I am no stranger to the Meopta Flexaret TLR series, as my review for the Flexaret VII was one of the first reviews on this site back in 2015. Meopta was a highly respected optics company which made a variety of 35mm and medium format cameras in the 50s, 60s, and 70s in the Czech Republic (then called Czechoslovakia).
In the collector’s market today, the various Flexaret TLRs aren’t quite up there with the likes of German Rolleiflexes or Japanese Autocords, but they’re still highly sought after for their unique looks, excellent optics, and generally good build quality.
It’s probably not a surprise then at one time in the United States, the idea of importing a camera made by a little known company (to Americans) from a country not exactly known for it’s camera prowess probably seemed far fetched. It’s even plausible that anyone back then considering an alternative to an expensive German model might have thumbed their noses at anything from a socialist country dominated by the Soviet Union like Czechoslovakia.
When I saw this article from the January 1952 issue of Modern Photography that takes a look at the Crown Flexaret, my first reaction was “what in the heck is a Crown Flexaret?!” To my knowledge, all of the Flexarets were made by Meopta and had model numbers with Roman numerals from I to VII. Before making it even a quarter of the way through the article however, I started to get it.
It turns out that my theory of American skepticism of Eastern Bloc cameras was accurate as the Crown Flexaret was an export model variant of the Flexaret IIIa made especially for sale in the United States. The camera was sold through an American importer called American Equipment Co., Inc, based out of Atlanta, GA. Other than the focus scale being changed to feet instead of meters, a revised flash connector, and a leatherette Meopta logo adorned with a crown on the top lid, the cameras were otherwise the same.
Modern’s review of the Crown Flexaret served as sort of an introduction to the Flexaret as a lower cost alternative to more expensive European models. Although it was never mentioned in the article, you know they’re referring to German Rolleicords and -flexes. The Crown Flexaret’s retail price of $99.88 compares to $944 today which isn’t exactly pocket change, but that was still a huge value compared to a Rolleiflex which often sold for more than twice as much.
The article is generally positive about the camera, championing the excellent resolution of the Mirar lens, the convenient “below the lens” focus arm, the lever wind automatic film advance, and the bright viewfinder, but I found it interesting that nowhere in the article is it mentioned where the camera is made. The closest they come is on the second page where the author writes:
Various parts are made in several European countries, from which they are sent to the American Equipment Co. in Georgia where American parts are added and the entire final assembly takes place.
This is intentionally vague, but technically correct as Czechoslovakia was a European country, and the Flexaret did use a German made Prontor shutter. When sent to the US, “American parts” such as the revised focus scale in feet, new flash connector, and the Crown Flexaret logo were added to the top plate. So yeah, the camera was sourced from several (two) European countries (Czechoslovakia and Germany), and American parts (a new scale, flash connector, and a sticker) were added.
We can roll our eyes at the effort the magazine did to conceal the camera’s true identity, but if that’s what it took to get people to consider an unknown camera from an unknown country, I think it was worth it. I’ve never personally handled a Crown Flexaret or the Flexaret IIIa that it was based off, but my Flexaret VIII from 1968 is a wonderful camera and one that I am happy to have in my collection. There is no way to know how many of these Crown Flexarets were sold in the US, but my guess is that the people who bought them were quite pleased with them and the images they made.
You can read the full 7 page article below. As always, click on each image in the gallery and then there is a link to see the full size hi-res scans for easy reading.
All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2018.