I first learned about the Topcon name in the early ’70s. Topcon and Nikon’s optical comparators were used in the tool shop to follow complex shapes. Nikon had been a well-known brand, Topcon not so. Fast forward twenty years, fate brought theodolites my way, Topcon again. It took another twenty years for me to realize that Topcon also made cameras.
As from the above, Topcon made optical equipment before getting into the camera trade. The first cameras, before the war, were folders, as were most consumer cameras of that time. Thereafter they made TLRs, then SLRs, and rangefinders. On the way, they made press cameras, some sold under their own name and others under Komamura’s brand. Rebranding seemed to be the chosen way, as in the US they sold under Beseler and Argus names, and in Oz under Hanimex. For good measure, rebranded cameras were sold alongside the Topcon brand, often the same camera under a different name.
All that lasted till the late ’70s, when they realized that there were too many players in the sandbox and dropped out altogether. The Topcon SLR cameras did not preserve their value, most are worth very little today. Contrary to that, the TLR cameras do keep their value, including variations rebranded for their distributors. Altogether, Topcon made about 70 mainstream camera models, which is little when spread over fifty years. Further, they did not attract cult followers as other major brands did.
I would assume that the Topcon camera’s design had much contributed to Topcon staying out of the major league. As professional users shied away, the market segment that could carry them was the amateurs, which did not help much. As with any consumer product, image (= marketing) and design play roles as important as technological advancement. So, rather than refined feel and looks, Topcon cameras had kind of a blacksmith chic. Perhaps their roots in the no-nonsense industrial designs left them content with less appealing styles.
The Unirex perfectly subscribes to that. It is practical to a fault as if designed by engineers only, with industrial designers were excluded. Moreover, most cameras are intuitive, while here there is a learning curve, meaning reading the manual, which is a design offence.
The body looks as if it was hastily put together out of parts that were left on the shelf. There is no finesse in it as a whole or in any of its components, all utilitarian, likely making it the last to pick up when on the shelf in the store. Even the camera name, the first focal point, is cast with the least flair. The winding lever feels too small, the trigger button is oversized. Speculating that it was assembled with leftover parts could be rooted in reality, as at about the time this camera was launched, Topcon began recycling the technology of their new models, a far cry from the innovation shown in the early models.
I have two exemplars of this model, both thrift store finds, so I don’t expect much of them for functionality or value. While both operate well mechanically, to borrow a term from elsewhere, I’ll call it hardware, the software part lacks. By software here I mean the soft parts, being seals and bumpers. In both cameras, the soft parts have disintegrated and fragments found a way into any of the camera’s nooks and crannies. Camera brands bear their own peculiarities, such as my pet peeve with the East German leatherette glue. Nevertheless, I am yet to see a total mess as in here. The two units, different serial numbers, arrived from different parts of the continent, show the same. I know that oddly both cameras are engraved with owners’ info, which is another peculiar occurrence. I carefully blew out foam particles from the inside body, used picks and tweezers to pull out stubborn fragments. All that to no avail. After a few actuations, it was again full of foam residue. Particles found their way into the prism compartment over and over.
The camera is on the heavy side; the body alone weighs 670 gr versus the class average of 590 gr. With a cast metal body and some parts made of punched steel, it solidly rests in the hand. Firing the shutter though, is a reminder of the Pentax 645, which makes a racket by lifting the mirror, activating the shutter, and dropping back the mirror. Far from the fine activation of other SLRs. Though, could be caused by the little bumpers left.
The leaf shutter is mounted just in front of the mirror, behind the lens mount. The lens barrel carries most of the settings, on that later. The camera has three CdS meter all set behind the lens, as TTL measuring. Two are for average metering and a single for spot measuring. It is the first camera to offer such an option, long before it became mainstream. The metering options are selected via a lever mounted around the rewind handle, marked with A and S, average and single respectively. To the unaware of the metering modes, this lever could be a mystery. The top plate carries a lever winder, a trigger, a cold shoe, and a self-resetting frame counter.
The lens assembly is a busy neighbourhood. First, the user has to set the film speed on a dial at the bottom of the assembly. Topcon was kind enough to provide for ASA and DIN units, found at about 45° of each other. The film speed, in black, is to be set against the largest F value of the given lens, marked in red. Now it gets tricky as the ring that carries the film speed is hooked to the ring carries the shutter speed, marked on the top of the assembly. To adjust one without the other it takes strong fingernails, pulling a tiny catch on the shutter ring finger rest so the rings disconnect.
Back to the speed settings on the ring’s top side. Slow speeds are marked black, can be used for manual shooting only. The rest are in red, can be used for auto as well. Once the speed is set, look at the finder; a needle at the right will recommend the aperture size. Alternatively, set the aperture value to auto and let the camera do the thinking. Both rings carry finger rests at the right and left, making it easy to adjust while the body sits in the palm, even both rings simultaneously.
Further out, at the bottom of the lens assembly, is the lens release latch. Press and turn the front lens barrel part only, as the rear half stays put. The mount is Topcon UV bayonet, UV stands for standard coating on this lens line. There is a scant lens offering for this mount, which could have contributed to the meager popularity of the Unirex. At the front end is the focusing ring, having a long travel that makes sharp images easy.
At five o’clock at the bottom is the flash sync selector, combined with a self-timer marked with a red V. It appears that way on a few other Japanese and German cameras, guess to further confuse users. At the base, there are the usual tripod mount, rewind release button, and battery compartment. The battery I used is a standard 625, although is 1.5 V instead of the 1.35 V. Not sure how much it affects the meter, which is the only feature that needs power.
On one of the cameras, the previous owner neatly glued a label “Batt. 12-20-76”. It has been 45 years since.
|Current value at camdex.ca||Unirex chrome
|Mode||Shutter priority / manual|
|Weight||670 gr, Body only|
|Class average weight||590 gr, Body only|
|Lens make||UV Topcor|
|Lens mount||Topcon UV|
|shutter||Leaf, lens barrel mounted|
|Light meter||TTL CdS, 2 + 1 for average or spot|
|Timer||Mechanical. Set from the sync lever|
|Other||UV coated lens|