Pontiac Bloc-Mtal 45; If You Can’t Afford A GTO, How About A Camera? Page 2

Such a beautiful and well-made camera cries out, you might think, for a top-flight lens; but you would be disappointed. It was available with a variety of 102mm f/4.5 and 105mm f/4.5 triplets, and possibly with one or two Tessar-type four-glass lenses (I’m not sure about the optical layout of the Berthiot options). As far as I am aware, all used front-cell focusing. Mine came with an uncoated Roussel Trylor, one of the better triplets of its day, but nothing remarkable; only the very last 45s had coated lenses. Marked apertures on the grievously nonlinear scale are f/4.5 and f/6.3 (one stop apart), then f/8 (2⁄3 stop), f/11, f/16, f/23(!), and f/32. The shutter is a Prontor II, 1 second to 1/200 sec + B and T, with delayed action, flash synchronized; quite advanced for its day.

A big ’ole—and a huge shiny pressure plate.

This is where you have to remember the point about contact prints. A triplet like this would allow superb contacts, fit to be examined with a magnifying glass, a real “magic window”; but it wasn’t a high-end “enthusiast” camera, and would probably have appealed to someone who wanted a decent camera but wasn’t willing to spend money
on enlargements.

Paradoxically, by the late ’40s, the non-enthusiast who wanted a bigger picture would probably have gone for “en-prints” (short for “enlarged [contact] prints”) off 35mm, 127 or 16-on-120/620. At most these would have been post-card sized, about 3x off 35mm. Ambitious amateurs who were just taking up the hobby, or were unusually impecunious, could buy box-shaped fixed-focus enlargers that took a negative at one end and a sheet of post-card paper at the other: models were sold for both 35mm and 6x9cm.

The rotating depth of field calculator.

All right, what is the 45 like to use? Well, I have to disappoint you here. Although the shutter still works, albeit with speeds bearing little relation to those marked, the lens diaphragm has a displaced leaf and the interior of the lens is quite misty. As already noted, it is also a 620, and to add to the fun, one of the little brass lugs that locates the feed spool is detached. In other words, it’s maybe an hour’s work, maybe more, to strip, clean, and reassemble the front end and refit the lug, quite apart from the hassle of either buying some 620 film or re-spooling 120: the film and backing paper on 120 and 620 are identical, but 620 has a narrower diameter core and flanges. To cut a long story short, I decided that as I was unlikely to be impressed by the results anyway, I’d just treat it as a piece of sculpture and history, rather than as a working camera.

The release clip for the bellows baseboard is reminiscent of a ’20s cigarette case.

Mention of history, of course, demands the question, why Pontiac? Well, Pontiac or Obwandiyag (c. 1720-1769) was an Ottawa chief who allied himself with the French against the English, but it seems more likely that M. Laroche just liked Pontiac cars and regarded them as the epitome of modern styling and affordable excellence.

The history of the company itself is also interesting. MFAP was one of the few French beneficiaries of the German occupation, which forbade the founding of new optical companies in occupied France. This allowed M. Laroche to bring out his new all-metal camera model in ’41, and essentially gave him a free run for the next few years. He even advertised himself as the leading French manufacturer of cameras: this was probably true during World War II.

The cable release holder. Above: with the retaining catch to one side. Below: with it swung in place. I had no cable releases small enough to fit.

It is however curious, to say the least, that consumer cameras were made in relatively large numbers in occupied France, and that they were made from light alloy (a strategic material for aircraft production) with nickel-plated brightwork: nickel was another strategic material, of course, though reputedly the nickeled fittings of the 41 were more than averagely prone to rust. As soon as proper international competition was resumed, MFAP started to struggle, then went under. And as already noted, the Baby Lynx may have been the only product of the Moroccan 35mm camera industry.

Value? It’s impossible to say. Pontiacs are not especially common, even in France, and despite the export drive of the later ’40s, they are distinctly rare in the US. In one sense a Pontiac 45 is just another “moldy old folder” (to borrow from the estimable Jason Schneider), but it is set aside from most moldy old folders by its superb looks and unusual history.

You know the French are serious about export when it says “Made in France” and not “Fabriqué en France.” This is the film winding knob.

Then again, depressingly many collectors are indifferent to aesthetics and incompetent as historians, so there are probably more than enough Pontiacs around for the few who will appreciate their charms. The 30 euros (a bit under $50) that I paid for mine at the Montamisé camera fair in 2008 was probably about right, or a little on the high side for a camera that needed work, so I’d guess anything from $25-$125, depending on condition, and how badly you want it.

For further information on the art and craft of photography from Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz, go to www.rogerandfrances.com.