Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Argus, Vershoor And Vokar

By Ron Kuykendall

In the early 1920’s,Charles Vershoor was an engineer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He started the Cavac Co. radio business about 1924. His first real success came in marketing his Arbor Phone radio. In 1931 he formed International Radio Corp on the success of his Kaydette –a 4 tube ac/dc home radio in a phenolic resin case available in many colors. A kit allowed the Kaydette to be used in an auto (first car radio ?). Another offering was a kit that allowed the Kaydette to be controlled from any room in the house. A two tube pocket radio (personal radio), and the Autime the first clock radio soon followed. Vershoor marketed thru neighborhood drug, jewelry, sporting goods and similar smaller retailers. There was a problem with the radio business however- in the summer people were outside and the radios were inside. The summer lull in sales forced Charles to lay off his workforce. A vacation in Europe looking at Leicas, Contaxes and Retinas made an impression. Cheap box and rollfilm cameras using 120,118,122,127 etc. were plentiful. Good cameras like he saw in Europe were expensive-$58 at the least. Why not market a summertime item (camera) priced so advanced camera users could desire and afford it.
He asked Gustave Fassin to design a small compact camera using the new 135 cartridge, with retractable lens, and a phenolic resin body. The first Argus had an Ilex fixed focus 4.5 lens with a diaphragm, sold in 1936 for $12.50. Once again Vershoor judged the market rightly-30,000 cameras in the first week- and his factory ran all summer,making Argus A’s from the same plastic as his Kaydette. Next was a full line of support items-enlargers, darkroom items, light meters and exposure guides, filters, flash units, and slide projectors for the new Kodachrome. His A became a series-A2, AF, A2f, A3,etc. Marketing of the C, C-2, C-3, was started. Graf Optical was bought to provide an in house optical department. The first non-135 film camera, the Argoflex was marketed and the line of radios was sold to concentrate on photography. Argus was second only to Kodak in the U.S. Suddenly Vershoor was ousted- a stockholder revolt- a little matter of excessive compensation from himself, shoddy fiscal management, undocumented expenses-sounds familiar.
With the wealth and reputation amassed from his Argus experience, Vershoor bought a smell factory and started a business. He engaged Richard Bills to design a new camera. The Vokar I was a heavy cast metal camera for 135 film with 2.8 three element anastigmat lens, a combined viewfinder rangefinder, and a shutter that was cocked as the film wind knob was turned-double exposure prevention. It shared the stamped metal aperature plate assembly and the captive take up spool of the Argus A-3 as well as the basic layout(although reversed) of the new C. The camera would be noted however for its film knobs enclosed in the top housing.
The Vokar A was marketed in 1940 while Argus marketed his A3/CC, the C and Argoflex. The Vokar A was simple a 6x6 120 rollfilm folding camera, with a 3 speed self cocking shutter, Ilex 6.3 lens, plastic body with film knobs on the bottom. The first series had a folding viewfinder-later Vokar A’s had a chrome top plate with an optical viewfinder. This unremarkable camera became quite remarkable in its marketing. Development of the Vokar I was delayed by WW II and Charles died in 1943.

With the return to civilian lifestyle,the Vokar B with cast metal top and bottom plate was marketed in1946. Some had a simple shutter and a meniscus lens in a plastic housing, a better version had a Wollensak anastigmat lens/shutter unit. Film knobs appeared both top and bottom. A mysterious Voigt( in Voigtlander script) identical to the simpler Vokar A without the cast metal plates appeared. A Voigt Jr was marketed with the meniscus lens assembly, top and bottom cast metal plates and with knobs on top. There was also a Wollensak version. Unlike the Vokar series, some of the Voigt series did not have lugs for a neckstrap-instead they sported a swivel ring in the center of the plastic back case.
A Wirgin Deluxe joined the party- with stamped metal plates, art deco graphics, and a hinged back- was identical to the Voigt Jr. A model 4.5 sported a Wirgin 4.5 Anastigmat and three speed shutter very similar to the Voigt Wollensak,with cast metal top and bottom plates and film knobs on top. A model 51 was the Voigt with chromed top and bottom plates, the Wollensak Velostigmat 4.5 and Alpax shutter. In most cases film knobs could appear top or bottom.
All body components of all versions were nearly identical or inverted. I have owned several of these cameras and have counted five lenses, three body variations, three viewfinders, three variations in strap attachments, and three different top/bottom units. The Wirgin brothers had escaped Germany before 1940, had established a Wirgin U.S.A. factory, possibly in N.Y. and may have manufactured at least the parts for these multiple versions. Vokar also marketed a number of darkroom items, a tank electric agitator and a slide projector very similar to the Argus PA, which also appeared under the Voigt, Sears and Vokar names.

In 1947 the delayed Vokar I appeared, a model II followed a few months later- identical except for the addition of two screws to the top cast metal housing. The Vokar lens/shutter unit was manufactured in a plant in Celina Ohio-apparently with little quality control. The shutter was a source of failure of as many as half of the cameras produced- a flood of returns bankrupted the company about 1950. One Vokar I have owned had a non working shutter-seemed to be of acceptable design but needed cleaning from a sticky lubricant. Another had an acceptable shutter but the lens image was terrible. They both looked nice sitting on my shelf- with their smug enclosed film knobs. The Vokar A and B series were priced at $15 to about $35 depending on the lens while the Vokar was advertized at about $75.


Anonymous said...

The summer lull in sales forced Charles to lay off his workforce.

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Anonymous said...

Nice article. I live near Dexter, Michigan where the Vokar cameras were manufactured. A woman who used to work at the Vokar factory lives just a few miles from me and mentioned that the majority of workers at one point voted for a union causing the company to pack up and move south a few states. Vokar didn't last long after that.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention that I have a nice looking Vokar II that seems to work but I have yet to shoot film with it yet. Here's a photo of it: http://www.flickr.com/photos/makemannphoto/4430292445/in/photostream/

Gillis Benedict said...

Marc, where was the plant? I just recently acquired a Vokar II myself, and it's got me curious.


Anonymous said...

Gillis: 7300 Huron River Drive, Dexter, MI. At least, that was the address from a 1940s ad I saw. The buildings in that area are still there.

Gillis Benedict said...

Thanks, Marc! Quick response!

Jim Clarke said...

New research seems to indicate that Vershoor was not involved in the Vokar line of cameras.


What was your reference source for this article?