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The Leica I 35 mm camera was introduced in 1924. By 1930 it was a huge success. It did have a few flaws. The finder was tiny, loading the film was very cumbersome and film transport by knob was slow. F&H saw the merits of the small film format but wanted to do better. Another matter were the Leitz patents that protected lots of features.
The Rolleiflex 6 by 6 cm finder was much larger and easier to focus than tiny finder of the Leica screw-mount cameras. Scaling down the finder to 35 mm film size (24 x 36 mm) would make it more difficult to focus. F&H decided to use the 40 by 40 mm size of 127 size film. Slides made with this film fit in mounts that can be shown with standard slide projectors for 35 mm film. F&H already had experience with this film size from building stereo cameras. Loading roll film in a TLR camera with swing back would be much easier than first trimming down 35 mm film and then lowering it into the narrow slot of a Leica and trying to get it on to the sprocket. The small Rolleiflex would have a crank for fast and easy film transport at the time when Leitz still used a tiny knob. An upgraded finder hood with ‘sports finder’ would make the deal perfect.
The small Rolleiflex was going to be equipped with the f/3.5 6 cm Carl Zeiss Jena ‘Tessar’ lens. F&H persuaded Dr. Wandersleb, head of Photography at Carl Zeiss, to upgrade the 6 cm ‘Tessar’ to f/2.8. The Tessar-type Leitz Elmar still had f/3.5 while the more basic Anastigmat-type ‘Hektor’ opened only to f/2.5. Both f/3.5 and f/2.8 optics were to be offered for the 4 by 4 Rolleiflex.
In 1930 the small Rolleiflex was rushed into production. At introduction in 1931 there was a lot of interest for the camera. Production was raised from 500 to 1000 pieces a month. Unfortunately this was for a short while only and production numbers were quickly reduced. Especially the numbers of the cameras with f/3.5 Tessars were low. Low enough for it to be a collectors camera now. For production numbers, please see the serial numbers page for 4 by 4 Rolleiflexes of this site.
There are 4 pre-war models. Early ones have Compur shutters, later ones Compur Rapid shutters with the fast speed of 1/500 sec. That is the same speed the Leica has. The fourth model has the shutter completely covered and has the Rolleiflex name founded in high relief.
At the end of WWII camera manufacturers were mainly interested in producing Medium format and 35 mm (24 x 36 mm) cameras. As early as 1945 roll film 127 was nearly obsolete. The pre-war small Rolleiflex had not been a commercial success and it is amazing that the factory even bothered to develop a new one for 127 size film in 1954. An explanation may be that one of the factory owners, Mr Reinholt Heidecke, was a great fan of the small camera.
Three prototypes were developed before production started. The first prototype of 1954 by Friedrich Sommermeyer's group was high-tech. The camera was designed as dual format: for both 127 size and the already very important 135 size (35 mm) film. It still used the crank for film transport. This camera also featured a removable finder hood and a detachable back. Optical accessories like a pentaprism were developed. It was the most sophisticated 4 by 4 Rolleiflex and got the name Rolleibaby.
The second prototype of 1956 by Kurt Bode's group was a much cheaper model with ‘modern’ looks. This model too was meant for both roll film 127 and 35 mm film. This camera was not fully developed and dropped soon.
The third one was developed by the group lead by Richard Weiss in 1956 , and this one went into production. It was more conventionally looking and built from cheaper parts. The crank for instance was replaced by a knob and also the film transport was more basic. The camera did have automatic film transport to frame 1 and following frames. This was necessary because 127 film had no starting mark at that time.
According to Claus Prochnow, who worked with Richard Weiss, a number of other prototypes were produced well into the 1960s. They never went into production.
The first series were finished in trendy grey. These are relatively easy to find. Some 64,000 cameras were finished in grey. Later on a small number were produced in traditional black. I own a black 4 by 4 Rolleiflex.
The main concern is film. As a wrote above 127 size roll film was nearly obsolete as early as 1945. Only a few brands market 127 size roll film and there are only very few sellers. Please see the page on 127 size film of this site. I try to keep it up to date.
Please note that the shutter release of a 4 by 4 Rolleiflex is locked when the finder hood is closed.