type which under a restructured company was rebranded Sun Xebec in 1945. Nikkor lenses started to appear soon afterwards.

The camera name was changed to “Nicca” (likely from “Nippon” and “Camera”) in 1948 with the company changing its own name to match in 1949. Apart from a Nicca branded f/3.5 5 cm collapsible Elmar copy (rare but three in my database, almost certainly not Nicca produced and suspiciously similar to the also rare Nikkor of this type), the Nicca branded f/2.8 50mm lens on the late 33 model and the Snider exception noted further below, 5 cm Nikkor lenses were now fitted as standard (typically f/2 with f/1.4 available as an option and on earlier models, f/3.5 too) and also offered as accessory wide angle and telephoto lenses, making the cameras very attractive options. Nicca's distributor from 1951 to 1958, Hinomaruya, was also the distributor of Nikkor LTM lenses for the same period, no doubt it was a beneficial arrangement for both businesses. The bodies themselves are well regarded as Leica copies and seemed to reach a high standard right from the beginning.

Versions of various models were branded for their importers and sold as mainly “Tower” in the US (Sears, Roebuck & Co. - most Nicca models) but also initially as “Peerless” (re-branded Nicca Type 3 circa 1949, base plate engraved “Made for Peerless Photo Supply by Nicca Camera works”). The two found Peerless examples in my database seem to pre-date the Sears arrangement. Unique to Australia is the re-branded Nicca Type 5 based “Snider” (according to an old McKeown's, 90 ordered by Gardner and Salmon Pty. Ltd. of Sydney, 2 known to to exist). Unusually, the Snider was supplied with German Schneider-Kreuznach Xenon F/2 lenses in place of the Nikkors (two examples I have seen photos of and retailer Senes & Co. Pty. Ltd ad in the October 1956 edition of Australian magazine, Popular Photography, proudly states “Lens by Schneider & Co.”, but which incidentally, shows a picture of a Nicca with Nikkor).

The Peerless and Snider models get collectors excited these days but in the bigger scheme of things, the marketing power of Sears through its Tower brand and its catalogues meant easy access to the lucrative US market and important cash flow and growth opportunities for the small company.

The Type III user manual tells us that Nicca was located at 1-1232 Denenchofu, Otaku, Tokyo, with the Type 3S/4 user manual specifying the address as 1-1263 Denenchofu, Otaku, Tokyo which suggests a short move down the street or perhaps different buildings being used for the address. We don't know if either of the addresses are for an office or the factory. Marketing material generally listed the contact details for distributor Hinomaruya whose last address, 4-3 Nihonbashi Muromachi Chuo-ku, Tokyo, seemed to be near Yashica's head office (see see Yashica YE & YF).

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Serial Numbers

According Peter Dechert, there was a small batch of Nippon prototypes and in the “Contax Connection” there is a picture of No. 19. I have since found recent photos of No. 20 which seems to match it in every critical way so I assume both are authentic. Production cameras are said to use the first two digits on the left for the Japanese Showa year. There are several production cameras in my database with serial numbers beginning with “18”, or Showa 18 which is equivalent to 1943. Peter Dechert thinks that 7 digit serial number 1810010 is camera number 10. Next follow two 6 digit number before the system settles into 5 digit numbers, still beginning with “18” before going onto “19” and “20” prefixes (one of each in my database). As not many were made, the lack of digits doesn't become an issue until the Nicca era. I have no confirmed “Nicca Original” examples in my database but the first “Nicca Type-3” cameras start with a 5 digit serial number beginning with “23”, equating to 1948. It doesn't look like a lot were made that year so “24” probably also started as a Showa year but then it seems like it wasn't long before the numbers ran out. Rather than adding a digit, the Showa link was dropped and the numbers just increased sequentially and more or less carried on from model to model until the new body was introduced after which each model had its own discrete series. Serial Numbers found:

Model
Serial Number
Release
Year
From
To
Nippon (prototypes) 19 20
1942
Nippon 1810010  
1943
Nippon 18106x 18112x
1943
Nippon 1812x 2081x
1943
Nicca (original) ?  
Nicca Type-3 2302x 27653
1948
Nicca Type-III A 2882x 4321x
1951
Nicca Type-III B 317xx 4501x
1951
Nicca Type-III S 5020x 5968x
1952
Nicca 3-S 5888x 7100x
1952
Nicca Type-4 8005x 8110x
1953
Nicca Type-5 12518x 13100x
1955
Nicca 5L 16204x  
1957
Nicca 3-F 8594x 9684x
1956
Nicca 3-F (lever) 15114x 18288x
1957
Nicca Type 33 15236x 16064x
1958
Nicca III-L 18124x 18411x
1958

 

Tower serial numbers are included in the Tower Models narrative. The two found Peerless Type-3 cameras have serial numbers 2403x and 2405x which fit in the middle of the Nicca Type-3 numbers. On the other hand, the two Nicca Type-5 based Sniders in my database have their own serial numbers, 1550x and 1551x.

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Checking for Fakes

In conjunction with features described below, the serial numbers are useful in deciding whether what you are seeing is the real thing or not. On the Yashica YE & YF page, I have described Massimo Bertacchi's “Innovative Cameras” as one of the best Nicca resources currently available, however, not necessarily the most accurate. In fact, I have doubts about several of his displayed models. The Nippon serial number beginning with “25” rings alarm bells straight away, that would make it 1950, if it is a Showa number and I have not seen the rectangular viewfinder window with one curved corner on other Nippon/Nicca examples except the similar one mentioned in the next paragraph. Which is strange because he explains how the Showa prefixed serial numbers work for the following “Nicca Original”. However, whilst the “23” prefix may seem to be plausible for that camera (1948), the serial number of the displayed camera is higher than the earliest later model “Nicca Type-3” in my database (also “23” and 1948). The other problems with the “Nicca Original” example are that it already has a dioptre adjustment (see references to Dechert & Sugiyama further below) and 4 screws instead of the 3 in the accessory shoe of following cameras still. I am even more confused by Massimo Bertacchi's own statement, “without diopter adjustment on viewfinder and eyepiece”. Perhaps he is just using the camera as an example of early maker name? But even that doesn't match the serial number and accessory shoe.

Sometimes these are errors from misidentification but with very rare cameras come high prices and temptations for fraudulent misrepresentation by forgers. I'm certainly not suggesting that Massimo Bertacchi is anyway responsible or even aware of the issues and we don't know for 100% sure that any of his examples are not what they purport to be. With the displayed, Nippon, I don't know enough about possible variations to form a complete view about it but the serial number is certainly very concerning. I have also found another Nippon with the same viewfinder window shape with 5 digit serial number this time beginning with “55”. Both obviously fall into the same category of either dubious and probably from the same source, or real with unknown serial number series, certainly not Showa based like previous and following cameras.

A cut and dry forgery case on the other hand is the Nippon offered for sale in 2016 by a well known European auction house complete with an improbable “Seiki Lausar” lens (“Seiki” likely implying Kogaku Seiki, “Lausar” being a Tomioka brand name for its Tessar type lenses). Googling “Seiki Lausar” or “For. Oc-ciro” which is also engraved on the top plate should find it. The body at least is clearly of Soviet Union origin, probably a 1940's FED. I have also seen a Russian based War-time Leotax Super A fake sold on eBay and two more which the sellers, a US auction house and a famous name European shop, identified as probable Russian fakes

All the Nippons to at least 1945, whether with rangefinder or not, have a rectangular front viewfinder window with four square corners. Soviet cameras are often used as the basis of fake versions of much more expensive Leicas and their copies. Except for some early and rare and hence expensive examples themselves, Soviet cameras also have squared off rectangular viewfinder windows but the top edge of the frame is level with the top of the viewfinder housing whereas on the Nippons, the top edge of the frame is below the top, i.e. there is a lip. The Soviet viewfinder, unique as far as I am aware, is always its greatest give away, as it is with the camera in question. The 6 digit serial number beginning with “64” shows a careless lack of understanding of the Nicca numbering system. All the Nippons I have seen photos of have the film rewind release marked “R” and clearly visible, on this camera it is a “B” and partly covered by the viewfinder housing, another typical feature of some Soviet models. Most Soviet cameras don't have slow speeds (the ones that do are too rare and valuable to repurpose) and neither does this one. Some Nippons without rangefinder also don't have slow speeds but all with rangefinder seem to.

For reference purposes, these are the various viewfinder windows. First is the type of window surround found on most Nippons, including those without rangefinder. Second is a Tower Type-3 representing all early body type Niccas/Towers and the last of the Nippons. Third is the Nippon from Massimo Bertacchi's website representing two found examples. Some Leica, Leotax and Chiyotax models are like the Tower, some are like this Nippon except the glass area on this seems larger and wider than its Japanese cousins. Maybe Kogaku Seiki experimented too but of course, the serial numbers remain a problem. Certainly not a Russian viewfinder housing but even Leica parts have been used when the dollars make it worthwhile. Fourth is one of my three FEDs, same as the auction item (and the three Leotaxes referred to earlier). The Zorki housing is the same too but Zorkis are trickier to pass off as something else because of external reinforcing on the more available/affordable bodies.

(Image 1 is detail from larger web image, image 2 courtesy of Chris Whelan, image 3 is detail from Massimo Bertacchi's website)

Left is the auction camera rewind release, middle is one of my matching FEDs, right is a Tower Type-3 release, same as Nippon.

(Left detail from larger web image, right detail courtesy of Chris Whelan)

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From Nippon to Nicca Models

According to Peter Dechert, the original Nicca is the same as the last iterations of the preceding Nippon model. At some point from 1945 or later, the Nippon front viewfinder frame changed from the original rectangular with square corners to the more Leica-ish notched shape typical of the early body Niccas (Tower Type-3 window featured above). Sugiyama displays a 1947 Nippon with the notched type already. The example with one curved corner window above, if genuine, would fit in between. The original Nicca and various permutations of “3”/“III” models differed only in small refinements and details like flash sync. Nevertheless, their nomenclature and relationships are confusing. Top plates are engraved “Nicca”, “Nicca Type-3”, “Nicca Type-III S” and finally, “Nicca 3-S”. I believe the “Nicca” engraved examples can be split into three models; the first is the 1948 Nicca Original, called that by collectors. Peter Dechert and others tell us that it is the only early bodied Nicca named model without dioptre adjustment (the lever around the rangefinder viewing window described as “Eyebrow Rest” in user manuals) and the fitting of that is the feature change that defines the following Nicca Type-3, otherwise they appear identical.

(Detail from larger web image)

Peter also claims that the “Nicca Original” is very rare - the only confirmed image I have seen is in Sugiyama's book (and it is without dioptre adjustment) so I certainly concur.

Nippons were engraved with the maker name “Kogaku Seiki”. The first two Type-3s in my database, still from 1948 (according to the serial numbers), now feature “Nippon Camera Works, Ltd. Tokyo” and the rest, from 1949, are simply “Nicca Camera Works, Ltd.” Most still have 3 screws in the accessory shoe but some have 4 already.

After the “Nicca Type-3” came the two other presumed versions of the “Nicca” in 1951. These are very similar to the earlier cameras but all have 4 screws in the accessory shoe now and after the first three cameras in my database, the maker name changed to “Nicca Camera Company, Ltd.” and a film plane mark was added to the top plate. Some examples have flash sync and some don't. Nicca advertised a “Type-III A” without flash sync and a “Type-III B” with flash sync for the first time. Neither name has been seen as an engraving on a camera so presumably the “Nicca” is the Nicca Type-III A without sync and Nicca Type-III B with sync. Simple and logical but complicated by a Japanese Nicca ad for the III A which shows a camera engraved “Nicca Type-3”. I assume that is just a re-use of an old photo. There is another ad for both the “Type-III A” and the “Type-III S” together as well as a joint instruction manual in English for the two. As noted earlier, the III S is engraved as such and is the flash sync equipped development of the Type-3/Type-III A (much the same as claimed for the Type-III B). The examples of cameras in the user manual equipped with flash sync seem to be split between cameras with the “Nicca Type-III S” engraving and plain “Nicca” engraving suggesting that the plain “Nicca” with sync fitted, known as the “Type-III B”, was simply renamed “Nicca Type-III S”. This is another example of using old photos.

By serial numbers, the 1952 Nicca Type-III S replaced the pair of “Nicca” variants completely and with a film speed/type reminder added to the top of the film winding knob, morphed into the Nicca 3-S (also from 1952), the “S” for both signifying flash synch, now fitted standard across the range. The speed separation (and also X-sync) between low and high speeds changed from the earlier 1/20 to 1/25 on the 3-S. On left below, Tower Type-3 representing earlier models with slow speeds topping out at 1/20 and plain film winding knob. On right, Nicca 3-S with 1/25 changeover/sync and first type film reminder:

(Images courtesy of Chris Whelan)

When flash sync was fitted to the early bodies, it was typically a pair of PC terminals on the front (FP top and X sync, white, bottom), positioned vertically below the slow speed shutter dial, offset towards the side. Sometimes labelled “FLASH BULB” and “SPEEDLIGHT” but often the labelling is not there or missing. However, on the very earliest “Nicca” examples, presumably “Nicca Type-III B” models, instead of twin PC sockets, there are twin posts for an earlier non-standard type of flash connection, the sync being FP according to Sugiyama. Shown below, first Type-III B sync posts, typical FP/X PC sockets, typical FP/X PC sockets with labelling (found on both some Tower 3-S and Nicca Type-4 examples) and first Tower Type 3 PC sockets (see Tower Models below, maybe from the time of the Nicca sync posts):

(Details from larger web images)

The last of this family was the Nicca Type-4 (1953 Dechert & McKeown, 1954 Bertacchi). It shares the English user manual with the “Type 3-S” (as written on the cover, plain “3-S” as engraved), the main Type-4 difference seems to be the addition of the 1/1000 shutter speed. The ASA film speed reminder was much the same as the 3-S type but cameras featuring a combined ASA/DIN reminder used a flush face type not found on other models:

(Detail from larger web image)

The Nippon and the first Nicca models up to and including the Type 4 were based on the earlier, smaller bodied Leica III with front mounted slow speed shutter dial. Later models starting with the Type 5 and 5-L (lever wind) were based on the slightly larger die-cast Leica IIIc-IIIg body, probably inspired by the popular IIIf (basically pre-War IIIc with flash sync added, released in 1950). The flash sync is now a single PC socket on the back of the top plate and sync type switched automatically depending on speed selected. Early stamped body Nicca 3-S:

Late die cast body Nicca 3-F. Whether originally simply a Leica styling decision or more carefully considered, the extended top plate down the sides of the lens mount makes removal of the shutter cage easier without requiring lifting of the leatherette:

(Both images courtesy of Chris Whelan)

Below is a size comparison between the Nicca 3-S (on right) and 3-F (on left), released in both knob wind and lever wind forms, the top plate having the same overall height but higher shoulders like the 5-L further below and the Type 33 in the brochure:

(Images courtesy of Chris Whelan)

The new body Nicca Type 5 (1955) and subsequent lever wind version, Nicca 5-L (“Type” is not included in the 5-L model name on the top plate), continued with the higher 1/1000 speed and also added the Leica M3 idea of a trapdoor in the back to aid with film loading. However, on the Type 5, the design is side-hinged and different in detail to both the Leica M3 and Nicca III-L and its Yashica YF sibling whilst the 5-L is top hinged in the style of the M3 and basically the same as the III-L and YF. There are other differences too, like the black metal band above the leatherette on the the Type 5 but not there on the 5-L. They are more different models than a variation. Nicca Type 5:

(Detail from larger web images)

Nicca 5-L, the front appearance is the same as the lever wind Nicca 3-F and except for the knurling and slow speed shutter dial design, same as the Yashica YE:

(Detail from larger web images)

Confusingly, at this point Nicca nomenclature reverted to having a form of “3” in the model name for all future models. The 1956 knob wind Nicca 3-F looks like an attempt to reduce the price point of the camera with the Type 5's/5-L's back trapdoor and 1/1000 top speed being deleted. The 3-F and subsequent models also lost the dioptre adjustment that had been there from the Type-3 on (lever around early body rangefinder viewing window, lever under rewind knob on Nicca Type 5 and 5-L). A lever wind Nicca 3-F appeared in 1957, I'm not sure whether as a replacement, or as an optional model (no additional version identifier on the top plate). Peter Dechert claims that the the lever wind 5-L and 3-F models were released at the same time and that the 3-F lever wind model was sometimes called the 3-L.

The final Leica IIIf look-alike model was the Nicca Type 33 released in early 1958 (no name on the top plate, “Type 33” label inside on the base plate). Why “Type 33”? A Japanese blogger has suggested it is named for Showa 33, the Japanese calendar year for 1958. If there is any doubt that it was a bargain model, the Japanese ad below tells potential customers to consider the price when faced by possible criticism. Although similar to the 3-F with lever wind (I'm not sure whether to replace it or supplement it), this version featured an X flash sync of 1/60 instead of the 1/25 on the 3-F and an apparent cosmetic change with the top plate of the larger body type no longer continuing down the sides of the lens mount (a retrograde step for the Type 33 and III-L making removal of the shutter cage a little more inconvenient). Note, the X sync speed of 1/60 came at the cost of being able to use flash bulbs at above 1/30 at a time when amateurs were still relying on them and was more likely to be about cost cutting than an upgrade (the 3-F and other models could sync FP bulbs at any speed, restored on the III-L and Yashica YE and YF).

The biggest change was the dropping of the Nikkor standard lens in favour of the f/2.8 50 mm Nicca branded item. Speculation has surrounded the source of this lens. Without citation, Camerapedia reiterates fan boy claims that it is a rebranded Fujinon and whilst the cosmetic appearance is certainly similar, there are key differences too such as the Nicca has 9 curved aperture blades with progressively spaced aperture scale and the Fujinon 10 straight blades with equally spaced aperture scale and the ribbing on the Nicca aperture ring is on the higher ridges whilst on the Fujinon it is in the hollow valleys. There are plenty of other smaller differences too. Make no mistake, this was a budget lens designed to reduce the cost of the package whereas the Fujinon was from one of the premium suppliers. I have to definitely agree with Japanese Wikipedia that the source of the lens is unknown.

(Scan courtesy of Chris Whelan)

(Click on ad for larger view)

The last release, the Nicca III-L (III-L on the orange label inside the camera, IIIL where it appears with Yashica's YE), is still a Leica copy under the skin but the top plate design is very different and the camera features some innovative ideas.

(Detail from III-L brochure)

The body is based on Nicca's previous top model, the 5-L, but the top plate is quite flat across the top and taller too to accommodate the larger and more refined combined viewfinder/ rangefinder and its windows with parallax corrected projected frame lines (for a 50 mm lens only whereas the Yashica YF also has them for 100 mm, or 105 mm depending on which Yashica ad/brochure). The film advance is no longer on the top plate but operates through a slot on the side of the body. The camera back features the large 5-L top hinged Leica M3-like flap to assist with film loading. Below left is the III-L flap compared to the inspiration on the Leica M3 on the right:

(Detail from larger web images)

Like the Type 33, the slow speed dial was retained but the flash sync speed dropped to 1/30 instead of the Type 33's 1/60. On the other hand, it regained the 1 sec and Time settings dropped from the Type 33 and also the earlier maximum 1/1000 speed. The standard lens continued to be a Nikkor f/2 50 mm, or the optional f/1.4 version. The practical advantages outweighed the concerns about the appearance and size. Some have described it as a Leica M3 with screw mount but the classic size and look were gone and to me, that vulnerable spinning high speed shutter dial seems both a little odd and awkward.

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Tower Models

(Note: Some people refer to a “Tower 35”. In my view, there is no Tower 35 and I also believe that Sears' marketing people are totally responsible for the confusion. Early catalogue pages are headlined with “TOWER 35 - Sears own imported precision camera” yet the camera depicted is engraved “Tower Type-3”. A catalogue from several years later is headlined with “TOWER 35 .. Sears Finest 35mm Camera” and goes on to say “The back of this TOWER 35 camera is removable” with a photo showing the top hinged rear flap in the open position. With lever wind, it is unequivocally the Tower version of the Nicca 5-L. From Sears' own user manual, we know that the version with Nikkor f/2 lens is the Tower 45 and the version with Nikkor f/1.4 is the Tower 46 yet the whole page never mentions those models once, only the “Tower 35”. Finally, the 1959 catalogue is headlined “Prices Cut on Our best TOWER 35mm Cameras” and the fine print tells us that they are the Tower 45 and 46, with pictures to confirm. It's not surprising that different people have identified both the Tower Type-3 and Tower 45/46 as the “Tower 35” depending on which camera they were researching. Clearly, “Tower 35” is shorthand for whatever 35mm Nicca based camera was being promoted at the time.)

It is easy to assume that this was just a re-branding exercise. Yes and no. Also, whilst some of the earlier models have an engraved model name, most don't. Most seem to share Nicca serial numbers, or at least fit at one or the other end of the range for the model. However, the Tower based on the lever wind 3-F is most definitely a separate series (5 digit vs. 6 digit).

The earliest model is engraved Tower Type-3 but called the “Tower Type III” in the user manual, so it might be a re-brand of the “Nicca Type-3” but possibly not. Its found serial numbers (2607x 3780x) closely match the Nicca Type-III A/B although they start a little lower in my database than found “Nicca”s. What's more, most but not all are fitted with flash sync which fits with the “Nicca” Type-III A/Type-III B models. So a re-brand of the “Nicca”? Maybe. Surprisingly, the flash sync sockets are different to any of the Nicca models. The earliest example is a single PC socket inside a surface mounted cone secured by two screws, possibly added by an owner. All the other examples bar one are pairs of surface mounted PC sockets on a plate secured by a central screw, the backing plate being engraved “FLASH BULB” top and “X-STROBE” bottom. In physical form, they are more like posts than sockets, comparison to Nicca models shown further above. Are they an early implementation by Nicca, or perhaps a last minute “bolt-on” added at the request of Sears, or Sears arranged the addition themselves? It is a mystery for me but nobody else seems to mention it (apart from the early Nicca sync posts). Flash sync is not shown or mentioned in the user manual.

In the end, I do think that the Tower Type-3 is the Nicca Type-III A/B (basically all the same cameras as the Nicca Type-3 anyway except for engraving and sync availability) and that for some unknown reason, the Tower received the surface mounted PC sockets instead of the posts on the early Nicca Type-III B. This is somewhat confirmed by an earlier catalogue image which shows a Type-3 with the surface mounted sockets and a 1955 catalogue which shows a Type-3 with the Nicca sockets.

Next is a Tower Type-3S. It has typical Nicca PC flash sync sockets. Is it a re-brand of the “Nicca Type-III S” or “Nicca 3-S”? The serial number (5026x, only one found) suggests early III-S, confirmed by the 1/20 speed separation and lack of film type reminder on the film winding knob. The next five Towers still have similar serial numbers (5157x to 7419x) but are now different. There is no longer a model name engraved (as for all subsequent examples) but they have the 1/25 speed separation and a film type reminder first seen on the Nicca 3-S, only different, it features film types only whereas the Nicca swaps some of the film types for a basic ASA scale. Nevertheless, these Tower examples are almost certainly Nicca 3-S based. By process of elimination, they may be the Tower 42.

Most sources mention both the Tower 42 and 43. It's possible that like the Tower 45 and 46, one is the f/2 version and the other is the f/1.4. Also, I don't know if there are Tower versions of the Nicca Type 4 or Type 5.

The next Tower examples in my database (found serial numbers 15027x to 15148x) are Nicca 5-L based. The Tower 45 is fitted with the f/2 Nikkor lens and the Tower 46 features the f/1.4, confirmed by the user manual. End of story? Not quite! The user manual is heavily branded “Tower” and not typical of Nicca manuals. It is in an unusual portrait format shared with the Tower Type 3 manual and is marked “Copyright 1957 Sears, Roebuck and Co.” The model used for illustrating certain settings/functions is an American blonde. Then there is another manual which is much more typically Nicca with the models used being Japanese. The camera name inside is simply “Tower”. On the plain white covers is “Directions for Using Tower 35 Camera Model 5-L”. Go figure, there seems to be both a Nicca produced manual and a Sears one and both are completely different. Both manuals are available for download from the Butkus OrphanCameras.com site.

There are Tower versions of the knob wind Nicca 3-F, Tower model name unknown (found serial numbers 7445x to 7488x), and also the lever wind version which may be the Tower 48 (found serial numbers 5040x to 5045x). No Tower versions of the Nicca Type-33 have been found and it seems likely that this model was skipped. However, there is a Tower version of the III-L (serial number 18238x, one only found) commonly referred to as Tower III-L. Whether that name was official or not, I haven't been able to confirm. The top of the black viewfinder housing is engraved “Tower” but unusually for a Tower model, the back of the top plate is engraved “NICCA CAMERA CO., LTD.” As discussed on the Yashica YE & YF page, it seems likely that all III-L examples were sold, if not necessarily produced, under Yashica ownership already.

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Lenses

It seems that standard lenses offered on the Tower models were either f/2 or f/1.4 5 cm Nikkors.

Peter Dechert tells us that the cameras “were sold by Sears in conjunction with Tower-marked accessory sets of German Steinhill 35 mm, 90 mm and 135 mm optical equipment.” That seems to be only partly correct. Both early and late catalogues feature Nikkor accessory lens, however whilst earlier catalogues up to at least 1956 also offer the Steinhills as budget alternatives, the 1959 catalogue features Japanese Kyoei Optical Co., Ltd. 35 mm, 105 mm and 135 mm lenses as the budget options (35 mm branded “W. Acall” and telephotos “Super-Acall”). The 135 mm version was also rebranded “Super Yashinon” for sale by Yashica with the YE and YF.

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Shutter Speeds

The basic operation of Leica screw mount type cameras, including using the slow and high speed shutter dials, is covered on the Yashica YE & YF page. Note, all the new body Niccas, except the Type 33, include a separate high speed shutter dial index mark (if the main mark is at 9 o'clock, the second mark is at approximately 7 o'clock) for setting the shutter speed before cocking, although this is not recommended by the user manuals. The reason for the separate slow speed dial is that it controls a separate escapement which introduces a time delay to curtain travel e.g., the Leica II featured shutter speeds from 1/20 to 1/500, the Leica III slow speeds added 1 to 1/8. Leicas and Leica copies sought to simplify dial setting so in most cases, you will find “20” on the slow speeds dial and “20-1” on the high speeds dial, or “25” and “25-1” or “30” and “30” (Nicca Type 33) or “30” and “30-X” (Nicca III-L) so if you want to set speeds of 1/20, 1/25 or 1/30 respectively, both dials have to be set to that mark but in reality, those speeds belong to the high speeds and are not part of the slow speed escapement.

Over time, there were some evolutionary changes with the speeds and setting practice of the Nicca models. The format used below is <slow speeds> || <high speeds>.

Starting with the Nippon, the speed progression was: T, 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 || Z, 1/20, 1/30, 1/40, 1/60, 1/100, 1/200, 1/500, “Z” being the German equivalent for Bulb, or “B”. Most Nicca named models feature “B” but some very early examples still seem to be marked “Z”. There was no change in marking but the Nicca Type - III B added X flash sync at 1/20 for the first time.

The first real change came with the Nicca 3-S with new progression:   T, 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 || B, 1/25, 1/50, 1/75, 1/100, 1/200, 1/500 which was mirrored by the Nicca Type-4 but with 1/1000 added at the top end. There was a minor change in progression from 1/20 to 1/25 which effectively increased the X sync speed to 1/25.

Until now, the user manuals tell us that the “20-1” and “25-1” positions on the high speed dials are the “neutral position” (in a Tower manual, Nicca similar) for using the slow speed dial where that range of speeds is found. As noted above, that was more for the perceptual benefit of the user than where the speeds actually reside. This changed with the first new body model, the Nicca Type-5, which copied the shutter setting method from its Leica IIIc/IIIf inspiration. The lock setting was now in the middle of the speed range on the front slow speed dial, i.e. the Type-5 slow speed dial is now marked: T, 1, 2, 5, 25, 15, 10. So to use 1/25 for example, the manuals now instruct to put the front dial into the lock position and the speed is set on the main dial using 25-1. In practical terms there is no difference, it's really whether 1/25 is perceived as a slow speed or fast speed but it's set the same way.

In the process of the change, the Type-5 speed progression became: T, 1, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/15 || B, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200, 1/500, 1/1000. With the little bit of fiddling, it added 1/15 but dropped 1/75. The next variation came with the Nicca 3-F which simply dropped the 1/1000.

The Nicca Type 33 finally ushered in the linear speeds of the internationally recognised standard progression whilst dropping the T and 1 second speeds: 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15 || B, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500. Flash sync was upped to 1/60. The Nicca III-L kept the speed progression but added the bottom and top speeds back whilst dropping the sync speed to 1/30: T, 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15 || B, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/000. Nicca also followed the Leica IIIg lead of putting the lock position back at the end of speed progression on the the slow speed dial instead of the middle.

Yashica fiddled a bit differently with its YE and YF derivatives. With the YE, the X sync speed dropped from the Type 33's 1/60 back to the more mundane 1/30 of the last models but like them, was able to FP sync at all speeds. Instead of the Type 33's black version, Yashica also styled the slow speed dial along the lines of the III-L one including putting the lock position at the end of the slow speed progression. The YF is basically the same as the III-L but misses out on the “T” time setting.

Accessories

As Nicca was a relatively small company specialising in Leica copy cameras, it was unlikely that they had the resources to develop or economically manufacture comparatively low volume accessory items and like even a relatively large company such as Yashica, probably sold rebadged items made by speciality firms.

Below is contributor Chris Whelan's beautiful Nicca 3-S with last type square lens hood and original Nicca lens cap for the f/2 Nikkor:

Boxed, with leather case with “Nicca” on the front and distributor “Hinomaruya” on the back:

(Above 3 images courtesy of Chris Whelan)

Earliest found round type lens hood displaying distributor name “Hinomaruya”, commonly supplied in a “Nicca” box, and a later round type with “Nicca” name:

(Detail from larger web images)

Nicca branded yellow filter and reloadable film cassette:

(Detail from larger web images)

The Nicca Universal Finder front and rear:

(Detail from larger web images)

Certainly not a rebadged Nippon Kogaku item - it is the same as both the Alpex and Walz Universal Finders but it is not known who the actual maker is.

(Detail from larger web images)

Nicca branded timber cased copy stand kit:

(Detail from larger web images)

Nicca battery-capacitor flash BC-III mounted on Nicca 3-S. The flash could be mounted via a base plate attached to the tripod socket or via a bracket built into the 3-S leather half case (the only other model I have noticed with case with in-built bracket is the Nicca Type-5). It has both serial (on back) and parallel (on side) connection sockets and a test lamp. The ejector button is white. There are at least two earlier versions with non-folding reflectors which miss out on the serial connection and test lamp and the ejector buttons are red. One comes in a fairly plain blue and grey box, the other in a box marked “Nicca III-S Model”. This BC-III is probably the last type and the version that appears as an accessory in a Yashica YE brochure. The example in the Nicca 3-F user manual appears to be the same except that it is missing the serial connector.

(Flash images courtesy of Chris Whelan)

Sears mostly sourced its own accessories used for other cameras in its catalogues too. Over the years, various flash units were shown with the Tower models but one year, the Tower 45/46 is shown with what is almost certainly the Nicca BC flash. Whereas Nicca used its own rebadged universal finder for the Nikkor accessory lenses, Sears offered Nippon Kogaku items for its Nikkors, both the Varifocal and fixed focal length types (its budget lenses were offered with matching finders). Below is a typical Tower lens cap:

(Detail from larger web image)

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