I’ve a sort of on and off relationship with Pentax – a MX was my first serious camera a long time ago, and a *ist DS was my first dSLR in 2005, but they were replaced by non-Pentax cameras after a few years of service. I’ve bought a few Spotmatic cameras during the last decade, and I’ve not had much luck with them except for a late Spotmatic F. Recently, I gave it a go again, and I’ve just added no less than four Pentax manual focus SLRs to my collection: a P3, two ZX-Ms (an accident – two very low bids on eBay and both went through), and a Super-Program. So far, so good. They work and they’re pleasant to use. An opportunity to look at the last of the manual focus Pentax SLRs.
The K, the M and the A – a new line of lenses for each generation of camera
The 1975-1977 years were pivotal for Pentax. In 1975, they finally removed the m42 screw mount from life support, retired the 12 year old Spotmatic product line, and started fighting back.
Their first generation of bayonet mount cameras (the KM, KX and K2) was simply a refresh of their screw mount predecessors. The KM was a very close derivative of the Spotmatic F, and the K2 a limited upgrade of the ES2. Only the KX (an enthusiast oriented semi-auto camera) had no direct screw mount predecessor. The three models only stayed under the spotlights for one year, and as a consequence, did not reach large production numbers (approximately 750,000 cameras for the KM-KX-K2 trilogy – the only really successful model of this generation is the K1000, but it came to the market a bit later).
The K lenses were for the most part bayonet mount adaptations of the most recent SMC Takumars. They were simply known as Pentax SMC lenses: the “Takumar” name had been dropped (*)
The real innovation came one year later, with two genuinely new models, the MX and the ME, launched with a new generation of downsized M lenses known as the Pentax SMC M lenses. Very light and compact, with an up to date metering system and LED indicators in the viewfinder, they could both be fitted with a winder.
- the semi-auto camera with a mechanical shutter, the MX, came when this type of camera was beginning to be a thing of the past for the amateur photographers, and it had to face the competition of the brand new Nikon FM (whose specs sheet looked pretty similar, and benefited from Nikon’s professional aura and build quality). Impressively Pentax still managed to sell more than one million of them.
- the auto-exposure camera, the ME, was attacking the heart of the amateur market. Deprived of a conventional shutter speed knob and of a depth of field visualization lever, it was not an enthusiast oriented camera. Pentax rapidly started deriving even simpler models (the MV and MG) as well as a more elaborate variant (the ME-Super) to broaden its appeal on the market. It also provided the base over which the Super-Program and Program-Plus of 1983 were developed.
The ME and its derivatives were a sales success (approximately 6 million sold – to be compared with 10 millions of Canon AE-1 and AE-1 Program) between 1976 and 1987, but they were Pentax’s swan song.
The Super Program and Program Plus cameras that replaced them were technically competitive, but they were launched in a period when SLR sales were at their lowest, and they sold in much smaller numbers (approximately 1 million units total).
The Super Program and Program Plus (known in the rest of the world as the Super-A and the Program-A) offered programmed auto exposure with a new line of Pentax SMC A lenses, equipped with a new KA variant of the K mount with electrical contacts.
They were the last technically advanced manual focus SLRs from Pentax. Following Minolta’ successful introduction of the Maxxum series, Pentax made the transition to auto-focus cameras, and only kept on selling two manual focus cameras for learners and cost conscious amateurs, the K1000 (a stripped down version of the KM of 1975, with its roots in the Spotmatic of 1964), and the P30 (known as the P3 on the US market) a simple program-mode-only entry level SLR.
Both cameras were successful (more than 3 million copies sold for each of the two models), and had a long commercial life: the K1000 and the P30 were both retired from the market in 1997, to make room for the ZX-M.
Pentax’s last manual focus SLR, the ZX-M (on the US market, MZ-X in the rest of the world) was a manual focus version of the middle of the range ZX-50 autofocus camera of the time, with a so-so pentamirror viewfinder, and without a built-in flash. It was sold until 2004 and is one of the very last manual focus SLRs ever manufactured (**)
(*) The Takumar name did not stay unused for long – at least on the US market – it was given to a line of entry level non-SMC lenses – generally kit lenses, sold as Takumar-A lenses. Obviously they don’t benefit from the multi-layer lens coating of their SMC siblings.
(**) The Nikon FM3A was manufactured until 2006, and is definitely the last manual focus SLR from a major vendor. The Nikon F6, the Leica M-P and a few Lomo models are still in production, but the F6 is an autofocus SLR, the Leica M is a rangefinder camera, and Lomo camera are…Lomo cameras.
All sales statistics from: Knippsen.blogspot.com
Old Pentax catalogs: Pacific Rim Camera – the flyer from the importer presenting the new Pentax K bodies
Pacific Rim Cameras – the MX and ME catalog (1976): https://www.pacificrimcamera.com/rl/00040/00040.pdf
More about the Pentax K series: https://www.678vintagecameras.ca/blog/those-paragons-of-pentax-the-k-series-slrs