The Enduring Beauty of Things Made to Last

Above is one of the first SLR cameras I owned as a kid, A Mamiya/Sekor 528TL. I was 12. It was an amateur’s camera, a fixed lens SLR with telephoto and wide angle attachments. I didn’t keep it long. What I wanted was a Nikon F. You could change lenses on the Nikon F. To a 12 year old, that seemed incredibly cool, the ability to change lenses. The Mamiya was decidedly not cool, so I convinced my parents that I needed a better camera and the Mamiya went wherever unused cameras went back in 1970.

A few years ago I ran across one on Ebay and bought it on a whim – it was $10. I figured, why not, I’d put it up on the shelf as a piece of nostalgia, maybe even use it occasionally when feeling in a retro mood. Once I got it in the mail I realized my initial 12 y/o’s assessment of the camera had been pretty much correct. It was a piece of junk, made in Korea, obviously thrown together without much thought to precision or longevity, a 1970’s era throw-away.

Which is unusual. Film cameras back in the day were typically built robustly, made to last, not in thrall to a consumerist ethic that required replacement with “better” technology every 18 months or so. Not that manufacturers wouldn’t have liked us to be buying a new camera every 18 months; it was just that the mechanical technology was static in a way that didn’t lend itself to constant upgrading, so cameras were typically built solidly, with longevity and robustness as a selling point. You’d buy a camera – a Nikon F or a Leica M – with the understanding that you’d keep it for a lifetime. There might be newer models to come along, something a little sexier, but basically the same technology presented in a new package.

Where it all began to change was with the introduction of electronics in cameras – meters, and then auto exposure and auto focus – and the pace of technology dictated that cameras became consumer goods, something with a limited technological shelf life that required upgrading at fixed intervals. As such, the notion of robustness, building something with longevity in mind, became an anachronism. Of course there were exceptions – the M5 and M6 come to mind, as does the Nikon F2 and Canon F1.

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This all came back to me the other day as I was out riding my new (to me) Schwinn Paramount road bike. Growing up, I admired fine road racing bikes the way I admired fine cameras. And back in 1970, at least here in the States, there was nothing more desirable and exclusive than a Paramount. I remember seeing one hanging in the window of the bike shop, a beautiful jewel of a bike, ridiculously expensive and out of reach for most people, certainly for a kid like me. One day, I told myself, I’d have a Schwinn Paramount.

The Paramount has an interesting history. It was first produced by Schwinn, a large American bicycle maker, in 1938, and remained essentially the same bike up through the mid-80’s, when bike technology started a progressive trajectory much like cameras. Schwinn hired an old world master frame maker –  Emil Wastyn – to build frames for Schwinn’s professional six-day racing team. Emil ran a bicycle frame shop not far from the Chicago Schwinn factory. Soon, a select number of Paramount-labeled bikes began to appear for sale to the general public.

During the next twenty years, Wastyn hand-built all Schwinn’s Paramounts at his shop. The earliest Paramounts followed his signature styling (balled-end seat stays, for example) and keyhole-styled lugs. Over the years, Paramounts gradually evolved their own specific style – particularly the famous slant trimmed seat stays which remained in effect for 50 years. Schwinn also produced a variety of machined components to complement the frame – beautifully crafted wide-flange hubs, stems, handlebars and even pedals, each marked with the Schwinn name in script. By the 60’s, Schwinn had brought hand-built production in shop and offered Paramounts with top of the line Italian Campagnolo components, with corresponding prices to match.

Think of the Schwinn Paramount as the Leica of American made racing bikes, the best, most refined version of a steel framed road racing cycle, a no-expense spared hand built machine with functionality as its premier design feature, nothing extraneous or thrown in for fashion. Like Leicas, they’ve become collectors items for guys my age, nostalgic for the things they wanted but couldn’t afford in their youth. Technologically, they’re simple, 22 lb fully mechanical lugged steel framed and shiny chromed artworks. Most collectors hang them on the wall and never ride them, which is a shame, because, as I’ve discovered, they’re still sublime to ride even 50 years old.

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My 1969 Schwinn Paramount P-13

Above is my Paramount, which I’ve owned for all of two weeks. I found it on a whim on Craigslist in Richmond, VA, a 200 mile ride from my home in North Carolina. It was being sold by the original owner, and he had receipts back to his purchase of the bike in 1969. It wasn’t period correct in that he had upgraded the drive train to a 90’s era Campagnolo 8 speed with modern style shifters, but it still had the same beautiful box section wheels with high-flange Campy hubs, and the drive train upgrades were top of the line Campagnolo circa 1992. And it looked in good condition from the pics he posted. And it was cheap. I called him, paypalled him the asking price sight unseen, then rode to Richmond to pick it up. The bike was pristine, obviously cared for, almost new, and mechanically, everything worked perfectly. I drove home marveling at my good fortune.

My intent had been to strip the frame, sell the vintage Campy components and replace them with a modern groupset with modern wheels. As such, I’d have the best of both worlds – a beautiful hand built steel lugged frame mated to modern lightweight components. One ride on the bike changed my mind forever. Its 10 mile shakedown ride turned into a 6 hour, 100 mile ride – without the usual earbuds and ZZ Top blasting away over the creaking of the carbon fiber frame – cruising eastern North Carolina farm roads. Used to riding 17 lb carbon fiber bikes, I assumed my Paramount ride would feel heavy and slow and harsh, probably accompanied by the metallic twang of misaligned gears and loose nuts and bolts. Instead, the Paramount rode perfectly quiet, the 50 year old hubs rolling along with a smooth effortlessness I’d never experienced before, not a rattle anywhere on the bike, everything solid and purposeful. And it felt light. Sprinting out of the saddle or climbing hills was a revelation of what a bike should feel like. In short, the Paramount offered something close to perfection, a sublime experience of a machine perfectly matched to its function.

It made me think of my Leica M4, produced during the same year as my Paramount. From a technical perspective, hopelessly outdated, laughable almost when compared to the M10 or the D800, good only for nostalgia. In reality though, it’s just the opposite, the Paramount and the M4 two examples of machines of profound elegance, perfectly made for their intended purpose, made with an artisanal pride and built to last seemingly forever, unlike today’s “imaging devices” and 15 lb carbon fiber bikes.

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Just Shoot Me If I Ever Become This Guy

I hate nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes, old stuff is just shitty old stuff, as my Mamiya 528TL proves. I don’t ever want to become that guy with the M4 and the beret who fancies himself Josef Koudelka with all the period correct lenses etc, or the old guy with the 60’s era wool jersey and the leather helmet out for his Sunday “L’Eroica” retro ride. That attitude doesn’t befit the inherent worth of the M4 or the Paramount, two beautiful hand crafted machines that work perfectly for their intended use, and as such, are not “vintage” and will never be obsolete.

I’ve been riding the hell out of the Paramount since I’ve gotten it. It’s shined up perfectly, cleaned top to bottom, not a scratch on it, but I’m intent on riding it hard, using it for its intended purpose, much like I still use my Leica film cameras. They weren’t made to put on a shelf or hang on a wall. They were made to be used, and the pleasure of their use will prevent them from ever becoming obsolete, which is not something you can say for a camera or a bicycle you can buy new today.

13 thoughts on “The Enduring Beauty of Things Made to Last

  1. Rob Campbell

    I thought you must be busy doing something crazy! We missed you.

    The bike reminds me of my ’53 Raleigh Lenton, which I think cost £15 or thereabouts in that year. It served me very well for many years, and I have to say that I was a lot more fit when I rode it than when I abandoned it to the garage to gather dust. I eventually handed it to my daughter’s boyfriend/husband-to-be. God alone knows where it ended up after that; we never speak about it. I would love to have it around today… I could probably still do a few miles, now and then.

    Given the recent madness about the Nikon mirrorless, I couldn’t help feeling that they might have had more sense making a digital S3, and gone face-to-face with Leica’s M-style cameras and taken the luxury battle to them, a battle that I think makes financial sense, even if a battle outwith the financial space (or even interest) of many of us.

    I think the dslr systems have a lot more mileage left them.

    If you want to experience third-world build quality at higher cost, then buy yourself a Mamiya TLR: I had one with the 180mm to complement my Rollei TLR with the Tessar 75mm. The 180mm was a good optic, but the camera and the crude system for parallax correction was a nightmare. Life felt so good when I could make the move to Hassy 500!

    With that camera, the 500C, it really was a case of RTFM. You could paralyse it if you didn’t follow procedure!

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  2. Michael J. Ricciuti

    That is one beautiful bike. Carbon fiber is light and all that. But I still prefer the feel of a steel frame, especially on the uneven pavement around me. And I also prefer the feel of my M2 to that of my M6. A great, thought-provoking post. thanks

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  3. Shooter

    Like you I was gifted a Mamiya slr as my first real camera although mine was a little better in quality being the msx500 as I recall. I too hankered after what I’d seen in shop windows the Nikon F2 as well as the canon, Pentax offerings all of which just seemed so much more desirable.

    I eventually made the move dropping into the Minolta camp on route. And I’d agree wholeheartedly with your summation these creations should never be left to gather dust on a shelf they should be used as intended.

    The bike looks stunning I ride a lot but mine are modern variants although one is titanium and the other is steel both entirely different beasts and each suited to the terrain I ride. I do have an itch to acquire an old Dawes racer / tourer but I’m always mindful of buying and not using so it remains a passing thought for now.

    As always a lovely post which always hits the spot.

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  4. Dogman

    My first “real” camera was also a Mamiya/Sekor SLR–a 500 DTL with 50mm f/2 lens. It was a present to myself for Christmas 1972 (if I remember correctly). The camera was okay but the lens was pretty awful. Within a few months, I sold the Mamiya and bought a used Nikon FTn from a friend. It came with the 50mm 1.4 Nikkor lens, my first good lens (although the barrel distortion was pretty bad). This set me on a course that I’m still navigating today.

    Never even learned to ride a bicycle until I was in my 30’s. Growing up, we were poor country folks and a bicycle was an extravagance. Many things considered extravagance back then are now considered part of a daily routine.

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  5. Stephen Hoffman

    I was blessed with a dad in the camera business and was born into a home with a Rolleiflex 3.5E and a Retina Reflex S already waiting for me. As my interest in taking pictures grew, I took these cameras as my own. The Rollei was stolen from me, but I still have the Retina, and I put a roll through it occasionally, along with its cousin, a IIIc, which I bought because I can’t resist buying these wonderful cameras which few people seem to want.

    Now I have all the cameras I lusted after in my youth ( with a few exceptions) –including a replacement for the E and a pristine 3.5F without a meter, (which I think is kind of rare). I have the requisite M3, a IIIf, a number of Nikon F’s (which were no doubt owned by doctors or lawyers as they don’t appear to have been used), F2’s, an F3, an F4 and, because I couldn’t help myself, an F5 practically new in the box. NIkon rangefinders including an SP and a pair of S2’s, sill great and practical cameras to shoot. Canons, Pentax’s, Topcons, Mamiya’s, Contax’s (ancient and modern versions), and Mirandas, partly because my dad worked for a time for the company that imported them and partly because they are significant in the their own right, especially the little DR. I even succumbed to one of those modern Voightlanders with the M mount, delicate as they are ( the Cosina lenses are very good, I think).

    As you imply about traditional cameras in your post, most are made to last and a pleasure to use because of it.

    In my opinion, informed only by my owning and using all these fine cameras, the Retina gets my vote for being the most precisely crafted. Perhaps I just can’t get over the stainless steel sprockets.

    As far as the the objective criteria of pure sharpness, the Zeiss lenses on the pre-war, post-war and Yashica/Kyocera Era Contax’s, are clearly the best.

    Take it for what its worth.

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  6. Rob Campbell

    Whilst I can understand the pleasure in using some of the cameras on your list, I’m at an utter loss to understand the pleasure in collecting, especially more than one of each sample.

    If determined to collect, you should venture into the magical – if smaller (in numbers) – world of the 6×6 slr babies: Bronicas that bounce off tables on firing, all manner of tricks and amusement is to be had in the format; even the Soviet Union played! What’s not to like?

    😉

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  7. Stephen Hoffman

    Yes, I have 2 Bronica’s, an S2a with more chrome than a ’59 Cadillac and an ETRS with an extremely sharp wide angle–and it doesn’t bounce off the table.

    The only one which might, if I let it, would be my Mamiya RZ67. Unfortunately, my old enlarger can only handle 6 by 6 negatives, so I am limited to scanning the results from it along with my Pentax 67.

    As far collecting, you either get it or you don’t.

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  8. Rob Campbell

    If I had the ability to collect, that ’59 Coupe de Ville would be the first trophy.

    I had a Bronica 6×7 for a while; I didn’t find it very good, but I did get some good shots from the 250mm that I had (at least, I think it was 250mm but it was a long time ago). I bought a Pentax 67 ll and nothing was ever wonderful because of the bouncing shutter. I should have never bought it because I already saw shake in shots by Sante d’Orazio of Helena Christensen, but I cut him the slack of just being excited. He wasn’t, but the camera must have been.

    I ended up back with Nikon.

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  9. Lee Rust

    The beauty of things made to last..

    I too lusted after a Mamiya-Sekor SLR during my high school years, but then my dad gifted me his Contax IIIA and I was a rangefinder guy evermore.

    Every mechanical device that’s powered or operated by hand, foot, eye or ear eventually attains a highly-evolved integration of form and function. Since human characteristics remain constant over time, this balanced point of natural design sufficiency is very stable.

    It’s the beauty of that natural balance that attracts so many of us to traditional things like hand tools, mechanical watches and cameras, bicycles, canoes, books, musical or writing instruments and the like. These can be made to last because there is no built-in imperative to regularly replace them.

    We tend to keep such human-centric devices for a long time and naturally handle them quite a bit, so we often develop a tactile and emotional bond with them… almost a kind of love. This attachment and attraction can extend to more complex mechanical systems like automobiles or airplanes, as long as they are an assembly of simple devices. We can appreciate how the big machine works because we can comprehend how all the small parts work.

    However, when electronics start to intrude on the intuitive physical relationship between human and machine, the emotional bond weakens. Most of us never really get a feel for how digital logic circuits function because they are invisibly small and unimaginably complex. They’re almost impossible to love. so we just use them and take advantage of their abilities until something better comes along. Just like a bad human relationship. Sad.

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    1. Rob Campbell

      That’s a convincing post well written; to an extent, the same failure of love crosses over into digital printing – for me – even if it does allow more local control, but the essentially visceral, touchy- feely part of the process is lost. Puts me in mind of large, inflatable dolls, not that I have any personal experience of them.

      Rob

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  10. insolublepancake

    Very nice Tim. And I am impressed by your cycling, it must be nice to have so much countryside nearby. Such things would only invite certain death on the peripherique … I can only mention Dave Eggers’ excellent “A hologram for the King”: the central character is an ex- Schwinn salesman who finds himself in the middle east trying to sell videoconferencing software to arabs….

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  11. Louis A. Sousa

    I still have the Schwinn Super Sport that I bought when I was 12 years old (49 years ago)! When I took it back to the same store I purchased it from for service, it made for quite a scene….Not the bike that the Paramount is, but still a wonderful bike…..

    Reply

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