Following on from my recent posts, the rundown of classic Leicadom wouldn’t be right without a nod to the Leica M which many regard as the last of the best and the best of the last: The enduring Leica M4.
It’s the last, all brass model out of Wetzlar during the golden heyday and it sits right on the edge of that wonderful time, before the change and doubt of the 70’s kicked in, throwing the whole game into disarray. I sometimes think of the M2 as the best classic, MANY consider the M3 to wear that crown but yet there is another fanatical little group of peoplewho see the M4 as iconoclastic whilst somehow combining of all the best design features of the ‘big three’ classic M’s. Let’s examine the case for the M4 further:
Keen followers of useless Leica M trivia (and anybody daft enough to have read my previous musings on the subject so far) will no doubt be able to point out that the original M3 was so called after its three sets of focal length framelines embedded into such a beautiful, blue tinted finder window. Guess where the M4 gets its moniker then? Yes, indeed….four sets of framelines were now at the Leica shooters disposal, 35,50,90 and 135mm to be exact.
The film loading was now done by means of ‘tulip’ style film loading reel which gripped the film enough so as to be able to wind it without the need for the much bemoaned standard Leica film cassette used with the M3/2. I personally don’t mind either system but they both have their detractors and fans in ample measures, or so it would seem. Changes to film transport were not just restricted to winding the film on either, once a full roll had been used up there was another significant development from the design team. The film rewind was now done with an angled rewind knob that opened up to reveal another collapsible lever with a tiny, knurled rotating handle. This natty little innovation allowed for the previously quite drawn out rewinding process to now become much quicker and easier for most people. There have been (and still remain) those who debate the strength (physical rather than metaphorical) and durability of this lever as it was presented on the M4 through to the M7 but for many people, it was deemed something of an improvement, in true tiny step iterative Leica style. The lever (and the angle at which it sits) help to distinguish an M4 from its peers quite quickly and without it, an M4 would pretty much just look like any other M2 to most of us.
Production numbers were significantly lower than the M3 and M2, with rough estimates somewhere around 50,000, give or take. Suffice to say that we don’t even need to talk about black paint numbers, their availability and the effect on prices at this point. All you need to know is buyer beware! To further muddy those already muddied repaint waters; this was a black M that came from the factory with a choice of not one but TWO different black finishes at different times. Collectors therefore not only want black paint M4s but they also want to get very picky about whether or not it’s a black chrome (later versions) or black enamel (earlier versions). As always, the vast majority of them were the standard silver chrome affairs and the exterior colour makes no difference on their picture taking ability whatsoever, never mind what the zealots of camera fondling fora may say. Also, I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable carrying a nice condition original black paint one around as just a wrong scratch here and there to a minter can seriously hurt its not insignificant value overnight. Repaints are fine and not subject to this level of worry, but for god’s sake…if you are gonna go down the repaint route, get it done properly by somebody who knows what they are doing and be prepared to both wait AND pay through the nose for the privilege.
The M4 is a classic all brass M from the golden era but it does lend itself quite well to modern finder upgrades, it’s not a massive task for a competent camera tech with experience to switch out the finder in an old M4 to be the more modern six frameline set later used in the (you’ve guessed it) M6. One of the main reasons for this is that the M4 became the design template for the later, more contemporary M’s.
When I think M4, I tend to think of Winongrand with his (perhaps the world’s most battered and yet still perfectly functional Leica M film body) and a 28mm Elmarit V3 with SLOOZ external finder. Or perhaps I think of a Vietnam War photographer’s camera, in equally hard use in the field. Sure, I know that era also saw a lot of M2’s (and the military version) as that’s how the world got to see ‘Napalm Girl’ in the first place but the M4 was also a real Vietnam era classic.
There are a few tiny bits of black plastic here and there on an M4, the tip of the film advance lever or the inserts set into the frameline preview and self-timer levers for example. It hurts the overall score for the model in the eyes of purists but it’s worth stating that at the time such plastics were seen as very much futuristic and it’s certainly not of a low quality. Typical bloody Wetzlar, even the plastic is high quality! It’s all very solid and very much intact in its original condition on my M4, which dates from around ’69. Therefore, I am not somebody who really sees that as a negative when assessing the model in the context of its siblings. I will say however that I’m not sure if the tip of plastic on the film advance lever feels any better than the bare metal version. I think Leica perhaps themselves might also agree in some measure otherwise it would be hard for them to support their decision to leave this out of the design of the MP much later on in the noughties (interestingly the EXACT same argument could also be said for the film rewind lever!).
Although I genuinely feel that the Leica M3, M2 and M4 are all every bit as good as one another, I can at least appreciate the merits to the argument of those who say that the M4 is quite possibly a first among equals and the end of the line for original brass Leicadom. I am waiting for your breath, come sweet death, one last caress.