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I don't have any plugs or tucks but people do what they want. I look at it as mutilation.

— Jack Nicholson

That Leica CLA culture

July 6, 2010.  Have you ever stopped to notice just how many Leica cameras have "CLA" (Clean, Lubricate, and Adjust) mentioned in their auction or classified listings?  How many people talk about buying a Leica and immediately sending a camera into Sherry Krauter, Don Goldberg, Leica, or others?  Ever compare that to the number of times you notice people writing, blogging, or talking about having a Nikon F3 serviced just before or just after a sale?  Even Contax or Kiev rangefinder cameras seem to draw less discussion of servicing.  On the F3 issue, I'm not sure that F3s are ever routinely serviced between the time they leave the factory and the time they are run over by a truck, impaled by a bullet, or otherwise "retired..."  What ever happened to the maxim that if it's (arguably) working, don't fix it?

Are Leicas really so bad that they can't hold together through a change in ownership? How about through  cross-country shipping?  What precisely is the problem?  Do they meld with their previous owner's DNA? Are they self-aware?  Are they delivered new to dealers by valkyries yet incapable of taking shocks meted out by earthly package delivery services?  Do they get "cooties?"  Probably none of the above, but something in the Leica demographics - cultural, geriatric or just plain paranoic- drives a massive number of completely pointless repairs. 

  • The CLA fixation (if by the buyer) effectively adds 20-25% to the price of many used Leica cameras (and may depress the seller's proceeds due to unconscious compensation).  You almost have to wonder if in a lot of cases, CLA is the codeword for a secret tax collected by repairmen... ahem, repairpeople on Leica and compatible equipment.  Of course, these people only do the CLAs (and collect the "tax") because you ask them to (compare: veterinarians who treat animals for the quality of the owner's life); I don't think I have encountered any reputable Leica repairperson who insists upon a teardown service when something less extreme will do. 
  • At the same time, buyers will not pay full freight for CLAs that actually have been performed on equipment.  They unconciously discount part of that, even if they would have had the same work performed themselves.  Maybe they discount it because they plan to repeat the work themselves.
  • At legitimate repair sources, these "CLA" repairs dominate resources that should be used on non-functioning cameras, and they often drastically increase waiting times for people who have completely legitimate Leica repair needs (like jammed shutters, rangefinders well out of alignment, separated viewfinder prisms, etc.).  How many months has your M3 been at XYZ's shop now?
  • Other times, these "CLA" repairs are carried out by people who are essentially camera butchers cleaning old camera by flushing them in solvent and dipping them in oil.  Leicas are not cheap watches to be "serviced" like cheap watches.  Leicas have amazing numbers of moving parts, a lot of crevices, and materials in them that respond poorly to being exposed to excess lubrication and solvents (such as rubberized cloth shutter curtains).
  • Repeated repairs cannot be good for the operating tolerances of a camera.  They are certainly not good for vulcanite and other less-durable body coverings.

And (film) Leicas, in the end, are not designed around hardware that is truly capable of holding micoscopic timing tolerances.  You would get the impression that a lot of people think otherwise, and that their poor cameras get thrashed through servicing after servicing that attempts to make clockwork gears do the work of lithium niobate.  You might be able to do that in the short term, but nothing that relies on springs (and is found in a camera) has that kind of accuracy, particularly over time.*  And query whether that kind of accuracy is even necessary at all.  If a shutter has a constant error, it can be compensated by changing the aperture slightly.  And even random variation to a certain degree is absorbed by the latitude of negative film.  If that's not enough, and the claim is that such accuracy is needed for transparency film, I would (and not entirely facetiously) invite the claimants to join the 21st century and get digital cameras.  The accuracy required for slide film is a problem that will disappear along with slide film.

This plastic surgery (well, metal surgery) phenomenon aside, query whether the real place the Leica brand is damaged is in servicing.  Today's Goldbergs, Krauters, and the handful of other highly competent Leica technicians will retire (or be retired by nature) in a shorter term than any of us realize.  At that point, servicing will be in the hands of Leica itself.  Those  who have fought through such repairs have an appreciation for just how expensive (and time consuming) that can be, even for something minor.  And then the surprises... like sending your lens in for coding and in reality needing recollimation, too. The situation is pretty bad with digital Ms, where some things have to be done on the original assembly line.  Other operations require replication of parts of the assembly line.  Concentrating all of the service in one company and in some cases putting service in competition with assembly in competition with service is not a way to keep people shooting. 

There is a value in training independent techs - because people become frustrated when small issues blossom into interstate shipping and constant calls about status.  Like cars, cameras that stay in the shop for extended periods engender frustration.  And lost sales.  And where Leica markets cameras based on long-term ownership (M8... good forever, right?), the ability to have the camera serviced later with a trained technician (even if Leica did not survive in the long run) would be reassuring.**  Older cameras might even stay in service longer with cheaper, more available service.  While we are at it, having more than a couple of official service stations worldwide might not be a bad idea, either.

My proposal would be that owners stop automatically servicing cameras and, more importantly, stop talking about it.  Service carries risk, and if you make it sound like Leicas fall apart spontaneously, you are hurting both the resale value of your own equipment and damaging the brand.  By my rough count, about 80% of Leica owners engage in this behavior.  Leicas, if treated properly and used consistently, should need servicing about once a generation - not once a year.

And the flip side is that Leica needs to get its act together, speed up its in-house repairs, and establish a service network so that service is not even in the top ten list of things to worry about when buying one.  A camera languishing in a repair shop - and worse, right after its purchase - is the worst camera of all. 



*Actually, when you think of a COSC-certified mechanical chronometer running at -4/+6 seconds per day (and there are 86,400 seconds per day), you realize that camera shutters are crude toys by comparison.

**I'm sure that by this point, you have linked to this article to some online forum, and said that I "don't get it" (or worse) because Leica's numbers are good this year.  Right.  Party on.  Leica has been through more owners and reorganizations than anyone would care to recount.