Remembering the Perma Matic 618

It would have been about 1970 when Mom bought the camera that she used to record our family for the next 20 years. It was a Perma Matic 618, a point-and-shoot camera that took 126 Instamatic film cartridges.

Mom told me the story once of how she came to buy it, but my memory is fuzzy. Maybe she bought it from a door-to-door salesman, or maybe she traded green stamps for it. But I remember clearly that Mom chose it for its built-in flash, which was a novel feature then. No more fussing with flashcubes — and, crucially, running out of them with photos still to make at a family event.

Photo credit: Etsy user JuniperHome

Never heard of the Perma Matic, you say? You’re not alone. There’s next to no information about the Perma Matic on the Internet. I found a mention that said its suggested retail price was $59, which is equivalent to about $450 today. That’s an awful lot of money for a 126 camera!

Everything else I know about the camera I know from inspection. It packs a 40mm f/5.6 Tosicor lens. As I’ve researched Tosicor lenses, they seem always to be fitted to cameras by Japanese maker Taron. The camera bottom is stamped “Made in Japan,” so I’m willing to bet this is a Taron camera.

A selenium light meter is next to the enormous flash. I’m not sure how the autoexposure worked — was the lens’s aperture fixed, meaning the camera adjusted the shutter speed? Could the camera stop down from f/5.6? What was the range of shutter speeds? There is no way to set focus, and autofocus hadn’t been invented yet, so this camera’s focus had to be fixed. I am guessing that the in-focus range was five feet to infinity, because a label on the back declared that the flash was good from five to 15 feet.

The shutter button is on the camera face, to the left of the lens. Push it down to activate the shutter. The winder is a lever nearly flush with the body, on the back at the bottom. Also on the back was a switch to turn on the flash, which emitted a shrill whistle while it charged. When the flash was ready the whistling stopped and a red light on the back glowed. I have no idea how the flash was powered — from photos I find on the Internet, I see no battery door anywhere on the body.

A black, zippered leather case with a strap came with the camera; “Perma Matic” was printed on the front in silver letters. Mom always kept hers in the case. Here she is holding it at Christmas in 1984. She was not pleased that I was photographing her. (Yes, people smoked in their homes then.)

This camera was enormous. It was larger in every dimension than a contemporary 35mm SLR body. This page is one of a very few on the Internet about this camera, and it shows the Perma Matic next to a Canon FX SLR from the 1960s.

This is the first camera I ever used to make a photograph. When I was about four, my family took a trip to New York State. When nobody was looking, deep curiosity about how this camera worked drove me to pick up the Perma Matic and make a few photographs of our hotel room. My mom caught me at it, and boy was I ever in trouble. Film was expensive, and I’d wasted a bunch of shots!

Some years ago Mom gave me an album of photographs from my first five years. The later photos in that album were all made on the Perma Matic. They were all in sharp focus and properly exposed, and the flash lit all of the scenes well and evenly. Here’s a scan of a print from my fourth birthday, which was in 1971. That’s my grandmother on the left; she was the same age in this photograph that I am now.

Mom still has boxes full of family photos made with the Perma Matic. I’ve not seen hardly any of them since she made them. Someday I ought to make her get them all out so I can see them!

I don’t remember now what led Mom to finally replace her Perma Matic. I had grown up and moved out by the time that happened. But I’m pretty sure she used it until she bought her Nikon Zoom Touch 400, a frankly awful camera that wasn’t available until 1990. Mom got her money’s worth out of the Perma Matic!

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15 responses to “Remembering the Perma Matic 618”

  1. J P Avatar

    It is interesting when a frequently used family item turns out to be a really obscure brand. I found the same thing when I tried to find more information on the record player my parents bought new in the late 50s. It was a Mitchell, which turned out to have been a really short lived electronics company out of Chicago. I have never found another example online like the one we had.

    And wow, that camera was huge!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Enormous. I didn’t think that at the time, however; it was just our camera, and I didn’t have others to compare it to!

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Ditto to others on here, that’s one big camera! My Mom was also quite the shutter bug, and always had decent cameras. She had a pretty high end Kodak Instamatic that took 126 cartridges, with a wind-up motor drive on it, and it looked to be almost half the size of this camera! BTW, my Mom was a life-long chain smoker, and seeing a picture of a Mom doing something with a ciggy in her hand as well brings back a lot of memories!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I had one of those wind-up-motor Instamatics in my first collection. It was kind of strange, in that it would auto-wind only 8 or 9 frames before you needed to wind it up again. Why couldn’t they have made it to wind through an entire 12-exposure cartridge?

      It’s so strange now to see a cigarette in someone’s hand.

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    As an aside, do we think the “Perma” in Perma Matic, as well as the outsize body, means something about a set of permanent rechargeable batteries lurking in there? Is there a small hole or port in the body, that may have been for a charging cord? Could the camera have just been able to recharge by setting it on a “plate” or “station” that was plugged in and it recharged by induction? Gotta be some reason for that huge body size?

    1. Marc Beebe Avatar

      Unlikely, as rechargeable batteries were pretty much unknown in that era (NiCads were about the only type back then). Probably the battery is hidden inside the film compartment, perhaps behind some access cover that isn’t obvious (the idea being “change the battery with the film” – a popular theme then which of course no one did). Yes, Jim, I checked my records and I didn’t have one! Well I couldn’t have every camera, right? Although I gave it a good try.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        The film door on this camera is about the same size as the film cartridge, so I’m not sure where you’d fit a battery in. It’s still a puzzler and a mystery! Maybe my mom is reading this, remembers, and can tell us how it worked.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t think there was a place for a charging cord. Induction charging wasn’t a thing in the 1970s, I don’t think.

  4. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    According to the battery guide on the Batteries Plus website, which has been a pretty good reference for me when I am trying to match battery types and replacements for old film cameras, the Taron Perma Matic 618 uses AA batteries.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Awesome. From the photos of this camera that I’ve found online, I have no idea where you insert those AAs.

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    And…I just found an old ad for the camera. Looks like four AA batteries. Now, where they go…who knows?

  6. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    There are probably more out there, but I have only run across 2 ways to make a selenium cell auto exposure work.

    The problem is that a selenium cell providers such a small amount of power that they can’t move anything substantial.

    The common design has the light just move a tiny needle like a meter. When the shutter is activated a stepped piece is pushed against the needle like a guillotine. The sweep of the needle causes the blade to stop at different heights and that is linked to the aperture blades. Those Kodak Automatic 35s work like this.

    Less common, but found on at least one of the Argus 126 cameras is a design in which instead of a needle the meter moves a very thin, lightweight plate with a V shaped slit in it. This plate takes the place of the aperture blades. So depending on which part of the V is between the lens and film it adjusts the amount of light passing through. Much less complicated, but I’m guessing the non round aperture affects sharpness? Definitely not going to get great bokeh.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m familiar with the first method. My Kodak Brownie Starmatic uses it rather obviously. But the second method is new to me! Thanks for bringing the details.

  7. Jim Hanes Avatar

    I think everyone smoked back then. My Mom replaced her Kodak Brownie with a crappy Kmart 110 camera. And she always specified the Matt Finish photos, so her low resolution prints are nearly impossible to scan.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My mom always did matte too. So did I, when I had the choice. It does make for not so awesome print scans.

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