The Iloca Kamera-Werk was located in Hamburg, Germany and produced 35mm cameras during the late 1940's, through to the end of the 1950's. Iloca products were sold under the Iloca brand name (often spelt with a “J" (Jloca) in older print in order to distinguish it from the lower case letter "l"), as well as trade names such as Realist (the David White Company), Graflex (Graflex Inc.), Tower (Sears, Roebuck and Co.), Photrix (Montgomery Ward) and Argus (Argus Inc.). There was also an MPP Iloca, which was a collaborative effort between Iloca and the British Company Micro Precision Products Ltd (MPP). Iloca produced both single lens cameras and stereo cameras, plus a range of accessories to suit.
The Iloca Company was headed by Herr Wilhelm Witt. However, it seems that Herr Witt was not the actual founder. The forerunner to the Iloca camera range was a camera known as the Ilca, manufactured by Illing circa 1948. A year or two later, Wilhem Witt took over the company and, along with a name change from Ilca to Iloca, production of the Iloca range of cameras commenced. It's not hard to see the close similarities between Ilca cameras and the very early Ilocas.
According to an article of the day, Wilhelm Witt was described as a man of admirable vitality, who was completely committed to his new venture. His commitment was regarded as an inspiration to his co-workers and employees. The establishment of a successful new company in the late 1940’s was quite an achievement, especially in light of the economic and political environment that prevailed at the time.
The company clearly saw its future in the export market, particularly to the USA. Helped no doubt by the currency rate at that time, Iloca was able to design and manufacture good quality products that undercut the cost of other competitive products, and their products sold well as a result.
Iloca was very aware of the impact of newly emerging technologies – particularly colour slide film. This opened up new niche markets for cameras such as the stereo camera range, a market in which Iloca invested heavily. Ironically, the rather sudden loss of interest in stereo photography in the late 1950's did not help Iloca's predicament. In many ways, the popularity and decline of stereo photography during the 1950’s seems to have mirrored Iloca’s own fortunes.
The Company's Approach
Iloca Kamera-Werk, Hamburg, Germany.
The company’s general ethos was ‘to mass produce products utilising materials with the best properties to obtain the best quality at the lowest cost’. Sounds like a good set of values to adopt, even by modern day standards!
The Iloca Kamera-Werk invested a significant amount into their research, design and manufacturing processes. However, it managed to achieve this without imposing a huge financial burden on the company, while still aiming to adopt the most modern manufacturing methods for its production. Virtually all components that could be manufactured by the company were manufactured in the plant - from the raw materials right through to the final product. This enabled Iloca to remain largely independent of third party suppliers, and helped to dispense with intermediate transportation and delivery costs. As a result, Iloca avoided problems relating to unreliable delivery of components, and it also meant that the company could set its own levels of quality control by having its own production.
Iloca utilised production methods that were normally found in quality engineering practice. Great importance was placed on the selection of materials, testing, hardening processes etc. The company created distinct manufacturing sections for load and stress tests, and other intermediate controls, resulting in final products with a high degree of precision. Although initial tooling costs were higher, local manufacture was considered to be worth the cost to obtain high quality along with the most efficient production.
Gear manufacturing, milling and grinding of the various camera parts, and the manufacturing of special springs were all carried out using their own methods. Even treating the surfaces of materials required many steps – anodising, chrome plating, nickel plating, spray painting etc. Intermediate inspections were an integral part of the manufacturing process, and only after all these tests were complete did the components reach the actual assembly line ready for camera manufacturing.
This choice of materials was an important factor. Iloca used metal in its products wherever possible and tended to steer clear of materials such as plastic or bakelite, unless the use of these materials was unavoidable. Even the reflectors in the stereo viewer and stereo film mounting jig were made of metal - painted white in the case of the stereo viewer and polished aluminium in the film mounting jig. No chance of breaking these parts, and longevity is greatly improved.
This emphasis on quality would have amounted to nothing, however, if the choice of shutters and lenses wasn't at least the equal of the other components. In order to obtain good quality lenses at an affordable price, Herr Witt initially made his own lenses: Ilitar (triplets) or Iliton (four-element design), in the optical factory in Göttingen. Later cameras did use lenses from other suppliers such as Steinheil München and Rodenstock. All cameras up to around the mid 1950's used Gauthier shutters, changing to Compur shutters from around that time onwards. Sadly however, issues surrounding the supply of shutters would eventually signal the end of production for the company.
The company undertook rigorous final inspections performed by the best specialists. This even involved test photographs taken with each camera (which recorded the camera number on the photo for reference). Test photos were carefully analysed, and cameras were finally exposed to all the stress tests that they might encounter anywhere in the world.
Single Lens and Stereo Models
Iloca offered two main product lines – single (fixed) lens cameras and stereo (3D) cameras, plus a range of Iloca accessories to suit. The final model released near the end of production was a departure from both of these lines – the rather expensive Iloca Electric with interchangeable lenses and built-in electric motordrive. The Iloca product range offered plenty of scope to suit individual needs - models were available with a good choice of shutters, lenses, rangefinders, light meters and accessory shoes. See the Iloca Camera Range for a more comprehensive list of Iloca cameras.
So, how do Iloca cameras actually compare with other brands? Well, the choice of materials seems to have been quite good, because you can still find many of these cameras in decent condition today. And manufacturing and assembly techniques seem to have benefited from the company's focus on quality because a properly serviced Iloca camera is still capable of functioning quite well 50 to 60 years later.
However, to put this into perspective, although Iloca cameras were generally well built, quite robust, and capable of producing more than acceptable results in most cases, they weren't exactly in the same league as products from Leica or Voigtländer for example. This is due in part to the simpler designs and less complex lens construction found in Iloca cameras, particularly the earlier models. Nonetheless, Iloca models were generally capable of producing good results.
Most Iloca products are fairly orthodox in their specification. However, the company did introduce some innovative features into its range of cameras from time to time. The company also had an idiosyncratic streak - which is very evident in the rather convoluted procedures for opening the camera backs on some of the models, not to mention the internal design of the left-hand operated film advance mechanism on the early Rapids.
To its credit, Iloca continued to improve its products over time. Later models became available with superior lenses capable of producing quite sharp images. The Iloca Electric (also known in USA as the Graphic 35 Electric by Graflex) was the company's final and most ambitious undertaking. This camera is acknowledged to be the first production camera featuring an electric motor drive (built into the take-up spool). It also boasts interchangeable lenses from Steinheil München and Rodenstock, is quite heavy, and in its day was very expensive in comparison with other cameras of its era.
The Final Years
Last of the production Ilocas - The Iloca Electric
For a relatively small company, Iloca cameras were quite popular during the 1950's. Despite rapidly changing markets towards the end of that decade, along with the constant emergence of new technology and new products from other manufacturers, Iloca had successfully created a niche for itself in the highly competitive camera industry.
Then, in 1959, events were to unfold that would foreshadow the end for the Iloca company. Iloca's problems centred around the supply of shutters for their range of cameras. At the time there were two leading manufacturers of shutters in Germany. These were Friedrich Deckel (Compur) and Alfred Gauthier (Prontor), both owned by Carl Zeiss (Compur was acquired by Carl Zeiss in 1959, although Zeiss had held a 16.8% share as early as 1910). Iloca had used Compur shutters exclusively for several years. Now it found itself in the awkward position of having to rely on one of its main competitors for the supply of these components which were critical to its success. In this fiercely competitive market, tensions inevitably arose from this situation.
It was very clear that Iloca urgently required ongoing supplies of shutters in order to remain competitive. On 24 April 1959, Iloca first learned that a fully automatic shutter could be offered (16,50 DM without self-timer). Since Iloca had used Compur shutters exclusively for the previous four years, negotiations began with Friedrich Deckel for supply of these components.
In May 1959, Iloca reportedly ordered 3200 Compur shutters. Delivery was confirmed by Compur: 1200 devices for August 1959, followed by 2000 in September. But nothing came, not even after repeated reminders. Since Iloca had decided to phase out its remaining production on the basis of the new shutters, its operations came under increasing levels of stress. With further promises of deliveries starting in January 1960, the company still held hopes for the beginning of the new year. But still nothing came from Munich. The final consequence for Iloca was insolvency.
Despite high order backlogs, production had halted for more than three months. About 200 employees of the Iloca camera factory in Hamburg remained at home without pay, and the company had to apply for conciliation. Blame for the long forced break from work was, in the opinion of Iloca, caused by the non-delivery of the critical components from Compur.
The lost production from the component shortages, and the subsequent compensation cases, went into millions. Iloca was of the opinion that their existence had been threatened by unfair methods, and they filed complaints for discrimination. This was a lengthy process from which the company never recovered. All of these factors, combined with the lost production and impact on the workforce, finally spelt the end for the Hamburg based manufacturer.
So did the Iloca Electric become the Agfa Selecta m?
The Agfa Selecta m, based on Iloca's auto-electric prototype
Some websites state that Iloca was ultimately taken over by Agfa sometime around 1960, not all that long after the introduction of the Iloca Electric. They also state that the Iloca Electric continued for a while in the form of the Agfa Selecta m. However, there seems to be some conjecture surrounding the actual details and the timing of these events.
There is obviously no doubt that Agfa released a model called the Selecta m sometime around 1962, a camera that was similar to the Iloca Electric (but without a number of the Electric's features such as interchangeable lenses, full range of shutter speeds, self timer etc). Further, the Selecta m has a much closer resemblance to Iloca's final model, the Iloca auto-electric prototype, a camera with fixed 45mm lens and the absence of certain features such as the self-timer. And the auto-electric is the product that seems to have borne the greatest impact from the component shortage, to the extent that this promising model never reached production.
So, did Agfa actually take over the ownership of the insolvent Iloca company? Or, did they simply acquire the rights to Iloca's designs? And was the Selecta m a true Iloca, with direct lineage to the Iloca Electric? Or, was it a later undertaking built by Agfa, but based on the design of the ill-fated Iloca auto-electric?
Interesting questions! To which the answers are not entirely clear.
Beyond the Iloca Era
It's unknown exactly how many cameras were produced by the Iloca company during the relatively short production period, either branded with the Iloca name or as one of the many variants produced for other companies over the years.
However, although the Iloca name may have long since disappeared from the camera market, there are probably quite a number of us who grew up with one of the products from the Hamburg based manufacturer in the family.
As a result, we can still enjoy, and always be grateful for, the lifetime of memories that it has given us.
Photographs reproduced from DER PHOTOHÄNDLER MÄRZ 1953