I found this Argus C3 at a local thrift store for $10. It’s one of the cleanest thrift store finds I’ve purchased. The camera and case were in excellent condition. Someone really cared for this camera. And I was surprised to find one because I had only ever seen one once before, the previous day. A friend showed me his father’s Argus C3 that he used in the Philippines during World War II. The leather case was heavily worn and one of the three aperture leafs was missing. Not a functional camera, but a sentimental item; a wonderful reminder of his dad and his service in the military.
Part of the enjoyment from collecting and using vintage cameras is learning about the people and companies that made them. The history of Argus takes place during the Great Depression in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. In 1929, local inventor Charles A. Verschoor and the Mayor of Ann Arbor, William E. Brown Jr., created a radio manufacturing business that was funded by local bankers. The company was named the International Radio Company and produced the Kadette, the first radio that used a series of tubes instead of a large transformer. The name of the company was changed in 1935 to the International Research Corporation. In 1936, Verschoor traveled to Europe and returned with an idea of producing a rangefinder camera, like the Leica. In 1940 the company released its first camera and renamed itself International Industries. By 1941 the company concentrated on cameras and was renamed Argus Cameras Inc. The name Argus comes from the mythical Greek god of 1,000 eyes. During the 1940’s, Argus expanded its products from cameras to other optical equipment and held several contracts with the U.S. Government during World War II and the Korean War. Argus was responsible for a prosperous community in Ann Arbor, employing 1,300 people and occupying 2 city blocks during the peak of operation. In 1959, Argus was acquired by Sylvania, an American tube and semiconductor manufacturer. Argus was sold again by 1969 and the name was used throughout the 1970’s on camera products that were re-badged. Today the original Argus manufacturing facility and offices are used for various departments by the University of Michigan.
The Argus C3 is a 35mm rangefinder camera that was mass-produced from 1939 to 1966. It earned a nickname as “The Brick” because of its shape and size. The C3 has a reputation for being a rugged camera. There’s even a US Army Service Manual that details how to field strip and repair an Argus. More than 2 million C3 cameras were sold during its 27-year production. The body is made from Bakelite, features a 50mm f/3.5 – 16 Cintar anastigmatic triplet lens, and has a rangefinder focus. The C3 out-sold most American competitors, including Kodak’s 35 Rangefinder, and several inexpensive Japanese SLR’s in the 1960’s. The C3 is also known as “The Harry Potter Camera.” In the movie series based on J.K. Rowling’s books, the character Colin Creevey is a muggle-born wizard that uses an Argus C3 Matchmatic at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.
During manufacturing, Argus gave each camera a serial number. After doing some research online, I found that the serial number on mine indicates it was made in 1956. That makes my camera 59 years old! The C3 has a cold shoe, but has a two-pin connector on the side for a dedicated flash unit. I believe the cameras were originally sold with a flash gun. The flash took C-batteries and used common 25b flash bulbs. The shutter speed is controlled by rotating the dial on the front right-hand side of the camera. Rotating the dial counter-clockwise allows shutter speeds of 1/10th to 1/300th of a second. Bulb mode can be enable for long exposures by twisting the dial that surrounds the shutter release to ‘B’.
I didn’t find the rangefinder focus on the Argus C3 any more or less difficult to use than any other rangefinder camera. Since buying my C3, I’ve see others in thrift and antique stores. A common issue I find is a cloudy rangefinder window and a stiff focus wheel. If the camera has mold or other issues within the focus window, I’m not sure how easily that would be to repair. That’s not something unique to this camera, but all vintage cameras. The focus on the C3 is geared between the focus wheel and the lens. When the focus wheel is stiff, it can literally peel the skin off your fingers while trying to focus. I found that applying a few small drops of WD40 really helped. I emailed Mark Dalzell from the Film Photography Project who gave me this advice on cleaning an Argus C3:
Hi Shaun – to clean out the old C3, you’ll need to take the lens off. Not a big deal – they made multiple lenses and it was designed to swap them out. Set the camera to infinity and unscrew the dome-headed screw on the gear between the lens and focus gear. Then lift out the gear and you should be able to unscrew the lens from the body. You can now scrub any moving parts with naphtha (you can buy it at any good hardware store or as Zippo-style lighter fluid). It won’t hurt anything in a C3 so you can use a good amount. After that you can flush it all out with 99% alcohol (available at pharmacies or for a lifetime supply in gallon jugs at nail salon supply stores). The alcohol will flush out any naphtha residue and won’t leave a trace. The camera should work fine after this but you can rub a tiny amount of machine oil on the threads to loosen them up even more.
Because my C3 is in such good condition and the back of the camera seals very tight, I decided to bypass a cheap test roll of 35mm film. My first roll through the C3 was some Kodak Tri-X 400. On the top of the C3 is a manual frame counter. To advance the film, the film catch switch is clicked to the left and the winding knob is turned clockwise. This turns the frame counter one complete rotation as the gear block assembly moves the film from the canister to the take-up spool inside the camera body. At some point during my initial test, I forgot to advance the film. What resulted was a triple exposure of an old truck, the ceiling of my local Apple store, and an iBooks display from the same store. Using the cocking lever on the front of the camera was another failure on my part. No less than a dozen times did I hold the camera up, frame my shot, focus, and then press down on the shutter release only to find that I hadn’t cocked the camera. Based on my last two examples, I’m telling myself again how digital photography has really spoiled us.
The Argus C3 has quickly become one of my favorite cameras. I’ve kept it in my backpack every day since I purchased it last July. When I sent off that first roll of film to the lab, I didn’t know what to expect. I admit that I was surprised by the results. I guess I was expecting less than average images from an old mechanical camera. I’ve read other reviews online about the C3 and compared notes. There are many who prefer other rangefinder cameras for various reasons, but you can’t argue with 2 million C3’s sold over a 27-years. This was the camera of choice for many Americans into the 1960’s. I think there’s a certain pride that Argus collectors have and it goes beyond the ability to create a good photo. The company was formed in one of the worst economic times in American history. Then went on to employee 1,300 people and sustain an entire community. And like many private companies, helped the United States in a time of war. Argus created something that made people proud to be American.
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