M4 The Story of One of Lecia’s Most Popular Rangefinders

Jul 31, 2017  By Mike Evans
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Frank Dabba Smith’s Canadian-made M4 in black chrome. This was one of 2,500 M4s manufactured at Midland, Ontario, at the tail-end of the M4 production. Black chrome M4s command a premium over the more common silver chrome — and the few Canadian-made examples are rarer still. Photo courtesy of Frank Dabba Smith.

Earlier this year I was asked by Amateur Photographer’s assistant editor, Geoff Harris, for background on the Leica M4 in connection with an M4 50th anniversary article he was putting together for a up-market yachting magazine.

Funny he should ask that. While I have a good general knowledge of the Leica story, from Barnack to Q, I’ve always found the M4 saga somewhat difficult to follow. I’m no expert so I decided to do a bit of research to back up my pearls of wisdom.

When it comes to the M4, the history gets complicated. It’s not only the three main models — M4, M4-2 and M4-P — it’s the split manufacture between Wetzlar and Midland, Ontario, not to mention the brief sabbatical while the portly but advanced M5 rose and fell. It’s quite a story.

Adding to confusion is that secondhand prices are all over the place, everything depending on which model is in focus and, above all, on the finish of the body. Canadian M4-x cameras were produced predominately in black chrome, so the few silver chrome relicts command a premium. Conversely, Wetzlar M4s were largely in silver chrome with the result that black is normally more expensive. That’s black chrome. The even rarer black-paint M4 is top of the tree for current value.

PRODUCTION
M4 production topped out at about 58,000 examples compared with the 225,000 run of the earlier M3 — another factor in adding to rarity value. Of the total production of M4s just 6,775 were finished in black chrome and 4,889 in black paint. As always, limited production sets the collectors’ pulses racing.

The M4 is considered by many to be the finest of the unmetered  M’s. Some prefer the M3 or, even, the M2, but the M4 combined the best of its predecessors’ virtues, including superb build quality, and added a feature or two. With its engraved top-plate and M3-like craftsmanship, the M4 upped the rangefinder game. Its additional features, which don’t sound too impressive at this remove, were actually a big deal at the launch in Nov. 1966.

The angled rewind lever, instead of the knob on earlier models, was, in its way, as big an improvement as the film advance lever on the first M3. It dramatically speeded up the rewind process. And the quick film loading feature, dispensing for the fist time with a return spool, was a hit. The new advance lever with its floating end-piece received a mixed reception but few could argue with the benefit of the self-setting film counter.

Above all, the M4 in 1966 continued the tradition of the M3. But with framelines for 35, 50, 90 and 135mm lenses it was more practical than the M3 which lacked the 35mm lines, necessitating an external finder.

CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON
But clouds were gathering on the horizon even as the M4 was launched. Rangefinders were losing ground to SLRs and Leica had failed to offer serious competition in that area. The company was also encountering financial problems — its rangefinders, typified by the M4, were hand-made by craftsmen and expensive to produce. The situation was exacerbated by the failure of the radical M5 — the first M with an exposure meter. M4 production was stopped briefly in 1972 but the poor reception of the M5 caused Leica to restart the M4 and, soon, to move production to the E.Leitz Canada plant in Midland, Ontario. Some 2,500 M4s were made in Canada towards the end of the run.

The solution to Leica’s problems came in the form of a new, simpler production process and trimmed features to keep costs down. In particular, instead of the painstaking adjustments and artisanal tinkering that typified earlier cameras, the plan was to introduce a standardized component system. Less adjustment was possible and, if something didn’t quite work or was out of tolerance it was simply swapped. Previously, the craftsman would have performed custom adjustments to individual parts. To this day there is controversy over which approach is preferable; some believe that the M4-2 approach, which was carried on into the later M6, offered a better solution.

PLAIN JANE LEICA
The ensuing 1977 M4-2, often called the “plain Jane Leica”, was the camera that saved Leitz. It compromised in several ways beyond the cheaper production system. It had a stamped top plate in preference to the M4’s engraved plate; the rangefinder optics were cheapened by the removal of a condenser and the selftimer was deleted. It did, however, grow some new features — the ability to attach a motor drive and the addition of a hotshoe.

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