Rollei  –  Vintage Camera Brand

Rollei Brand Overview

Rollei logo

Founded: 1920 — Braunschweig, German Reich
(modern day Germany)
Currently: Rollei GmbH & Co. KG

Rollei Brand History

Rollei is a German brand that was formed in 1920 by Paul Franke and Reinhold Heidecke–both of whom were former employees of Voigtländer–in the city of Braunschweig. Well known for the exceptional quality of its cameras, Rollei is a prime example of German photographic engineering prowess and is also credited with pioneering the use of roll films.

Heidecke had the desire to start his own company in 1916 but did not find a financial backer until he reached an agreement with Franke, a discerning investor who was successfully enduring Germany’s catastrophic economy, several years later. On the first of February 1920, the pair registered the company name Franke & Heidecke with the German government. The company’s first offering was a triple lens stereo camera called the Heidoscop (named after its designer, Reinhold Heidecke). Several years later, the company produced a roll film version of the Heidoscop (which used sheet film or photograph plates) and named it the Rolleidoscop by using a modified contraction of ‘roll film’ and ‘Heidoscop.’

It wasn’t until 1929 that the company achieved its first major success by introducing the groundbreaking Rolleiflex line of twin lens reflex cameras. They purposely avoided the use of leather bellows and cloth shutters–which were common camera features at the time–while designing the Rolleiflex, opting to use metal components instead for durability. The Rolleiflex and, later on, the more amateur-oriented Rolleicord lines of cameras became well known for their compact size, rugged build quality, excellent optics, and reliability.

During World War II, Rollei manufactured optical goods for the German military such as components for periscopes, sniper rifle sights, and binoculars. After the war ended, Rollei repaired its factories (which were damaged when the Allies bombed Braunschweig), rebuilt its workforce, and resumed camera production. Paul Franke died unexpectedly in 1950 and was succeeded by his comparatively inept son Horst, heralding a long period of instability for the company. By 1960, Rolleiflex models were falling out of fashion, with photojournalists now favoring 35mm SLRs like the Nikon F and studio photographers migrating to medium format SLRs like those made by Hasselblad. Rollei failed to respond to this loss of market share in any meaningful way and, as a result, endured significant financial hardship which eventually led to Horst Franke’s resignation.

After Horst’s departure, a management expert named Heinrich Peesel assumed control of the company and began rapidly diversifying its product lineup with models such as the Hasselblad-like SL66 and the subminiature Rollei-16. He also gambled on a prototype crafted by new hire and Wirgin‘s ex-chief designer Heinz Waaske—whose own former employers had rejected outright—and created the legendary Rollei 35 series of compact full-frame 35mm cameras. In 1970, Rollei established a highly successful factory in Singapore and also purchased Voigtländer (the former employer of both Rollei founders) in 1972 following the collapse of Zeiss Ikon. With the new factory humming along, the company introduced other notable cameras like the A26 (another of Waaske’s creations which used Eastman Kodak‘s extremely popular 126 film cartridge) and the SL35 (a conventional 35mm SLR).

Despite his best efforts, heavy financial losses eventually forced Peesel to leave the company in 1974 after which the company was restructured and thousands of employees were laid off. After a series of unsuccessful new directors, Rollei filed for bankruptcy in 1981 citing rising production costs and was reorganized yet again. Since then, the Rollei name has been bought and sold multiple times by companies from all over the world like Samsung and Denmark’s Phase One. In 2010, the Rollei brand was purchased by RCP-Technik GmbH & Co. KG, a company which had been selling Rollei branded products under license since 2007. Today, Rollei sells a wide variety of photographic products such as action cameras, compact digital cameras, digital picture frames, tripods, and camera bags.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of Rollei cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, WI, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), p 578-588.

“About Rollei,” Rollei GmbH & Co. KG,

“Rollei camera firm files for bankruptcy,” The Chicago Tribune,

“Rollei,” Wikipedia,

“Rollei,” Camerapedia,

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