Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

21 June 2016

Fuji S10-S: It Brought Japanese Bikes Out Of The Shadows

This has to be one of the best catalogue illustrations in history:



It appeared on the back cover of the 1971 Fuji Bicycle catalogue.  That year, Fuji--and Japanese bicycles--"came out", if you will, in the American market.

Although Japanese cameras and electronics were developing a good reputation in the 1950s, their bikes were still seen as inferior to those from Europe and America.  That perception was mostly deserved:  While many Japanese bikes and parts from that era were built to close tolerances and beautifully finished, the alloys (whether aluminum or steel) used to make them weren't as strong as those from other major bike-building countries.  Also, as Sheldon Brown points out, many bikes--like the Royce-Unions from that era--came in only one size.

By the 1960s, the quality of Japanese bikes was improving.  However, they were still mostly "under the radar", often sold under the names of familiar American and European manufacturers (like the Ross I wrote about yesterday)--or simply names that didn't sound Japanese.

The market for bicycles--for adults as well as children-- was growing, although not as explosively as it would during the '70's Bike Boom.  Still, even then, American manufacturers were having difficulty keeping up with the demand.  Three-speed "English Racers" and the few (mostly lower-end) European derailleur-equipped bicycles available in the US at the time often sold out because, althought they seem like tanks today, they were considerably lighter than almost anything made in America.

Then, when the Bike Boom exploded, even the British and European manufacturers, working overtime, were hard put to keep up with the demand.  (I recall waiting lists for Schwinns, Peugeots and Raleighs at local bike shops.)  This, of course, is one of the reasons why some ten-speeds of that era had workmanship that made Detroit behemoths of that era seem like pinnacles of Bauhausian design and craftsmanship.  I still shudder to think about some of the Raleigh Records and Grand Prixes, as well as low-level models from Atala, Gitane and makers, I assembled and fixed when I was working in bike shops!

On the other side of the world. the Japanese were perfecting the quality control for which they would become famous in all industries.  Plus, plenty of people cycle in Japan, and more than a few of them are engineers and designers.  So, they came up with bikes and parts that, in many ways, were improvements (or, at least, departures) from typical European and American products of the time.

In the late '60's and early '70s, some nice Japanese bikes were being sold in the US under names concocted by marketing executives in the companies that imported them.  And they tried to sound un-Japanese:  American Eagle, Centurion, Univega.  You won't find bikes with those names in Japan. 

Early Fuji S10-S, circa 1972



But in 1971, Fuji introduced its iconic S10-S model in the US.  You may have owned or ridden one; perhaps you still have (or acquired) one.  Reviewers raved about it, whether in the bicycle publications or Consumer Reports.  It remains, to this day, one of the best thought-out bikes ever made:  Its frame was built from double-butted high-tension steel, with clean brazing at the lugs.  The geometry was a classic 73 degree by 73 degree, found on racing bikes of the time but entirely appropriate for light (or even medium-load) touring.  It's no surprise, then, that S10-S and S12-S (its later 12-speed iteration) bikes have been raced, ridden on transcontinental tours, and used for just about every other kind of riding imaginable.



S-10S from 1978, its last year of production.  A 12-speed version was, by then available:  the S-12S



And its components were not fancy, but still very good and practical:  Sun Tour V-GT derailleurs and shifters (Shimano on some of the early models), Sugino Maxy cranks, Dia Compe centerpull brakes, Nitto bars and stem and the very strong Ukai rims laced to Sunshine (Sanshin) hubs.  Plus, there was that legendary Belt leather saddle, which took longer to break in than almost any other, but was seemingly indestructible.  I've seen Belts fetch $200 on eBay!

Another early S10-S.  I always liked that shade of green.


This bike was an almost immediate best-seller.  For some riders, it was a "move up" bike: one purchased after racking up miles on a cheaper, heavier bike.  Others bought it as their first "grown-up" bike.  It also became one of the more popular rides on the Bikecentennial.

One thing I find very interesting is that the bike was so successful in the American marketplace with an almost stereotypically Japanese name, albeit one most Americans could pronounce easily.  It also seemed to make no effort to hide its Japanese-ness:  The bikes were attractive, but seemed to make little effort to mimic European bikes. 

Ironically, later Japanese bikes sold in the American market tried to sound even more Japanese than the Japanese, if you will.  Bikes like Shogun and Lotus, while nice, were so named by marketing folks in the US.   And, when some people took umbrage over a Japanese bicycle called "American Eagle", its name was changed to Nishiki in 1971--the same year the S10-S came out. Kawamura Bicycles in Japan--which, to my knowledge, has never sold bikes under its own name in the US-- made Nishikis as well as Azuki, a lower-priced (but still nice) line of bicycles.   

Howie Cohen, the importer of Nishiki and Azuki, explained that the names were chosen because they were definitely Japanese, but easy for Americans to pronounce, and could not be translated or used in offensive ways.  Nishiki is a  gold thread woven into wedding kimonos, while Azuki is a sweet bean native to Japan.  To my knowledge,no bicycles have ever been sold under those names in Japan, although "Nishiki", like "Fuji", is a  brand name for a wide variety of products in that country.

On the other hand, there are Fuji bicycles in the Land of the Rising Sun.  Some models are different from those offered in the US and other places.  The same could be said for Panasonic bikes (which, nice as they were, never sold very well in the US) and Miyata, known as Koga Miyata in Europe.  Also, Bridgestone --probably the most un-Japanese-sounding of all--was successful in Japan before Grant Petersen turned it into a brand with a cult following in the US.  It was probably far better-known as Bridgestone--both in Japan and the US--than it was with the under the more Japanese-sounding names of Kabuki (not bad, but very strange, bikes) and C.Itoh (pretty bad) under which it was marketed in the US before and during the Bike Boom.

So, by the 1980s, Japanese bike manufacturers had come "full circle", at least in one sense:  They were flaunting, rather than hiding, their origins.  In other words, they no longer had to "go stealth" in order to sell:  The ride qualities and reliability of Japanese bikes and parts made them desirable, just as the quality of other Japanese goods (such as cars, cameras and electronics) made them preferable to their counterparts made in other countries.  

In brief,one could say that the Fuji S10-S showed American cyclists that Japanese bikes and components were as good as--and, in some instances, superior to--what other countries were making. Japanese bikes became what you bought if you wanted something really good for your money, not what you bought because you couldn't afford "something better".  After the S10-S came along, you could buy a Japanese bike without shame.

9 comments:

  1. I think your timeline is not quite correct. By 1971, American Eagle HAD transformed to Nishiki. We still retain our original Nishiki Kokusai from that time period. It would later become the ubiquitous Nishiki International. While our bike still has its "American Eagle" sticker on the seat tube, otherwise, it is a Nishiki all the way. I suspect that Nishiki actually led the way by a few months for brands such as Fuji (AKA Subaru in the motoring world). While Nishiki is, sadly, gone, we got a Nishiki floor pump about four years back. The Kokusai had the Suntour derailleur, half step gearing and Dia Compe brakes, along with a frame that is still solid today.

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  2. According to http://midlifecycling.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-safari-before-bikecentennial.html Nishiki brought out the Safari in 1972. I believe the Nishiki International (and the earlier Nishiki Kokusai) both predated the Safari. Our S/N is KS154569 which considerably predates a S/N from Bike Forums. Fuji is a latecomer, and they may be unrelated to the Subaru Fuji which confuses me thoroughly. I guess "Fuji" translates to something like "Acme" in English.

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  3. I saw a Craigslist ad one time offering what the seller proclaimed to be an "ultra rare promotional bike from American Eagle Outfitter" and "vintage, from their earliest days!".

    Of course you can guess what it was. Had me laughing.
    The seller was a regular junk flipper, and his ads were always bizarre. I was never sure if his descriptions were the result of ignorance or purposeful deception, but he mostly sold $20 garage-sale-castoffs, so I doubt his customers were looking for gold anyways.


    Wolf.

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  4. Maybe Japanese products were "developing a good reputation in the 1950's", but the development was slow. I well remember as a kid in the 50's, going along on shopping trips with my parents, that reading "Made in Japan" someplace on an item was a total deal breaker: back on the shelf and look for something American. People would peal off or scratch off a "Made in Japan" label. It was embarresing for many to be seen with something Japanese. "Japanese junk" people said. Except for a few in the know (like about cameras), this stigma didn't really wear off until the mid or late 60's.

    Some of this was because of the nearness of the war and the racist propaganda of that time. Anti-Japanese racism was very much on the surface in the 50's. Once the racist genie is let out of the bottle, it is difficult to put back. The lesson is very timely in the US of this election year.

    Leo

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  5. Steve--I am sorry if I caused confusion. I made a slight change that, I believe, should clarify the timeline a bit.

    The Safari indeed came out in 1972. To my knowledge, it was always marketed under the Nishiki brand. Also, from the information I've gleaned, it seems that the Kokusai became the International the same year. That would make perfect sense if--as I've determined--American Eagle became Nishiki in 1971.

    I don't mean to imply that the Fuji S10-S was the first good Japanese bike. Rather, I think it's the first bike that showed Americans, all over the country, that the Japanese were making top-tier bikes. (Until 1971, American Eagle/Nishiki, Centurion, Univega and other quality Japanese bikes were sold mainly on the West Coast and were not widely available east of the Misssippi.

    Wolf--An "American Eagle Outfitter" bike. That's funny. I'd bet, though, that if a bike were marketed under that name, it would sell.

    Leo--I remember those times, too, when people passed over "Jap Crap" in favor of stuff made in the USA. Even in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was in college, I knew people who refused to buy Japanese stuff because they fought in WWII, or someone close to them was wounded or killed by Japanese soldiers. (Oddly, I never saw the same prejudice against German goods.)

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  6. My Dad said there was prejudice against both Japanese and German goods during the 1950s and it seemed to him to taper off somewhat by the late 1960s, perhaps a bit earlier in the 60s possibly due to Cold War sentiment (now the Germans are allies vs. the Soviets) and the popularity of VWs. My Dad, a combat veteran of the ground war France, Belgium and Germany, said he never took any of it personally - when the war was over he bought whatever products he liked from whatever country. We had all kinds of cars - Japanese, German, British. My Dad and brother started buying Japanese camera equipment in the early 1960s. In the early 1970s we started purchasing Seiko watches (I still have my very accurate Seiko wind-up my parents bought me) as well as Citizen and Pulsar. My personal favorites are Seikos; we have a number of old Seikos that still run quite well. Nevertheless, my Dad said he knew of other people who still had prejudice against Japanese and German products because of the war.

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  7. Frenchy--Seikos are indeed great watches.

    You point out something interesting: Some people were more willing to "forgive" the Germans because they became our allies against the Soviets during the Cold War. That is certainly true. I think there was also an element of cultural bias, if not racism: Until recently, the vast majority of Americans were of European descent. So they could identify with Germans in ways they never could with the Japanese. (I think it's also the reason why people were so much less able to comprehend, at first, that the Holocuast was happening in "the land of Mozart" than to believe that the Japanese were capable of acts of savagery, even before the attack at Pearl Harbor.

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  8. Interesting post. I've never owned a Fuji, but they definitely did help Japanese bikes become better accepted. The workmanship on models like the s-10 did seem to be better than a lot of earlier Japanese bikes. Also, that catalog cover image is really cool!

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  9. Brooks--I have never owned a Fuji, either, but I have always had respect for them--at least the ones up to about the early '90's. As Sheldon Brown points out, they were one of the last Japanese manufacturers to shift production to Taiwan, so they didn't develop the relationships other Japanese bike-makers enjoyed with Taiwan manufacturers--at least, not for a while. The mid- and late-90s Fujis weren't very good, but the ones from about 2005 or so have been good.

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