Kodak Motormatic 35 auto-advancing camera

Kodak Motormatic 35 front view
Front view of the Kodak Motormatic. To the lower left you can see the large film advance and spring motor winding knob. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Kodak Motormatic 35 is a sturdy and very nerdy vintage 35mm camera with more than one high-end feature. I didn’t know anything about how cool it was when I bought it, though.

Beyond its technological points of interest, it can take a pretty nice picture, too, as I found when I put a test roll through it.

Kodak Motormatic 35 exposure charts
Similar to the Pony II, the Kodak Motormatic 35 features a set of exposure charts that remind the photographer what settings to use for which films, without the flash and with a variety of flash bulbs, to ensure the automatic exposure system is correctly configured. (Daniel J. Schneider)

About the Motormatic

The Motormatic 35 was made only a few short years — from 1960-1962. It appears to have been one of Kodak’s most expensive models during that time, though, with a 1961 purchase price of $109.50 (listed as “less than $110” in this June 1961 ad from Popular Mechanics). That’s around $840 in 2012, adjusted for inflation.

The Motormatic 35 features a 4-element 44mm f/2.8 Ektanar lens that uses a zone focusing system. Like the Pony II, the focus ring is marked in estimated distances, grouped into three zones — Close, Group, and Scene. The selected zone displays in the viewfinder by means of a bright-line display. The display also indicates if the automatic exposure has been overridden and the aperture manually selected.

Above the lens on a metal boss is a scale that shows the selected aperture (red needle) based on the exposure calculated by the internal circuitry based on the built-in selenium light meter. It also indicates (with a green needle) whether the automatic exposure is enabled or if a manual aperture has been selected, and which aperture. The large silver ring around the lens sets the auto exposure mode, and has choices for Daylight or Flash.

Depressing the shutter release slightly activates the light meter and stops down the aperture to the appropriate setting, as well as showing the calculated exposure settings on the scale. ISO and shutter speed are set via the larger dial on the top of the camera body, and the knob next to it is used to rewind the film. The photos are deceptive — it’s not difficult to rewind the film at all because the knob pops up about 1/2″ and it quite easy to turn then. Pulling further opens the camera back and raises the winding fork to release the 35mm film cartridge.

A look through the viewfinder of the Kodak Motormatic 35
A look through the viewfinder of the Kodak Motormatic 35, showing the display of the selected focus zone, Close. [iPhone photo] (Daniel J. Schneider)

All that doesn’t sound so special, I’m sure. So let’s get to the meat:

The big knob on the bottom of the Kodak Motormatic 35 is the film advance. But that’s not all! It also winds up a clockwork spring that automatically advances the frame after each shot. When the advance is fully charged, the winder knob locks in place. Once fully charged, the winder will advance about 10 frames automatically before needing to be recharged. Some reports say 5-7 frames, but I suspect they are based on experience with well-worn Motormatics. The Kodak Motormatic 35 manual says 10 frames, and my experiences mirrored that.

Every time you press the shutter release, after the expected click of the shutter, you hear the BZZ-Z-Z-T! of the power winder advancing the next frame. The frame spacing is excellent, and the advance is fast enough to permit a reported 2 frames-per-second. That’s almost as fast as the MD-12 motor drive on my Nikon FM2, technology that’s almost 20 years newer and powered by 8 AA batteries.

Also of note: The lens uses thorium oxide glass, which is slightly radioactive.

About my example

I found my Kodak Motormatic 35 at a thrift store. It has the original leather case in fantastic shape, and when I found it I had no idea what to make of it. What I saw immediately was that it looked nearly new and was only $4.99. So I didn’t really care how it worked, or even if it worked. I just wanted to add it to the camera wall.

Kodak Motormatic 35 side view
A high-angle side view of the Kodak Motormatic 35. Note the shutter release and light meter/aperture scale above the lens. (Daniel J. Schneider)

After I learned a bit about it and realized just how techno-geeky it was, I couldn’t wait to put in a roll of film and wind this baby up.

What I found was: The camera is in superb condition; everything works exactly as the manual indicates it should, and even the selenium meter still works. As you can see from the Putting a Roll Through shots, the meter works well enough to continue making well-exposed frames, too.

I managed 36 frames and only had to wind the camera four times. I still haven’t figured out estimating distances with Kodak’s zone focus system (see the Pony II photos), but I did improve.

The Motormatic was super fun to carry around, not just because it looks neat and retro, but because every time you make a frame and it whirs and clicks to the next frame, passersby wonder just what kind of camera it is and say things like, “How cool is that?” when you explain.

It’s easily a 9/10 for the nerd factor alone, but the high quality lens and accurate auto exposure certainly don’t hurt. It loses a point for not being a rangefinder and using a zone focus system.

Probably coming up soon: medium format frames from my spring trip to southeastern Utah, and some color 35mm frames from around Denver (outside of Capitol Hill).

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Kodak Motormatic 35 camera
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