The Universal Vitar – a Camera Made from Spare Parts

The Universal Vitar

The latest acquisition to my collection is the Universal Vitar, a 35mm full-frame camera that was produced by Universal in 1951.  At this point the company was veering toward bankruptcy as a result of supplier problems, bad luck, and some really awful management decisions.  You’ll have to read Cynthia Repinski’s book for the details of this debacle, as I can’t bring myself to repeat the story.

Suffice it to say that by 1951, the Universal Camera Company had debts that dated back to shortly after the war, having liquidated most of their finished goods at a near-loss, and still didn’t have the funds to buy materials to make new products.  Their chief engineer and visionary, George Kende, had resigned in 1948.  They needed a new line of cameras to sell, but they had practically no resources with which to make it happen. 

What they did have in abundance were leftover parts from the production of previous camera models that hadn’t sold as expected.  So it was decided to construct “new” models from the parts available in inventory.  They designed three cameras from spare parts: a 35mm full-frame camera, a 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 TLR, and an 8mm cine camera. 

The 35mm camera that resulted was the Vitar.  It was made from the Bakelite body of the Buccaneer, the viewfinder/extinction meter and hot shoe from the Meteor, the shutter from the Uniflex I, and a 50mm f/3.5 Tricor lens that appears to be the Buccaneer lens mounted on the Uniflex shutter, possibly with parts from the Roamer.   The nameplates are all new, but apart from that the camera is entirely constructed from parts on hand.   

The Uniflex contributed its shutter

The Roamer may have contributed lens elements or mounting rings, but not the shutter as stated by Repinski

The Vitar definitely looks like a camera built from spare parts.  It has a shutter that not coupled to the film wind mechanism in any way.  Thus, there is no double exposure prevention.  The shutter release is mounted on the lens/shutter assembly rather than on the camera body.  The lack of a body-mounted shutter release is a glaring omission for a camera made as late as 1951.  Not only is this odd for a camera of the time, but it’s especially odd for a camera produced by this company: both the Corsair and Buccaneer had body-mounted releases, and their design was patented.   Apparently, there were no parts available to build the more sophisticated body-mounted release, so the hole in the camera body where the release button was intended to go was simply plugged with a chunk of aluminum. 

The Meteor provided the viewfinder, extinction meter and hot shoe

Vitar's body and probably her lens came from the Buccaneer

Another sign of slapdash construction becomes apparent with removal of the front lens assembly, revealing that the unit is shimmed in place using an old nameplate from the lens of a Roamer (or maybe a Uniflex).   

A close look at the Uniflex confirms that it is the source of Vitar's shutter

Top view of the Vitar shows the plugged hole for shutter release

And yet, despite it all, the camera actually performed quite well.  I corresponded with Sam Sherman, a fellow collector, back in 2000 on the subject of Unversal cameras, and it turned out that he had owned a Vitar at the age of 11.  He wrote:

“I sold my first commercial photos to Dance Magazine at the age of 11, which I shot with a Universal Vitar, a fine camera and far superior to the more famous Argus A series and others. “

Sam, who was a producer and distributor of films in Hollywood for many years, had at that time about 15 Universal items in his collection.  And he’s right about the quality of the lens compared to the Argus A.  Universal had their own optical shop, and they invented most of the lens grinding equipment used in their own production – the same equipment they used to produce binoculars during the war.   Argus was said to buy their lens elements in bulk, and the Argus A’s were famous for producing fuzzy negatives.

I got this camera from another fellow collector, Wayne Cogan.  Wayne gave me the Vitar in trade for a couple of cameras that I suspect he really didn’t need, simply because he wanted me to have it for my collection.  It’s a rare item, especially since it came in its original box with instructions.  I’m hoping to get the camera refurbished to the extent that it can be used to take a few shots – I’d really like to evaluate its performance for myself.  But the shutter is not working at the moment, and neither is the film wind mechanism, so I’ll need some help with the details.  Anyone out there know anything about the 4-speed Synchromatic shutter? 

The camera with box and manual

Anyhow, thanks to Sam and Wayne for encouragement and help.  Merry Christmas to all you camera collectors out there, and may the New Year bring you new additions to your collections!

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10 responses to “The Universal Vitar – a Camera Made from Spare Parts

  1. I believe I have an ORIGINAL NORTON camera, according to your description and criteria. It has both plastic spools and film inside. I am interested in corresponding.

    Thank you,

    John

  2. hi! i was wondering if you would be interested in selling your Vitar camera? my last name is Vitar, and I have been trying to track one of these down, as i am also a photographer (complete coincidence, i married into the name) please email me and let me know! thanks!

    • Sorry, but I couldn’t possibly part with this camera – I satrted collecting at the age of thirteen, and finally acquired this specimen at the age of 54! The day I started collecting cameras, I had an old issue of U.S. Camera in hand, and the thing that really piqued my interest was a Universal Camera Company ad for their new line of post-WWII cameras. I began looking for their products right away, but it was a number of years before I found any specimens in good condition. If you want to buy a Vitar, I would suggest you set up a saved search on Ebay, and check it every week. I usually see one pop up about every two years. With today’s depressed prices on collectible cameras, you’ll likely get a great deal.

  3. Hi, I just came across a Vitar Universal. There’s a roll of film in it! I’m so excited, but I can’t find the release to get it out. I even put it in a changing bag and opened it up, but still can’t get that dang thing out! You said yours came with directions. Can you point me in the right direction? This is the only source of info I’ve come across on this camera. Thanks!!

    PS: Love the blog!

    • Sorry for the late reply – somehow I managed to lose your comment for a while! What I think is happening is this: The film take-up spindle is in two pieces that are not supposed to come apart, but sometimes they do. One piece is a sleeve, and the other is a shaft inside the sleeve. When you pull upward on the knob (which holds the sleeve part), the shaft is meant to stay in the sleeve and travel up with it. It exits the film cartridge and allows it to come out of the back. But, if the shaft is loose in the sleeve, it will stay in the film cartridge and block it from coming out. I’d suggest you get a pair of needle-nosed pliers, put everything in the changing bag, and see if you can simultaneously pull up on the knob, outward on the film cartridge, and grab the shaft above the film cartrige with the pliers. You may be able to push it out of the way.

  4. My name Luis I just purchased
    Universal Roamer 63 Folding Medium Format Camera and I see that the shutter stays open. I have not purchased film yet. I change the aperture setting but when I fire it it doe a click bu the shutter does not move the open position. I am clue less. I greatly appreciate any advise. it was cheep ,but I still like. my email is lmuniz2@gmail.com

  5. Hi!
    I know it’s been a long time since you posted this, but I have repair notes for the Uniflex Synchromatic shutter if you still need them.

  6. I am so fascinated about photography. And old cameras are a craze. i had a point and shoot camera earlier. Could have kept it. because it would have been an antique some time later

  7. I have one on theses (Vitar Universal)… How much can I get if I sell that??

  8. I have just found my father’s Uniflex II camera. Apart from being a bit dirty it appears to be in very good condition. It is still in the original leather case but the case has a few problems. Can you tell me what it is worth or are you interested in buying it? I can send a photo if you like.
    Tom

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