Ilford Sportsman ~ History


The following notes have been generously provided by Andy Holliman. Andy's father, Albert (known at work as Arthur) Holliman, Ilford's Marketing Manager (Cameras) and later Product Group Manager (Equipment) at the time of this story, wrote some personal reminisences, which Andy has subsequently edited into his book; Faces, People and Places; The Cameras of Ilford Limited; 1899-2005.

By the latter 1950s ILFORD could no longer avoid the fact that German cameras were in the ascendancy and outclassed the early Ilford variants in price, performance and popular appeal (for performance, the Ilford Witness was a top class camera on a par with most any camera from whatever source, but the Witness had been short lived and was no longer marketed by the latter 1950s). James Mitchell (Andy's father's boss), believed to have held the title of Head of Amateur Products Division, started to look for an uncommitted German manufacturer.

Most West German makers had already established agencies but not the Dacora company of Reutlingen in Wurtenberg. In January 2005 John Lewis e-mailed me the information that Dacora cameras had, in fact, been sold in small numbers in the UK prior to the Ilford connection, via a North London importer/distributor called Amplion Ltd, who also handled some electrical lines. I have since learned, during my Photopia research, that Charles Strasser's company sold Dacora cameras in the UK even earlier than Amplion, at a time, c1952, when Dacora were manufacturing simple, folding, roll film designs. Charles found Dacora's early quality control was suspect and soon gave up distributing these cameras, such that Amplion acquired the Agency. Charles tells me that Amplion was later taken over by Hanimex and a John Bealey was appointed their manager.

Some further Ilford history of this period has been supplied more recently from Bill Smith who writes: "When the Amateur Products Division was formed under the Marketing Management of Brian Hopley I was appointed Area Manager - Photography for the London Area on account of my great interest in photography and a successful exhibitor internationally (I was president of the long-lived Aston Photographic Society in Birmingham - later merged with the Handsworth Photographic Society). After only a few weeks in the Area Manager position I was promoted to Product Manager for Cameras and Equipment and oversaw the sales of the Sportsman range and the introduction of the Ilford Elmo Cameras."

"Arthur Holliman and I worked on the technical and importing sides of the department and I was responsible for all marketing and advertising activities. Along with Bill Risdon we produced a number of publicity events for the company including a tie-up with Agfa Ltd with which we covered the whole of the UK promoting amateur photography in general. We had audiences of thousands at places like Birmingham Town Hall.

Bill Risdon and I also covered the Jersey Battle of Flowers show for several years. We used 250-shot backs on Nikon cameras to produce Ilfocolor slides of the procession. The films were flown back to the processing plant at Basildon, returned to Jersey and shown on a large out-door screen on the same evening as the procession took place. We also organised a competition for photographic retailers and took the 150 or so winners, with a few of our own staff, to New York and Niagara Falls for a 10 day trip. This would be in about 1968 (I still have the programme somewhere). It was still unusual for people to visit the States at that time and was a great success.

Eventually, after the take-over by ICI and then CIBA Geigy it was decided that the company's future lay not in equipment, but in coating and chemical processes, so the Amateur Products Department was closed down. James Mitchell, see opening paragraphs, became Sales Director at Johnsons of Hendon."

Trevor Summons, who worked for Ilford from September 1956 to November 1958, recalls that Ron Dumpleton was the Industrial Sales Manager at that time.

The Dacora company had been started by Herr Dangelmaier in an attic after the end of the WW2. Charles Strasser recalls meeting with Herr Dangelmaier when Dangelmaier was first making roll film cameras in a very small workshop in Reutlingen. The name Dacora came from DAnglemaier COmpany Reutlingen. Danglemaier personally made smuggling trips over the mountains to Switzerland and back, bringing with him springs, ball bearings, optical glass and whatever he could cram into his rucksack - real German enterprise.

His products were not of the highest quality in comparison with say Zeiss lkon but were well styled and he was willing to enter into collaboration and an agreement was signed. The SPORTSMAN camera was born.

From an initial order of 1,000 Sportsman cameras, within a few years the basic Sportsman was ordered by the 10,000 and ILFORD's yearly programme was for some 40-50,000 cameras.

The cameras were manufactured in West Germany and then shipped to ILFORD for inspection and packaging. Cameras rejected on first inspection were repaired by one or more of Danglemaier's men (or women) working in ILFORD's warehouse. A 100% inspection was carried out. It was anticipated that their lenses would give rise to a fairly high rejection rate and elaborate test methods were prepared in advance. This proved unnecessary, which was an eye opener. Dacora lenses were 3 element, each element being separate and not cemented or combined together optically. Two of the elements were air spaced by washers of which a variety of thicknesses were available. The lens elements had automatically been optically centered and edged so that the optical axis was maintained in the assembly tubes. The third lens was in a helical mount, which controlled the focusing of the assembly. The choice of the 3rd element against the assembly of the other 2 ensured that the focal length could be kept within acceptable limits despite manufacturing tolerances in focal length of all the 3 elements. And so Dacora lenses gave a nearly equal performance to that of the (UK manufactured) ILFORD Advocate camera for all practical purposes.

The success of the original model led to it's improvement and the introduction of models with more sophisticated shutters, range finders and the like and this in time led on to light meter exposure controls and automatic focusing. ILFORD at one time held over 50% of the UK's 35 mm market with SPORTSMAN cameras and there was an assumption by the pro-camera lobby, within the company, that this had helped them to capture their preponderant share of the 35 mm film market. The anti-camera lobby held that this relation was quite casual.

Considering that the cost price of the original SPORTSMAN in Germany was less than £3 (i.e. less than the cost in the UK of the Advocate's lens alone!) and despite the high purchase tax which was then levied, these cameras represented very good value to the amateur photographer. The scale of sale was such that in one year it greatly exceeded the value of sales from the plate factory and kept ILFORD's turnover up to an acceptable level when it had been threatened by the failure of a colour film project.

This same time period saw the introduction of 127 and 120 metal-bodied roll film cameras also made by Dacora under the name Sporti. ILFORD had found that it did not have roll film sales commensurate with that of 35 mm, despite the total market in this other area exceeding the 35 mm market. The Sporti and Sporti 6 did not offer competition, mainly against Kodak, by reason of price and because of this it was determined to offer cheaper plastic based roll film cameras.

Against some opposition from Danglemaier, ILFORD took up with the firm of AGI (Aircraft and General Instruments). During WWII this firm had made the Agiflex (a near copy of the Reflex Korelle) for use by the service as a hand camera and had expertise in the field of aerial reconnaissance cameras. (They had in fact designed the camera for use in the abandoned TSR1 reconnaissance aircraft).

The Sprite 127 was the first camera made by AGI to be marketed by ILFORD. It was followed by the Pixie (127) and the IMP (127).

During this period ILFORD had informal contact with Kodak who offered to supply their roll film cameras under the ILFORD logo, but ILFORD decided not to proceed. There was some suspicion that Kodak wished to un-load onto them cameras soon to be outdated by the Kodak Instamatic (126) system.

The SPORTSMAN camera was the 'Ford Cortina' of the Company. It's life spanned more than ten years and, like the car, underwent many face-lifts and refinements, whilst retaining its basic design principles. Its objectives were certainly fulfilled; well made, long lasting, high quality and easily adaptable.

The first SPORTSMAN was, like the rest of the series, manufactured by the DACORA Company in West Germany and based initially on the DACORA Dignette. Its body shape underwent styling changes hand in hand with changes to the viewfinder styling. It started with a very basic optical viewfinder with a small round eye aperture and a small square front window. The second style enlarged both apertures and had a square eyepiece. The third transformation came when the Zeiss patents for the parallax viewfinder ran out and ILFORD used the brightline principle with a gold image enhancement. The next had a viewfinder, which was similar, but had a blue mirrored viewing enhancement. The final variation (Style 5 - the Sportsman 300) had the blue-mirrored viewfinder on the right of the camera body instead of the central location held for many years.

With each change in viewfinder the top plate housing was re-styled. From a slim top with a surface mounted film advance lever and metal rewind knob, to a deeper top with recessed film advance lever and more clearly marked film counter. The original rewind knob subsequently became a conventional rewind crank

All the models were made with pressed and chromium plated brass top plates and lens/shutter mounting plates. Dacora took pride in this fact as against similar parts on the main competition at the time - the Agfa Silette, which was made of aluminium or of die-castings sprayed aluminium. The shutter release was for most models on the top left of the front plate with the flash socket on the bottom right. The bottom plate held the tripod bush and the rewind release button. The front sides and back of the camera were covered with a high quality black leatherette cloth.

The shutters for the SPORTSMAN progressed, with several types being concurrently available to the public. It started with the VARIO providing B, 25, 50 and 200ths of a second. The PRONTO had speeds of B, 30 60, 125, 250. The PRONTOR in the SVS version provided B, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, and 300 whilst the PRONTOR 125 had speeds of B, 30, 60 and 125. The PRONTOR 300 shutter provided speeds of B, 30, 60, 125 and 300. The lenses provided were predominately the DACORA DIGNAR 45mm F2.8. The earlier models had a 45mm F3.5 lens.

The SPORTSMAN also had its 'GL and 'Ghia' models.

Some of the models had a rangefinder option whilst the top model was the Automatic Rangefinder. This version was fitted with a PRONTO-LK shutter providing speeds of B, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250 and 500, a Steinheil Munchen Cassar lens of F2.8 45mm and a built-in coupled light meter. Earlier models had a coaxial flash contact on the lens mount panel. Later a 'hot-shoe' with centre contact was fitted to the top of the camera. Finally some cameras (the Electrics range) had an internal power supply and socket to accept flashcubes. Danglemaier made a range of flashguns for ILFORD, some of which had considerable success.

The SPORTSMAN range of cameras was produced for the next 12 years until the Amateur Products division was closed down. The range underwent continual development incorporating many technical achievements, which enhanced the camera in both appearance and technical ability.