Monday, July 4, 2011

Clarus MS-35: A Hometown Hero (Almost)

Minneapolis, MN-made Clarus MS-35, my hometown hero.
Quite often, the reason for collecting a vintage camera may have nothing to do with its performance in capturing images. In the case of the Clarus MS-35, I was surprised to find that it was made not far from my home in the US state of Minnesota; Minneapolis, specifically. It was a pleasant revelation that produced a small amount of hometown pride in knowing that, if even for a brief moment, your friends and neighbors were smart enough to compete against world-wide competitors in producing a reasonably competent 35mm rangefinder camera. And I am stretching the word "reasonably" a bit here.

The Clarus model MS-35 camera was designed, built and sold by the Clarus Camera Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota USA from around 1946 and 1952. The post-war boom years when consumers demanded satisfaction for their pent-up demand for consumer products. Clarus cameras were sold by several major retailers, including the Montgomery Ward Company (a now-defunct, but once hugely important source for many American camera sales).

The MS-35 was the only camera model manufactured by Clarus, and they were very lucky to even managed that. After a management change later in the decade, the camera was sold under Wescon name, sending the Clarus into the distant realm of camera obscurity. Before vanishing against the onslaught of re-emerging German consumer cameras, as well as new Japanese models, Clarus/Wescon began work on a variation of their camera with a different shutter and flash system. No matter, by the early 1950's nothing seemed to help and they simply shuttered their factory doors. 

The Clarus is a very heavy, sturdily-built camera, very reminiscent of  the Chicago-made Perfex camera of the late 1930's. I have no doubt the designers of the Clarus must have seen an opportunity to improve on that brawny metal camera's weaknesses.

If it were not for the initial problems with the focal plane shutter of the Clarus MS-35, the camera might have succeeded for a time. But those first batch cameras were dogged by erratic speeds or stuck shutter curtains. From what I've read, the problems were sorted out by around 1950, but industry reviews and spurned camera shops turned their merchandising eyes toward better cameras from other manufacturers.

The Clarus also suffered from some other fatal design flaws. The interchangeable 50mm f/2.8 Wollensak lens had a screw-thread mount machined (apparently) in English thread diameter around 38mm, just shy of being able to accept a Leica-thread lens. Clarus offered at least two other lenses for the camera, a 35mm f/3.5 Wollensak Raptar and a 101mm f/3.5. I have seen the very rare accessory optical finders needed to use these lenses only on online auctions going for far more than the cameras themselves.

I acquired my Clarus from eBay for less than $20. Everything works, even the shutter. However that same shutter displays the breed's penchant for erratic, slow performance. No matter. To me it's enough to have something made on my shelf that was made by folks in my home state. I'm proud to display my Clarus as an example of local ingenuity and manufacturing ability. OK, so we can't do precision mechanisms so well, but at least we tried - once.

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