Introducing the MVP Camera, AKA The "Optical Lens" plastic cameras, also known as Taiwan-35s.
Whether it started with the TIME camera, or any number of plastic cameras that have that SLR/Rangefinder look, the cameras share similar features. They have an aperture range of f/6-f/16, one fixed shutter speed, no adjustable focus, and the bezel around the front of the lens says "Optical Color Lens" or "Optical Lens". The cameras are plastic, and often have some sort of metal weight in the bottom to give them more heft, and therefore, the "appearance" of quality. Make no mistake, there is not a lot of quality in these cameras, but they are pretty much on par with a Holga. Some models have a chrome shutter release that accepts a remote cable, and all have a standard ISO flash shoe. The viewfinder is just a window that gives you an estimate of what may appear in the frame. Use a small auto flash, and you'll be able to shoot indoors.
With my recently-acquired MVP camera, I was pretty sure that the shutter speed was around 1/100 sec., but in tests with the Phochron Shutter tester, the speed is around 1/250 - 1/300 second. So, assuming you are following the sunny-16 rule, ISO 100-400 is fine for sunny days, as C-41 color film has a pretty wide exposure latitude. I shot some 100 ISO Svema B&W film in my MVP camera, and on a sunny day the exposures looked just fine. Yes, that IS a Ford logo on the lens cap. I guess Ford had some promotion in the late 1980s.
Are these serious cameras?
Um, no. Most of these cameras were given away in promotions. Some factory (or factories) in Taiwan must have made millions of them during the 1980s. While yes, they are cheap and inconsistent in quality, they are a lot of fun. You can find series 6 filter adapters (48mm) that push into the front of the lens that allow you to use filters, providing you with even more possibilities. It's too bad that these cameras don't have a B setting, since they do have tripod sockets. Nonetheless, your results may be somewhat dreamy, they may resemble a Holga image, or may just be low-contrast and somewhat blurred -- it all depends on the camera. McKeown's 12th edition lists the TIME camera as a "minimum-quality 35mm camera from Taiwan." The 2006 "value" is listed at $1-$5, which is pretty much unchanged today.
What to look for
Since these plastic cameras are becoming less common, they have also become somewhat collectible (low-end collectibles, at that.) Due to them being offered in promotions, there are a variety of logos printed on the front, but there are basically just a few "typical" models that share the same features. The appearance of a grip on the right side was a good thing, enabling better holding of the camera.
TIME - The Time camera was a 1985 promo camera from Time-Life to induce people to subscribe to the magazine. I am sure there are several camera variations, and the best examples will have the "LAVEC OPTICAL GLASS LENS." That should be a minor improvement over the "color optical lens." One variant of the Time camera is actually branded LAVEC, produced by Lavec Indsutrial Corp., Taipei, Taiwan. In fact, a Google image search turns up a slew of cheap plastic cameras with Lavec branding. The MVP camera shown here is also branded as a "YUNON" camera. There are all kind of variants of this main theme.
HACKING - One site - Instructables - has a page on hacking the Time camera, and while the ideas there are worth exploring if you have more than one of these cameras, the best thing one can do is put a 48mm diam filter adapter on the front so that you can use any number of filters that are suitable for the effect you want. The double -exposure feature would be the one thing that would appeal to quite a few people. These cameras are also easy to hack if you want to put a vignetting mask in the back, or even make the frame mask 24x24mm. Easy to to with black tape or cardstock.
There is another class of cheap plastic 35mm cameras that attempt to fool people into thinking they are getting a modern auto-focus camera with a big "pro-style" flash. They are usually branded with names like Canon, Olympia, etc., that sound like a legit brand, but alas, they are not. I have not used any of them, but I know a few people that have, and they pretty much give the same results as the Time cameras, but with more bulk. Also, these counterfeits are made in China, not Taiwan. They usually show up at flea markets in showy packaging. Alas, they might be worth $5, but not more. Of course, there are plenty on eBay. I suspect that the "single-use" cameras that appeared and proliferated in the 1990s was the end for these Taiwanese cameras. While there are other promotional cameras, they just don't exude the cheesiness of the Time-style cameras.
To summarize -- the Time-style cameras can be a lot of fun, and a way to get a Holga-like experience in 35mm. Because of their size, you can have several in a bag with different films, ready for the next adventure. Used within their parameters, you'll get images that are certainly different from your typical 35mm camera. They are cheaply-made, in several styles that emulate a small SLR or a rangefinder. Don't pay more than a few bucks for one. Have fun!
My first results with the MVP, using Svema 100 ISO b&w film.