04 March 2015

What If Sanko Ruled The World?

Most of us who came of age around the time of the '70's Bike Boom believed that in the beginning, good bikes and components came from England, France, Italy and a few other European countries.  Reliable but heavy and clunky bikes were made in the US; Japanese manufacturers copied what Europeans and, sometimes, Americans did.  And, until the time of the Bike Boom, the Japanese stuff was of lesser quality.  Some of us still believed that narrative long after reality proved otherwise.

Thus, we thought that if you were a racer, super-high mileage rider or simply wanted to ride without being weighed down by your wallet, you equipped your bike with Campagnolo components, especially the Nuovo Record rear derailleur.  In our heart of hearts, we knew that SunTour derailleurs shifted better.  But if a Campy costs four times as much, it must be better, right.

So, while racers and other active riders--or rich blowhards--opted for Campagnolo, in-the-know cyclotourists, recreational riders and other types of cyclists soon learned that, whatever their gearing needs, a SunTour VGT (or, later, Cyclone) was their best bet.  Eventually, racers and those with pretentions toward being racers would realize that SunTour derailleurs--and, by extension, other top-flight Japanese components--had "caught up" with or, in some cases surpassed, their European counterparts.

The funny thing is that none of us knew that more than a decade earlier, a Japanese manufacturer made a derailleur that far surpassed anything else that was made at the time.  Legend has it that so much was spent to reseach, develop and make this derailleur that it bankrupted the company.

Just a year after Nabuo Ozaki designed the single most influential derailleur in the history of cycling--the Sun Tour Gran-Prix--a smaller Japanese company came up with "best of" derailleur that incorporated the best design features--except for SunTour's slant parallelogram--of other derailleurs.  To be fair, whoever designed the derailleur I'm about to mention may not have known about SunTour's design, as it may not have gone into production and in those pre-Internet days, such information would not have traveled as freely or quickly.  Also, I think that even had this derailleur's designer known about SunTour, he wouldn't have incorporated its design as it was so new and radical.  He probably would have thought it best to copy, as closely as possible, European designs, as most Japanese bike and component manufacturers did at the time.

The derailleur in question was, apparently, produced for only one or two years and was never exported, at least not in any significant quantities.  Thus, to this day it remains all but unknown to cyclists outside of Japan. Even within Japan, not many were sold, as it was more expensive than the Campagnolo Record or any other derailleur.  Because of its rarity and quality, it is one of the most sought-after components by Japanese collectors, who tend to favor vintage French (and sometimes British) stuff.


The derailleur I have been talking about is the Sankyo Procyon PV-III.  I have never seen one in person, but what I've seen in photos of it leads me to think that it was indeed of the extraordinary quality attributed to it.  The knuckles and parallelogram plates were made of nicely-finished aluminum.  Recall that at that time (1965-66), Campagnolo's top-of-the-line derailleur, the Record, was still made of chrome-plated bronze.  

The Procycon had two sprung pivots, as Simplex derailleurs had. (Only the lower pivot on the Campagnolo Record was sprung.)  This allowed, in the absence of a slant parallelogram, for the chain to ride closer to the cogs than it would with a Record.  Also aiding the shift was a clever mechanism that kept the cable stop and cable clamp in alignment, and a pulley cage with an offset pivot.

And the build quality, from what I've read and heard, has never been surpassed, not even by Campagnolo's or Mavic's derailleurs.  While SunTour derailleurs had an overall better design, they didn't have the otherworldliness, or perception thereof, that the Procyon had.  

Now here's something to consider:  What if the Procyon, rather than the Campagnolo Nuovo Record, had become the derailleur of choice in worldwide pelotons?  Would SunTour have become as influential as it did?  If SunTour derailleurs had less influence, would Shimano have copied their most salient design feature and created a successful indexed shifting system?  And what would, or wouldn't, other derailleur makers like Huret and Simplex have done?


  1. I've seen that derailleur on the disraeligears site - and it is a cool-looking piece of equipment. I like that big coil spring on the outside, out there in the open. And the construction quality, as you pointed out, looks so ahead of its time. I was shocked to see that it was from the mid 60s.

  2. Brooks--It really does look ahead of its time, even today. But somehow it doesn't have the cold Darth Vader look of too many technologically advanced (and some not-so-advanced) bikes and parts we see today.

    That coil spring is really neat. As far as I know, no other derailleur featured one until the Dura-Ace nine-speed came along in 1997. But that spring was placed inside the parallelogram, like the springs on most other derailleurs we've seen for the past half-century or so.

    Don't you just love Disraeligears?

  3. An uncle born during the First World War made himself a dérailleur with which as a teenager he cycled the coast of Britain getting a book stamped at post offices for proof and also spent a summer zigzagging over the Pyrenees until the gold coins his mother sewed intraday belt for emergencies had been spent.