The Asahi Pentax SV
Introduced in 1962, the Asahi Pentax SV (known as the Honeywell Pentax HV in the U.S.) represented the opposite pole of SLR development to Nippon Kogaku's Nikon F which was three years old at the time.
Where the Nikon is a rough tough bruiser built to take on anything the user can throw at it, the SV is almost a jewel: compact, precise and beautifully finished. Despite its delicate appearance, though, the Pentax is very nearly as tough as the Nikon and there are still plenty of examples on the used camera market, many of which have obviously survived years of heavy use.
Prime among the Pentax SV's qualities is its marvellous feel, which led the Rank Organisation, Asahi's UK importers, to initiate the 'Just Hold a Pentax' campaign. This was so successful that it spread around the world, boosting Asahi's sales at just the point where they faced increasing competition from a burgeoning SLR Market.
Asahi had become synonomous with SLR development in the 1950s. The Asahiflex was pretty well the first mass production Japanese SLR and the introduction of the instant return mirror in the Asahiflex IIB had added to the company's impetus. Asahi's development philosophy was one of step-wise refinement and the SV was the culmination of several models, introduced at roughly annual intervals.
Asahi's aggresive marketing philosophy was typified by their tie up with the American importer, Honeywell. In the U.S., there was no such thing as an Asahi Pentax but there were a lot of Honeywell Pentaxes to be seen.
(Nor was this the first time that Asahi had formed a marketing partnership with an American company. Previously, the Asahiflex range had been sold in the U.S. by Sears Roebuck under the Tower brand name.)
Asahi's marketing was so successful that, at the beginning of the 'sixties, they were the top producer of SLRs with substantially greater market share than any of their rivals. Nothing, however, lasts for ever and not only Nippon Kogaku but Canon and Minolta were nipping at their heels. The market that the SV emerged into was a tough one.
So the SV was designed to appeal to as wide a range of customers as possible. First of all, it was built to the lowest price point compatible with retaining high standards. Not that this shows. The Pentax's fit and finish is second to none and the controls work with admirable smoothness. The viewfinder is truly outstanding with Asahi's proprietory microprism focussing aid set in the centre of a bright and contrasty viewing screen.
Asahi continued to use the 42mm screw mount developed for the East German Contax S but at the time this was seen as no problem. At least half of all SLRs introduced in the 'sixties shared this mount, bayonet mounts were seen to be reserved for expensive cameras like the Nikon.
The SV had everything a top consumer SLR was seen to require, including shutter speeds from 1 second to 1/1000 and a self timer quirkily set by a control knob that wrapped around the rewind handle.
To ensure that they covered all the bases, Asahi introduced a cheaper version of the SV the following year. The S1a was, simply, a SV with the self timer and the 1/1000 second speed removed. (Curiously, there is an unmarked detente when you turn a S1a's speed dial beyond 1/500 and using it gives a pretty convincing imitation of the higher speed!) The S1a also lacked the SV's marvellous focussing screen.
To widen the price differential, the SV was sold normally with the f1.8 50mm Super Takumar while S1a was normally offered with the f2 version. It wasn't really an important distinction as both lenses are equally excellent performers, contrasty and sharp.
This clever bit of marketing allowed the Rank Organisation to intimate that the S1a was the camera for the advanced amateur while the SV was aimed at the professional user. As a piece of flim-flam it succeeded brilliantly and, in the mid-sixties, the typical British photo-journalist would carry a Rolleiflex for monochrome work and a Pentax SV for colour slides.
The SV is, given its original price, an exceedingly pleasant camera to use. Remember, this machine cost around half the price of the Nikon F or the Leica M3, yet it is every bit as smooth in operation.
The lever wind betrays no sign of roughness, even on a forty year old machine, while the shutter release is precise and predictable. The ergonomics of the camera are excellent with the only point of (minor) contention being the slightly undersized shutter speed control (a failing shared with the illustrious Leica M3).
The film counter markings are a bit on the small side but they are clear and adequate for general use. The self timer is slightly finicky and not as convenient as the front mounted lever found on most other cameras of the time.
The standard Super Takumar lens is beautifully finished, like the SV itself, and operates with the same silky smoothness. Given that the particular outfit shown here has clearly suffered a hard life, the operating standard is extremely high.
The success of the SV is all the more remarkable when, in hindsight, it was already obsolete on its introduction. The market was moving to robust, heavy duty cameras with big throated bayonet lens mounts. Asahi instead produced a small jewel of a camera with the restrictive M42 screw mount. In theory, it looked like commercial suicide, yet the SV was one of Asahi's most long-lived designs, still in production at the start of the seventies when the typical amateur entry-level camera was a bayonet mount SLR with TTL metering.
How did Asahi do it?
Simply put, the SV was exactly the right camera at the right time. At the beginning of its production run, the SV gave a low priced alternative to the offerings from Nippon Kogaku and Leitz. Neither Canon nor Minolta had yet put their definitive designs on the market and when they did so, Canon with the FP and FX, Minolta with the SR1 and SR7, both in 1964, the SV was already firmly entrenched and the other manufacturers had to fight hard for acceptance.
The SV continued to be the right camera at the right time throughout the 'sixties. In America, it was the amateur's ideal camera: small, light and reasonably priced. In Europe, it was just the right price for the budget conscious professional. In both markets it provided access to the excellent Takumar lenses as well as a host of M42 fit lenses from other manufacturers.
Even its lack of a built in meter was an advantage, rather than otherwise. Advanced amateurs and professionals remained suspicous of built in metering throughout the 'sixties and purely mechanical cameras, rightly or wrongly, were seen as the zenith of camera development. The SV rode the crest of this wave right up to its final demise in 1972.
But above all, it was just such a nice camera to hold.
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