Sears Tower 55A: It is very small

Sears Tower 55A front
The Sears Tower 55A. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Sears Tower 55A is a very, very small 35mm viewfinder camera with a few manual controls and little else.

It came to me from Jef Price along with the Lomochrome Purple as part of the first Half-Baked Half Frame Tour, which I also discussed in my post about the Olympus Pen.

It’s an exceedingly simple little camera, and sadly this particular one is not in great shape, so this is a short review.

Sears Tower 55A top
The top cover of the Sears Tower 55A. (Daniel J. Schneider)


There is very little information to go on about this camera, but it appears to be a Yamato Kōki Kōgyō model, either the Atlas 35 or Rippa, rebadged by Sears under their Tower label for the American market.

Relatively little is known about this particular Yamato company, as the name was used by many camera makers in the mid-20th century. This manufacturer reportedly disappeared not long after these were made.

Appearing from 1959 to 1961, the Tower 55 was available in two variants, possibly concurrently: the 55A and the 55B. Mine is, I believe, a 55A. Apparently, the 55B was marked on the top cover, while mine has no such markings. Its only text markings are the word “Tower” on the top cover, and, on the bottom, a stylized “Y” over the word “Japan.”

It’s a basic viewfinder camera with a “Color Luna” lens at 45mm and with a maximum aperture of f/3.5. The shutter has four speeds: 1/300, 1/100, 1/50, and 1/25, as well as Bulb mode.

Shutter speed and aperture are selected with rings on the lens barrel, and the front of the lens assembly rotates for scale focusing from just under 3 feet to infinity.

Baker home
A blurred Baker neighborhood home from a neighboring parking lot. Motion blur is all-too-common with this poor Tower. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Also on the lens barrel is a PC socket for attaching a flash, and similar models claim to sync at any speed, which is often the case with any leaf shutter such as this. There is a red dot between f/8 and f/11 on the aperture ring which I suspect may be related to the use of flash, but I can find nothing to confirm or deny that.

The top cover contains the film advance lever, shutter release button (threaded for a standard release cable), frame counter and its adjuster knob, take-up spool release button, a cold accessory shoe, and the rewind knob with a simple film reminder on top.

While the frame counter counts up automatically when the advance lever is operated, it does not reset to zero automatically when you change film. The adjuster turns the frame counter only one direction, counting up to 35 and then back to start (“S”). The take-up spool release button is in the center of the frame counter adjust knob.

The rewind knob pulls up about 3/16-inch to make rewinding a little easier. The film reminder dial on top of the rewind know is a simple disc printed with red speeds (ASA 10, 32 and 100, for color film), black speeds (ASA 25 through 1000, for black-and-white film), and an “Empty” space. It can be rotated with a fingernail to align with an index mark on the edge.

To load and unload the camera, a knob in the center of the bottom cover rotates to unlock, and the entire back-and-bottom assembly pulls off. The film leader slides under a steel spring clip, similar to loading a Barnack Leica, and is actually rather difficult to get right. Also on the bottom cover is a standard 1/4×20 threaded tripod socket.

Baker alley
Another victim of the inconsistent shutter, this view of a rain-soaked alleyway in Baker wound up being something like a half-second exposure. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Trying it out

I was eager to try out the Tower 55A, but found the shutter inconsistent. At first I thought it was just sticky lubrication from age, and I exercised it extensively in the hope that it would get with the program. It started off extremely slow at any speed, and when it seemed to be much more accurate I finally put film in the camera.

The focus ring was also stuck when I got it, but a little lighter fluid and determination got it moving smoothly, if a little stiffly, again.

Sadly, I think there is more wrong with the shutter; probably something mechanical. The camera does have several dents in the top cover that indicate some rough handling — probably on its journey to me through the mail, which was a long one involving being lost and returned more than once, I think. As soon as it had film in it, it began to misbehave.

What I discovered during the roll, and confirmed afterwards, is that the shutter doesn’t actually have any speed selections except instant and bulb. I’m sure it’s meant to operate at the marked speeds, but functionally they are all the same now. All equally inaccurate. At any speed setting, it might operate at 1/300, or 1/4 second. It often takes its sweet time closing. And other times it’s so fast its opening can barely be detected, in spite of being set to 1/25 second.

16th Street Mall
Planters and a man playing piano on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Well, whatever. That’s not the point of these reviews.

As usual, I found scale focusing an annoyance. The aperture and shutter speed rings operate easily, though, and the shutter release button offers enough tension to avoid accidental exposures without being difficult to operate. The advance lever and rewind knob both move fluidly and with relative ease. The advance snaps back with a speedy and satisfying snap.

The size is excellent. It’s very, very small. Really, exceptionally small, even among small cameras. What’s more, its cousins and competitors represent a whole class of cameras this diminutive, including a number from Halina and Kalimar.

16th Street Mall piano
Another fairly sharp view of the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The lens does protrude quite a ways from the front, however, and I found that it makes the camera rather poorly balanced. It stands on the feet on the bottom cover, but only just. Even on a solid, level surface, the vibrations of the earth seem to cause it to mysteriously wobble. It’s almost spooky.

Due to the shutter issues described above, you can see a lot of motion blur in my test photos. A couple worked out pretty well, and in them you can see the lens is really not half bad, with just a little loss of sharpness and minor chromatic aberration at the corners.

It could be a fun little camera if someone wanted to fix the shutter. If that’s you, let me know — I’m happy to pay this one forward for the cost of shipping now that I’ve tried it out.

Baker Volvo
A vintage Volvo parked in front of a historic home in Denver’s Baker neighborhood after a brief rain. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Red Rocks
Denver’s Red Rocks Park, looking down across the upper parking lot toward Creation Rock. The amphitheater is on the other side of Creation Rock, nestled between it and Ship Rock farther to the south. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
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Sears Tower Model 55A camera
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