Minolta was one of the most successful SLR manufacturers throughout the 1960s. With their SR and SRT series of cameras and Rokkor lenses they were consistently among the top 2 in SLR sales by the Big 4. (Pentax was the other market leader. Canon and Nikon were the two junior members as far as sales went.) They had sold more than 400,000 SLRs per year from 1966 through 1970. Nevertheless, they (as did the other members of the Big 4) realized that the market for fully-mechanical, manual-exposure SLRs was starting to reach a saturation point. And competition between the Japanese companies was heating up now that they had collectively pushed the German camera makers into irrelevance in the SLR market. Electronically-controlled SLRs would be the new weapons in the battle for market supremacy during the 1970s. The Big 4 had all begun development of these in the mid-'60s and now the fruitage of that labour began to appear: the Pentax Electro Spotmatic & ES (1971); the Nikkormat EL (1972); and the Canon EF (1973). Although Minolta would be the last to introduce their challenger in 1974, the XE-7 (XE-1 in Europe & XE in Japan) would turn out to be the best-seller among these first-generation electronic SLRs.
Minolta "X" Origins
The roots of the XE can be traced back to the mid-1960s and Minolta's efforts to develop a pro-level SLR to compete with the Nikon F. In the early '60s Minolta had been very successful with its SR series of amateur SLRs and was the overall sales leader. However, Nikon had a virtual monopoly in the pro market. Minolta wanted to get in on some of that action and the XK (XM in Europe & X1 in Japan) of 1973 was the result. The XK bore an uncanny resemblance to the Nikon F & F2 ;-). Once you got past that however, Minolta's tradition of innovation started to peek through. The XK featured an electronic shutter with aperture-priority autoexposure, as the first, and only professional SLR until 1975 (with the debut of the Contax RTS), to do so. It was a failure in the sales department, but it did serve as the catalyst of Minolta SLR development during the 1970s. The XK's DNA would trickle down into the amateur SLR lineup. And that brings us to the XE.
Minolta and Canon initially took a similar approach in their attempts to compete with Nikon at the the top end of the market. They both introduced pro models (with interchangeable finders and focusing screens) and then each brought out a high-end amateur body with much of the same technology in a fixed-prism design. This mirrored Nikon's platform of the F-series cameras with the Nikkormats slotting below (in manual FTn and electronic EL forms). So the XE took its place as the top amateur Minolta body available in 1974. Notably, another factor came in to play in the XE's conception. In June of 1972, Minolta entered into an agreement with Leitz to share technology and cooperate in R&D. This demonstrated how dominant the Japanese manufacturers had become in the camera world and their expertise in electronics was now prized by the German companies. And Minolta was happy to avail themselves of Leitz' experience in optics and production techniques. The XE was the first SLR model developed under this cooperative arrangement and became the template for the Leica R3, as the future XD would also serve as the basis of the R4, R5, R6, and R7 models.
The Exceptional XE
The XE wasn't just all about the XK's hand-me-downs. It had some distinct features of its own. The most notable is the shutter. The XK used a titanium horizontal-travel shutter in the style of the Nikon F. The XE would be the first Minolta with a metal-bladed vertical-travel shutter (a la the Nikkormat EL). Copal was and continues to be a leading supplier of shutters to the camera companies. They often collaborate with the manufacturers to design and produce a shutter that will meet the performance and reliability needs of a particular model. The first Japanese mechanical vertical-travel focal-plane shutter for an SLR was introduced by Konica in 1960 and it evolved with help from Mamiya and Copal into the Copal Square I. To start with, only Konica, Pentax, and Mamiya had access to this shutter. Because Nikon sub-contracted the production of its amateur level Nikkorex F to Mamiya, they were able to use the Square I shutter beginning in 1962. In 1965, the Copal Square S was introduced and Nikon could now use it in their new Nikkormat cameras. Electronic versions of the Square S were used in the Nikkormat EL and the Canon EF (the EF using a hybrid system with mechanical speeds from 1/1000 - 1/2 sec. and electronic control from 1 to 30 sec.). Because of its vertical orientation, the Square S offered a higher flash-sync speed than horizontal-travel shutters. The biggest issue with the metal-bladed Square S was that it was noisier than traditional cloth shutters. In the case of the XE, Leitz did the primary design and collaborated with Copal to produce a quieter shutter. You can definitely hear the difference! Leitz has also long been very conscious about the responsiveness of a camera. Their rangefinders were justly famed for their minimal shutter lag (around 16 milliseconds for an M3). An SLR has a major handicap in this regard: time has to be allowed for raising the mirror out of the way before exposure. With the XE, Minolta and Leitz were able reduce shutter lag to 38ms, making it one of the most responsive SLRs of its era and as fast as the modern-day Nikon F6. The XE is the only Minolta SLR to feature the gorgeous Copal-Leitz shutter. Speeds are from 1/1000 to 4 sec., with a mechanical back-up of 1/90 sec. which is also the flash-sync speed.
The XE features a superior multiple exposure function to the XK. The XK requires the user to push in the film rewind release button on the bottom of the camera before winding the film advance lever to re-cock the shutter for the next exposure. On the XE, you simply push a lever concentric to the film advance lever with your index finger which exposes a red dot and then wind the advance lever. It's quicker, more convenient, and the exposure counter does not advance as it does on the XK. The XE also uses the standard ISO flash hot-shoe as opposed to the XK's blatant adoption of Nikon's inconvenient over-the-rewind-knob contraption.
But what makes the XE exceptional is not its features so much as the integration of all its controls and mechanisms. In other words, how it feels. The XE feels like it has been machined from a single billet of brass. Controls move precisely and positively, yet oh so smoothly! It has one of the finest film advance mechanisms of any vintage SLR. People rave about the smoothness of the Nikon F3's advance with all of its ball bearings, and it is definitely one of the best. But an XE feels like silk on silk, its Leitz heritage shining through. Cost-cutting was only a couple of years away, so the XE makes a strong argument as the pinnacle of material and build quality among Minolta manual focus SLRs. And it certainly holds its own against any other contemporary SLR. It's the epitome of "brass & glass", especially when paired with an MC Rokkor lens. If holding one in your hands doesn't make you want to go take pictures, check for a pulse ;-).
The XE was a hit for Minolta, so much so that they brought out a slightly de-contented version, the XE-5 (XE-b in Japan) in 1975. The XE-5 lacks the eyepiece shutter, the viewfinder aperture & shutter speed displays, the film safe-load signal, and the multiple exposure capability (strangely, the XE-b retained multiple exposure) of the XE-7. And it came only in chrome, whereas the the XE-7 was only available in black. (The XE and XE-1 came almost exclusively in chrome, but there are a few black units out there.) But all of the important stuff was still there: the Copal-Leitz shutter, that buttery film advance, reliable CLC (Contrast Light Compensator) metering, DOF preview, self-timer, and exposure compensation. Minolta sold 600,000 XEs (all versions) in 4 years (1974-77), outpacing Pentax (ES/ESII & K2: 380,000 from 1971-80), and Canon (EF: 320,000 from 1973-78). And although Nikon produced 760,000 EL/ELW/EL2 cameras from 1972-80, during the time the XE was on the market it outsold the Nikkormats/Nikons by 130,000 units. Not bad for being the late starter!
Is the XE for You?
Let's consider some pros and cons of XE ownership compared to its competitors. We are comparing it with models that were its direct rivals in size & weight, general features, and era. The Canon EF, Nikkormat EL, and Pentax K2 are generally more expensive than the XE in today's market, but the Pentax ES/ESII can be had for less than an XE. Which is best for you depends on your priorities. Hopefully, this comparison will be of some help.
Pentax Electro Spotmatic/ES/ESII/K2:
The Minolta XE is a true classic. It is a marvelous example of the precision craftsmanship that was increasingly under siege by the bean counters in the late 1970s. With the introduction of the Canon AE-1 in 1976, the race to the bottom (in terms of volume sales of cheaper SLRs to the mass consumer market) had begun. Pick up any Minolta XG or X-xxx body and you will immediately detect the magnitude of the change. While they are quite capable of the same imaging performance, the feel just isn't there. An XE offers an immersive photographic experience, that ineffable feeling of using a finely honed tool to create something. You cannot help but smile when one is in your hands.
Next time: Isn't "D" Supposed to Come Before "E"?
Minolta @ Camera-wiki.org
Project SLR production numbers @ knippsen.blogspot.ca
Minolta XK, XE-7 & XE-5 Instruction Manuals @ www.butkus.org
Minolta XK/XM/X-1 @ http://www.rokkorfiles.com/XK.html
A Short History of the Konica SLR @ http://www.konica-collector.org/history
Part 3: Nikkorex F @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Shutter lag @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shutter_lag
Nikkormat/Nikon Instruction Manuals @ www.butkus.org
Canon EF Instruction Manual @ www.butkus.org
Pentax Instruction Manuals @ www.butkus.org
Picture credits: Minolta XM @ de.wikipedia.org; XE-1 @ en.wikipedia.org
Suffers from a two-decade 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.