On learning that Minolta no longer existed, naturally, I wanted to find out what happened. After having read every website I could find about the history of Minolta, I reflected on what the company accomplished. What I found was a history of risk-taking, notable firsts, unfortunate missteps, and a few bad breaks. At its core is an underdog story of a scrappy little guy, doing his best, pulling off one incredible win after another until his luck ran out. One thing that comes across very clearly is that Minolta always had a passion for quality.
Minolta was founded in the 1920s and produced cameras of all types. Its first 35mm SLR, the SR-2, was produced in 1958. My old friend, the SR-T 101, appeared in 1966. In the early 70s, Minolta and Leica teamed up to create the Minolta XE series and Leica R3 and then the Minolta XD series and Leica R4. The Minolta XD was the first camera to offer both aperture and shutter priority modes. Minolta was also known to produce quality lenses, and that led to a series of lenses that were adapted for Leica: 70-210mm f4, 75-200mm f4.5, 35-70mm f3.5, and one or two others—all are known for their superb optics. The final manual SLRs were the XG series and X series, of which the X-700 was a huge success and an award winner.
The last significant period of Minolta innovation for 35mm SLR products began with the Maxxum 7000, released in 1985. It was the first autofocus camera with body integral autofocus capability. From there, many cameras of the next five generations of autofocus SLRs won awards— Maxxum 700si, Maxxum 7, Maxxum 9, and the Maxxum 70. The lens story was just as exciting. The 100mm f2.8 Macro lens reproduced at a 1:1 ratio, the first to do so, and that lens, possibly my favorite, is extraordinary. The entire series of professional G lenses is still highly regarded and commands good prices.
There were a couple of lawsuits that caused issues for the company. The first involved the Maxxum symbol. Minolta’s first Maxxum products had a design where the two “X” s in Maxxum overlapped. This created a problem with Exxon, which had a trademarked design that also had the overlapping “XX.” Exxon sued, and Minolta had to redo the Maxxum design. This was only a minor issue, but it did create a collectible. Finding crossed “XX” Minolta gear that still works 34 years later is difficult but rewarding for Minolta collectors.
The second lawsuit was more damaging. Honeywell sued for infringement related to the autofocusing technology, resulting in a 127 million dollar loss, one that may have permanently weakened the company. Minolta bet big on Advanced Photo System cameras, and that did not turn out well, either. The same seems to have been the case with the Maxxum “xi” series of products. They did not catch on, and they are definitely not to my taste.
By 2003, Minolta was struggling and merged with Konica to form Konica Minolta, which still exists. That merger gave us the Maxxum 70/50 cameras and two DSLRs, the Maxxum 5D and 7D. These DSLRs introduced another first for Minolta— in-body image stabilization. In 2006, still struggling, Konica Minolta began a collaboration with Sony, which ended when Sony bought the photography intellectual property that was once Minolta’s, and Minolta cameras and lenses disappeared from history—or so it seemed.
Now, had the story ended here, I would have been crushed. But, I soon discovered that Sony had quickly produced a camera that was a Minolta in everything but name. All was not lost! The Sony a100 looked exactly like its Minolta digital predecessors. The lens mount, the “A” mount, was the same. Sony had even adopted the “Alpha” brand name that Minolta used for its products in Japan. Every Maxxum lens works on Sony A-mount digital cameras! Sony chose to honor the spirit and legacy of Minolta. On learning this, right then, I became a Sony guy.
Since jumping into the DSLR business, Sony has done pretty well for itself. It’s reassuring to know that there are digital cameras that look and act like my Maxxum 7 and will happily accept all of my autofocus Minolta lenses. In fact, I bought a Sony a100 on eBay to lend moral support. And should I ever decide to drop a pile of money on a new digital camera, it will be a Sony.
Going from dismayed, to heartbroken, to optimistic, to relieved is an odd rollercoaster ride to endure for a product. We bond to things that have participated in the meaningful times of our lives, and that SR-T 101 was there for some of the best moments of my young life. Holding its replacement brings back memories and smiles and occasional sighs—à la recherche du temps perdu. Minolta, thanks for the memories and the cameras. Really—this should be on Netflix.