Updated Jan. 27, 2022
1975 saw the introduction of the CONTAX RTS, the first camera since 1961 (when the Contax IIa/IIIa rangefinders were discontinued) to bear that moniker and which was the firstfruits of the technological alliance between Zeiss (owners of the Contax name) and Yashica, the Japanese camera maker (who did the actual manufacturing). The RTS (which stood for Real Time System, to emphasize the supposedly superior responsiveness of the body) was aimed at professionals and serious enthusiasts with pocketbooks sufficiently large to take on the task of mounting pricey Carl Zeiss glass in front of it. The RTS was a success, but as Nikon had found out two decades earlier with the F, having a single model camera lineup that aimed towards the high-end of the SLR market tended to limit opportunities for sales (less cameras sold = less lenses & accessories sold ;-)). So, four years later, in a move that mirrored Nikon's introduction of the enthusiast-oriented Nikkorex F in 1962 (followed by the more-successful Nikkormat of 1965), CONTAX/Yashica introduced their CONTAX-badged contender in the very-competitive amateur market. But what does this have to do with the Yashica FX-D? Let's find out :-).
***NOTE*** All prices have been inflation adjusted to 2022 and were taken from Adorama listings of February 1982.
The CONTAX 139 Quartz
The 139 was directly aimed at the reasonably well-heeled advanced amateur who wanted access to Carl Zeiss glass, but did not need the pro capabilities of the RTS or couldn't justify its $330 USD higher price (body only) or 200 gram (7 oz) weight penalty. At around $680 USD (body only), the 139 was right in the thick of the advanced AE (automatic exposure) SLR battle, being clearly aimed at the Nikon FE's price point and the Olympus OM-2n's general feature-set and overall packaging (the OM-2n in 1982 was still priced a bit higher than the 139, but its OM Zuiko lenses were less expensive than their Carl Zeiss counterparts). The effect of the OM-2 was unmistakable; the 139 was within 2.5mm in all dimensions, 20 grams lighter, included TTL flash metering, and also utilized the right-side location of the exposure compensation/ISO dial of the Olympus.
To sweeten the pot further, Zeiss also introduced a new 50/1.7 Planar as the kit lens for the 139. Prior to this only a 50/1.4 Planar had been available in the C/Y mount. The clean-sheet 7-element f/1.7 was priced the same as the Nikkor AI/AI-s 50/1.8 and was $145 USD less than the f/1.4 Planar. The 1/2-stop slower 1.7 also sliced nearly 100 grams of mass (195 g vs. 290 g) from the 1.4, not only by virtue of smaller glass elements, but also through the judicious use of plastics and other weight reduction methods. It did retain an aluminum-on-brass focusing helicoid, however, so focusing feel remained superb. The only real advantage of the 1.4 over the 1.7 was its minimum-focus distance of 0.45 m (1.5') versus 0.6 m (2') for the 1.7. Put it all together and what did you have? Well, an RTS with the 50/1.4 came out to $1,360 USD and 990 grams (35 oz). The 139 with a 50/1.7 came in at $895 and 690 grams (24 oz). Oh, and the 139 threw in a larger viewfinder, direct TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering, and a higher flash-sync speed due to its vertical-travelling shutter. Finally, and here is where the "Quartz" part comes in, all timing functions (including the shutter and self-timer) were now controlled via quartz-regulated circuits, which meant greater precision and maintenance of accuracy over time. Add everything up and CONTAX now had the pro and enthusiast markets covered. But where did Yashica come into all of this?
Taking Care of the Rest of the Market
Besides building the CONTAXes, and the majority of the Carl Zeiss lenses for them, Yashica also had their own line of SLRs and lenses that traditionally covered the lower half of the SLR market. We might compare it to the Honda/Acura or Toyota/Lexus relationships...you get the idea ;-). With the RTS and the concurrent first-generation C/Y-mount Yashica models (FX, FX-1, and FX-2) there was still a fair bit of distinction in construction and appearance. Yashica still retained the general Japanese habit of having the shutter speed dial on the right of the pentaprism housing, while Zeiss and F.A. Porsche (who styled the CONTAXes) opted for placing the shutter speed dial concentric to the film rewind lever on the left shoulder of the RTS. There were other differences too, as Yashica carried over much of the look and feel of their previous M42-mount SLRs. With the introduction of the FR-series of SLRs in 1977, however, the Yashicas modernized their look and not a few bits from the RTS trickled down (such as the basic chassis, shutter assembly, bottom plate layout, electromagnetic shutter release, electronic remote release, and the film handling system). Within a year or so, there were three FR models to complement the RTS, with very little under the skin to separate them. The problem for CONTAX was that even the top-spec FR-1 was still half the cost of the RTS, with nothing in between. And that was where the 139 came in, to give CONTAX a shot at that enthusiast market while balancing out the lineup somewhat. The 139 would also establish a new form factor for CONTAX/Yashica, adopting the compact dimensions of the trendsetting Olympus OMs, and moving away from the mid-to-full size dimensions of the RTS/FR family.
Due to the unparalleled success of the Canon AE-1 and its kin in the late '70s, the other Japanese SLR makers were put under considerable pressure to streamline their production techniques in order to compete on price. Yashica's financial position in the early '80s was very tenuous. As a matter of fact, they would end up being bought up by the large, multi-faceted Kyocera Corporation in 1983. So...they were actively looking for ways to improve production efficiency to cut costs. Which leads us to the FX-D of 1980. Instead of coming up with a clean-sheet design for what would now be the top model in the Yashica line (the FR-1 would be discontinued within a year of the FX-D's introduction), it was much more cost-effective to use as much of the tooling that had been developed for the CONTAX 139 as possible. Delineation between the two cameras would be accomplished by the deletion of features from the 139 and a minor change in control layout (the shutter speed and ISO/exposure compensation dial positions were reversed) following the pattern of the RTS/FRs. Of course, the FX-D would be kitted with Yashica lenses (but was obviously completely compatible with the Carl Zeiss line of C/Y optics :-)). So just what were the differences between the two?
The result: $680 for the FX-D with the 50/1.7 ML, or $215 less than the 139 with the 50/1.7 Planar. Another way to look at it was that you got the FX-D 50/1.7 ML kit for the cost of the bare 139. Above, we saw what the FX-D lacked in comparison to the CONTAX 139, but let's see what you still got for your $215 in savings:
The FX-D's slightly shorter film winder travel could be viewed as a minor advantage over the 139. The right-side shutter speed dial location of the FX-D was more familiar to those who had already had a history with mainstream Japanese SLRs. On the other hand, the exposure compensation dial of the 139 is much more convenient to use than the locking combined ISO/EC dial of the FX-D. Do you appreciate the ability to obtain beautiful aftermarket custom coverings for older SLRs? Both the 139 and FX-series can be viewed as contributing to the success of such manufacturers, with their highly-degradable leatherette (READ: cheap vinyl) coverings ;-).
The 139 Quartz/FX-D duo are among the most reliable CONTAX/Yashica bodies due to their simple and solid construction and lack of gimmicky add-ons (aside from the over-exposure warning beeper on the FX-D :-)). The early editions of the 139 did have a tendency to foul the release magnets for the shutter with oil & dust (requiring cleaning to restore function), so look for serial numbers above 150xxx which have a protective shroud to shield the magnets from such contaminants. It doesn't appear that the FX-D had such an issue, with the fix possibly having been implemented in the 18-month period between the introductions of the two models. The only other issue is the previously-mentioned degradation of the leatherette, which has no impact on function, but replacement of which improves looks and comfort in use. There are no shortage of choices for replacement coverings and I recommend aki-asahi.com or hugostudio.com, but there are other quality vendors out there.
Both cameras have a great viewfinder, a proven shutter, excellent metering, very smooth film advance (even without the ball-bearing, in the FX-D) and a lovely feel in the hand. Either one makes for a great gateway in to the Zeiss C/Y lens system. The FX-D gives you the absolute best bang for your buck and the 139 adds a few features that you may find appealing at its current price point well under $200 USD (without a Zeiss lens, that is ;-)).
Various CONTAX and Yashica manuals @ www.butkus.org
Various Yashica reference materials @ pacificrimcamera.com
Various CONTAX reference materials @ CONTAX 139 Resource
CONTAX Database @ cdegroot.com/photo-contax/
Popular Photography magazine - First Look: Yashica FX-D 10/1981 p. 116; Lab Report: Yashica FX-D 09/1982 p. 109
Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.7 Datasheet @ zeiss.com
Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 Datasheet @ zeiss.com
Martin South of France
2/7/2020 02:58:01 am
Great article on the FXD/139 and I love the comparrison chart. I have owned my 139q from new....with the Planar 1.7. Cost me three months salary in 1980 and was too scared to use it and forget about other lenses. I bought a Tokina AT-X 28-85mm on sale in 1981/2 I think I still paid well over $200 for it back then.....and this is the setup I still use. I love the FXD too and have owned one of these. Only prob I have had with the 139 was the electronic shutter button being fouled with grease/sweat over the years and not allowing contact and therefore nothing doing. Easily cleaned and working again. The 139q is one of the best 35mm's made in my humble opinion. I own many more, the RTS ii, Nikons, F2, FA, Pentax Spotmatics etc etc but always come back to my 139........Thanks again!
2/7/2020 08:02:58 am
Glad to hear you enjoyed the article, Martin. And thanks for sharing your experience with owning a 139 from new and that you are still using it 40 years later. Not too bad for an electronic SLR ;-). The 139 is my favourite out of all the Contax manual focus bodies for its simplicity, excellent viewfinder, and overall reliability. Best regards.
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Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.