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Cord or Flex? Comparing two Rolleis

The Lady and the farmer’s girl

We all know it: You should not compare apples with oranges. Or a Rolleiflex with a Rolleicord, as the Rolleiflex was a glamorous camera princess of her time and the Rolleicord a twin lens Cinderella that lacked a lot of the lustre her more mundane sister was so famous for.  The „Cord“ was always the Rollei for the guy who couldn’t afford a „Flex“. So far so good. But what should a dyed-in-the-wool Rolleiflex-fan like me do when he gets a broken Rolleicord for little money and manages to make her run again by cleaning its sluggish shutter? Well, he gets curious and does the forbidden comparison, with an apple in one hand and an orange in the other. 

Which Flex should i take?

There is a fundamental question, though, you have to answer before you embark on such a quest: Which Rolleiflex should you take to compare with a self-repaired Rolleicord IIe from the year 1950?  It would be really unfair to let her run up to my Rolleiflex 3.5F, ten years younger and one of my all-time camera favorites.  Ten years more development and refinement are too much of a head start, even when dealing with timeless cameras from the stable of Franke and Heidecke that kept fathful to their basic construction for many decades. But luckily i own a second Rolleiflex, an Automat Model K4A from 1951 which timewise is much closer to the Rolleicord and has neither exposure meter nor a fresnel lens under the ground glass like the fancy 3.5F.

Okay, so may the contest begin between two Rollei-Sisters from the early fifties, the time of petticoats, rock ’n‘ roll and twin-lens reflex cameras. Between two birds of a feather that have a lot in common and are two very different beasts nevertheless.

Birds of a feather

Let’s start with the similarities. You see them at the first glance: Both Rolleis are twin lens reflex cameras with a waist level finder, a leaf shutter and a nice bajonett surrounding both their lenses that can take accessories like filters, sunshades and other stuff. While my 3.5F sports the bigger Bajonett II, the Automat and the Rolleicord IIe share Bajonett I with its smaller diameter, so i can use my Rolleinar closeup-lenses i have bought over the years for my Automat also on the Rolleicord. Nice. Other similarities between the two cameras are the port for a flash cable, a 1/4 inch tripod socket and a table on the back of the cameras on which you can see how to set your exposure according to weather conditions, lighting situations and film speed. Not a bad thing to have on a camera without an exposure meter.

Two different sports finders

Evaluating the finders of both cameras at first glance showxs the same results: Compared with the exceptionally bright ground glass of my 3.5F both cameras show a rather dim picture in their waist level finders. But that is about the only similarity between the two.

Bei der Helligkeit der Mattscheiben sind die Unterschiede zwischen Rolleiflex (links) und Rolleicord (rechts) gering

The picture on the ground glass of the Rolleiflex (left) and the Rolleicord is not too bright.

The waist level finder of the Rolleiflex has a dual functionality. By folding in the middle of the front part towards the ground glass it leaves an open frame you can look through at eye level when peering through a smaller rectangular cutout in the back part of the waist level finder. This solution for taking pictures of fast moving subjects you find on a lot of twin lens reflex cameras of the era, but with most of these Rolleiflex-copies you loose the ability to focus your picture because the  ground glass is covered with the front wallr of the finder. Not so with the original Rolleiflex. Here you look into the round window under the rectangular opening that enables you to see a part of the not totally covered ground glass via an auxiliary mirror that lets you adjust focus while you hold the camera at eye level.

The Rolleicord at first glance seems to lack this simple, yet effective solution as the front of its finder consists of one rigid piece. But even with the Cord you do not have to refrain from an eye level finder. By moving a lever on the right side of the finder you bring up an auxiliary mirror  that lets you view the entire ground glass. The picture you get is not even horizontally mirrored like the one viewed directly on the ground glass at waist level, but it still has a serious flaw: You have to view it upside down.

Die Sportsucher bei Rolleiflex (links) und Rolleicord (rechts)

Two sports finders: Rolleiflex (left) und Rolleicord (right). Note the missing front of the finder on the flex and the moved up auxiliary mirror on the Cord. The lever to move the mirror is operated with the little knurled knob on the right side of the finder.

Sisters? Yes. Identical twins? No way!

I think it is quite obvious by now: The Rollei sisters are no identical twins but differ in a number of ways. And you can feel it when you lay your hands on them. While the Flex gives you the feeling of weight, exceptional build quality and value, the Cord seems more flimsily built, lighter and cheaper – which she actually was. The cord is lacking a lot of the chrome plating of its more expensive sister and displays black enamel instead, and many details  are constructed far more simple. Take the like the mechanism that locks the hinged back of the camera for example. The Flex sports a sophisticated design of an aluminium lever that is double secured by a turning mechanism while the cord has to get by with a simple buckle of spring steel. Another detail that shows the differences in build quality is the tripod socket – a polished aluminium disk with the Flex, a black enameled piece of pressed steel with the Cord.

Rolleiflex (links) und Rolleicord (rechts) von unten.

The bottoms of the Rolleiflex (left) und Rolleicord (right). Note the little window (now covered with a metal slider) to look at the numbers on the film’s protective paper.

Another cost-cutting measure applied at the Rolleicord is the way you load a rollfilm into the camera. The Rolleiflex uses a system called automatic film detection (hence the model name „Automatik“) which can fool even experienced TLR owners when they load a Rolleiflex the first time. Almost every TLR camera has a steel roller on every side of the film window and over these rollers you lay the protection paper of the film before threading its end into the take-up spool. The Rolleiflex Automat sports a third steel roller close to the first. Not knowing the principle of automatic film detection you tend to guide the paper over both these rollers while actually you have to thread it in between the two. The reason for this is that the second roller acts like a feeler that distinguishes between the thickness of the paper without the film versus the paper and the film together. That is the way the Rolleiflex recognizes when it has to stop its transport mechanism because the first picture is ready to be exposed.

A matter of transportation

The Rolleicord on the other hand relies on the old principle of watching the numbers printed on the back of the protective paper through a little red window situated at the bottom of the camera.  Once you loaded  a film into the camera, you turn the transport knob until you see the number „1“ in the red window. Once that is achieved you can close the window with a steel slider. After that you have to adjust the frame counter of the Rolleicord below the transport knob to the number one as well by pushing the button in the knob while you move a little metal lever. After that transporting the film with the Rolleicord is a piece of cake: After taking a picture you press the button in the transport knob and turn it until it stops and the frame counter moves to the next number. Unlike other cameras of it’s time the Rolleicord needs the red window only once to deterime the first frame of the film. Later Rolleicords got rid of the red window altogether. With those you wind the film until two arrows on the protecting paper match two marks in the camera, close the back and turn the transport knob to the first frame.

If cameras could roll their eyes the Rolleiflex would do that now at the archaic film loading procedure of it’s less well-off sister. With her, Franke and Heideckes first lady of it’s time things take place in a much more modern and elegant fashion. Red windows and numbers on the protective paper of a roll film are far beneath it’s dignity. It’s automatic first frame detection is a paradigm of german engineering at it’s very best. But on the other hand it needs more mechanical parts and more mechanical parts mean more things that can break an have to be replaced with a costly repair. And that is the reason why i am inclined to grant the Rolleicord a slight advance in regard of loading and transporting the film.

Taking lenses

Let’s take a look at the lenses of the cameras. First the taking lens, the more important of the two optical eyes of any TLR. Both, the Cord and the Flex, resort to Tessar-type four element lenses that are counted among the sharpest primes of their time. Both have a focal length of 75mm and a maximum aperture of 1:3.5 from two of the most prestigious german lens manufacturers: The Flex sports a classic Carl Zeiss Tessar that had to be called Opton-Tessar at the time because of a legal skirmish of the West German Carl Zeiss in Oberkochem with it’s East German namesake in Jena.

The Rolleicord scores with the optically equal Xenar, made by Schneider in Kreuznach which i know and love on other cameras like my Kodak Retinas. Both lenses are single-coated and offer a similar image quality, so none of the sisters shows an advantage over the other in this regard.  With the taking lenses the situation is about the same. The one on the Rolleiflex is a 1:2.8 Heidosmat while the Cord’s specimen lacks any engraving but seems to be a 1:3.5 judging from the lesser diameter of it’s front lens. As i mentioned before, this has no effect on the brightness of the ground glass, so i would call it a draw in this respect as well.

Two taking lenses on the same optical level: The Zeiss-Opton Tessar of the Rolleiflex (left) und the  Xenar of the Rolleicord, made by Schneider-Kreuznach  (right). Note the two dials for adjusting shutter speed and aperture on the Rolleiflex both sides of the words „Synchro-Compur“.

Our next stop are the shutters. The Rolleicord has got a Compur-Rapid and the Rolleiflex a Synchro-Compur, both with shutter speeds in the old sequence of 1/2/5/25/50/100/250. The Rolleiflex can boast of a self-timer the Rolleicord lacks. The biggest difference between both shutters though is the way they are operated. With the Rolleiflex you adjust the shutter speeds with one of two identical wheels situated between the two lenses (the other is for closing and opening the aperture. Both values, shutter speed and aperture, can conveniently be seen in a window just above the taking lens.

A tale of two shutters

With the Rolleicord you have to refrain from such amenities. Both shutter speed and aperture are adjusted via two little levers without click stops on both sides of the shutter and are displayed in two tiny windows cut into the sheet metal housing of the shutter where you have to take a good look in order to see them.  The oscar for ergonomy goes in this case without any doubt to the Rolleiflex.

But stop! Ergonomy is not only  figures in windows, ergonomy is the whole concept after which a camera functions and in this respect the ugly little Rolleicord has to show a lot in her favour too. Even if the Rollei sisters show some similarities, the act of taking pictures with each of them is an entirely different experience. It starts with the way both cameras are focussed. Although this is done with an almost identical round knob that is by the way much smaller than that on later Rolleiflexes, the Rolleiflex’s knob is situated on the left side of the camera while on the Rolleicord it resides on the right a little way below and forward of a similar knob for transporting the film. This difference results in a completely distinct way both cameras are operated. I must say that after years of owning a Rolleiflex the operation of the Rolleicord was a strange experience for me at first, but after a couple of films with it i started to appreciate it a lot. As focussing and transporting the film (two acts that are never done simultaneously) are accomplished with the right hand, the index finger of the left hand  never has to leave the little lever with which the shutter is fired. And that simple, inexpensive lever in my opinion is one of the most ingenious features of the Rolleicord.

Double exposures made easy

The trick is that this lever is not only used for firing the shutter by moving it it the to the left side, it also tensions the shutter again by a slightly longer move in the opposite direction. Once that is accomplished you only have to swivel the lever back in an organic move and it reaches a point of resistance which, once overcome, fires the shutter for another picture. Of course you have to transport the film to the next picture in between the two actions. But in case you want to take a double or multiple exposure there is no camera you can do that more easily with than a Rolleicord. My Rolleiflex Automat, on the other hand, has no  way at all to do that, if i am after double exposures i have to resort to my 3.5F which has a switch to override the built-in double exposure prevention of the Flex’s transport crank.

Auslöser bei der Rolleicord: Der mit einem Rändelknopf versehene Hebel unterhalb des "H" von Franke @ Heidecke

A dual purpose lever: To fire the shutter of a Rolleicord you have to push the little lever below towards the word „Heidecke“. If you want to cock it again, you move the same lever towards the word „Franke“.


Auslöser bei der Rolleiflex: Der Stift zum Hineindrücken unterhalb des "F" von Franke und Heidecke

The trigger of the Rolleiflex is more conventional (although endowed with an epressive latch that prevents it from being pressed accidentally.

This principle, once it is embedded in your muscular memory, works in my opinion more convincingly than the Rolleiflex’s concept of a focussing knob on the right and a transportation crank on the left side. That is because the same hand is responsible for transporting the film and firing the shutter as with the Rolleicord the left hand can stay on the one lever for releasing and cocking the shutter all the time. That said, the crank of the Rolleiflex of course is – together with the two lenses – the most distinctive mark of this kind of camera. The elegant way it is operated (half a turn forward for transporting the film, a quarter turn backwards for cocking the shutter) could be seen in Hollywood movies and was at its time the typical movement of a professional photographer.

The final verdict

So my verdict after extensive tests with the two close related and still so different sisters is a mixed one. In a good number of crucial features like the viewfinder and the quality of the taking lens, features that decide the quality of the final picture more than anything else, they are absolutely on the same level. Regarding build quality, haptic worthyness and mechanical splendour the Flex wins hands down while in the not so unimportant fields of picture taking handling, robustness and simplicity the laurels go – quite surprisingly – to her poor little sister, the often highly underestimated Rolleicord.

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