Many think of the OM-1 as the first in Olympus’ range of compact film SLR’s, however there was in fact another model that proceeded it. In July 1972 Olympus introduced the M-1. This new “M system” spearheaded by the legendary Maitani Yoshihisa, introduced a new design philosophy focused on creating compact, mechanical, fully featured professional quality SLR’s unmatched by competitors for decades. They did this my utilising smart design and modern technology, but also by fundamentally rejecting the notion that big and heavy meant quality – a misnomer still often perpetuated to this day. This philosophy began with the exceptional Pen series and concluded with the mighty XA series.
The “M system” had a very large bright viewfinder, quiet shutter, interchangeable focusing screens, accurate in camera metering all wrapped in a compact and well designed ergonomic body. The name also had a striking resemblance to Leica’s range of M mount rangefinder cameras, and for that reason Leica requested it be changed. Olympus agreed out of good will and to avoid confusion as Leica had no trademark on the name at the time (one letter names couldn’t be trademarked). Manufacture ceased in February 1973 and the name was changed to “OM” (Olympus Maitani) as it’s known today. Ironically Maitani was a great fan and long time user of Leica rangefinders, so this request was in a way a sign his new design had made an impact, particularly if Leica felt threatened about the possibility of confusion between the two systems and a need to protect their brand. Olympus’ new SLR had more in common with Leica rangefinders than just the name, their size was also very similar to the early Barnack type Leica and volume very close to that of an M Leica. To fit a pentaprism and TTL meter in a body the same size of a rangefinder was an amazing feat.
Upon release Olympus earned acclaim as manufacturer of the smallest and lightest SLR camera on the market. To achieve this Olympus developed their concept for five years, embracing technical advancements and conducting significant research in to ergonomics. It was only after management broke a design stalemate by giving in to Maitani’s vision did development seriously begin. He had a desire to “miniaturize the camera size but never the size of its button for easy handling“, proven by the fact that it could be operated easily without looking away from the viewfinder. One of the many reasons these cameras are such a pleasure to use and in my opinion superior to anything else of that era.
M-1 bodies are quite uncommon but their actual rarity isn’t well established. I bought mine a couple years ago in Japan and from memory they had more than one available for sale. Determining the exact number of cameras released to the public is difficult. Maitani himself said 5,000 cameras were sold and the remaining covers (with M-1 name) were mostly scrapped. However over the years since, researchers have discovered the number may in fact be closer to 50,000 according to serial number records. That said, most early models were sold in Asia and not many made it out before the name change. Over time the M system has naturally spread across the world, however if you have one that was originally delivered outside of Japan you have some something quite rare. I’ve only mentioned bodies so far, but a whole system of lenses and accessories had been designed and were beginning to be manufactured before the name change. This included a 28mm, 35mm, two 50mm’s, a very rare 55mm f/1.2 and some longer lenses ranging up to 200mm. These M system lenses are often rarer than the camera bodies themselves and may of been integrated in to normal OM kits over the years as their uniqueness is less immediately obvious. Make sure you keep an eye out for any lenses that say “M-SYSTEM” like on my camera in the image below, especially if you come across a 55m f/1.2!
Thinking of buying an M-1? Make sure you take some time to check you have the genuine article before paying a premium. There are a number of external and internal differences you should look out for even if the top plate says M-1 on it. Start by looking at the bottom plate, if there’s a motor drive cover that’s not a good sign as the OM-1 was the first model to accept this accessory. Next you can look under the film pressure plate on the back door of the camera. Here there should be three figures, the first being the plant it was made in and the second two being the year and month of manufacture respectively. We know the M-1 was built until February 1973, so for example if the displayed numbers are “32” it means you have one of the last models made. Lastly you can also look at the face of the lens mount, particularly the three screw heads that are visible. The M-1 used Flat head screws whilst other models used phillips head screws. These tips are just a start and not exhaustive, so make sure you do your research and also get as much information from the seller as possible.
So there you have it, the The Olympus M-1. There’s no good reason to seek one out over the OM-1 as they’re practically the same camera and the meter in the later models can be better. However if you want something a little unusual for those with a keen eye, or have the opportunity to rescue one from an imminent demise then don’t hesitate. They were the starting point of an SLR system that changed an industry, and offered consumers a much needed alternative in a market saturated with uninspired bulky cameras that up until then had no reason to improve and change. If you can’t tell by now I’m a big fan.
“my basic attitude toward designing a camera has always originated from the desire to take a picture. I’ll look for the necessary equipment, and if not available, make one myself“, so Maitani Yoshihisa did.