25 June 2015

The Safari Before The Bikecentennial

On resiste a la invasion des armees; on ne resiste pas a la invasion des idees.

 Even if you have no idea of what this means, you have probably guessed that it was written by Victor Hugo because, well, he is the first French writer that comes to most people's minds.

The literal translation goes like this:  One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.  I rather prefer it to the most common translation because it keeps the symmetrical structure and somewhat echoes the sound of the original.

But, as Robert Frost once remarked, in poetry, what gets lost in translation is the poetry.   So it is with the version of the quote almost every English speaker has heard: There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

That second translation, though, came to mind when I came across some photos of something I hadn't seen in a long time:

The Safari is a fully-loaded touring bicycle Nishiki offered from 1972 until 1975:  as the 1970's Bike Boom in North America was waxing and waning.  The year after Nishiki discontinued the Safari, thousands of Americans rode all or part of the Bikecentennial.  However, euphoria about the transcontinental tour did not translate into large numbers of dedicated bicycle tourists.  So, had the Safari been made for another year, it might have translated into another year or two of production, but no more.

Julius, on his Safari re-fitted with upright bars

When the Safari was introduced, very few Americans had ever used classical bicycle touring equipment, or anything that resembled it.  So we were unfamiliar with canvas panniers and "handlebar" (more accurately, front) bags like the ones on French constructeur and English touring bikes.  As you can see in the photo, the bags that came with the Safari closely resembled bags made by Sologne, La Fuma, Karrimor, Carradice and other British and French companies.  And the Safari's bags--like the rest of the bike, made in Japan--were solidly constructed from canvas and leather, though the materials on the Japanese bags were thicker--and heavier.

Those bags were affixed to carriers attached to brazed-on fittings (rather than the clamps in use on most bikes of the time).  The carriers, made of steel, were solidly-constructed but, again, heavier than the British and French racks on which they were modeled. 

And, like the custom touring bikes of yore, the Safari came with a generator lighting set.  Strangely, the generator was clamped onto the front fork rather than a brazed-on rear stay fitting (or even one on the front fork).  But it was said to be a good, reliable set that gave, for its time, good light output.

If one were to take away the bags, racks, brazed-on fittings, generator light and other accessores (such as the pump), one would have been left with the Nishiki Kokusai (which became the International in 1974), a solid bike with a smooth ride and a drivetrain that shifted better than most others of its time (thanks in large part to the SunTour VGT rear derailleur).  The Kokusai/International sold well (I had one) but the Safari did not.  In fact, it was derided by some of the same people, including bike shop employees and owners, who touted the Kokusai/International.  

One reason is that most Americans had never seen, let alone used, touring bags like the ones on the Safari.  The state-of-the-art panniers and other bags  Kirtland, Eclipse, Cannondale and other American companies offered at that time were made from pack nylon and, later, Cordura. They were much lighter and didn't need the special racks and fittings the older canvas bags required.  Plus, the American bags could be had in a rainbow of colors.  (Isn't it funny that back then, nearly all bike components were silver--black was a big deal--but the bags were brightly-colored.  Now we can get neon-hued rims and such, but most bags come only in black!) 

Also, because most of the ten-speeds sold during the Bike Boom didn't have fenders, most new American cyclists came to believe that only clunkers and kids' bikes had them. We used to joke that you knew a "serious" cyclist by the mud stripes on the back of his jersey and shorts! 

But one of the real "nails in the coffin" for sales of that bike was its weight:  42 pounds.  It's actually not as bad as it sounds when you consider all of the equipment the Safari came with.  The Kokusai was a 31-pound bike--typical for its time--and the International shaved a pound or two off that.  To most people, though, buying a Safari meant getting the weight of a Schwinn Varsity at twice the price--even if it cost less than half of what other fully-equipped touring bikes cost.

All of those issues aside, a dedicated bike tourer would have found one other (easily remediable) flaw:  the gearing. In the 1970's, it was common to have "half step" gearing in the front to compensate for the wide gearing gaps between cogs on wide-range five-speed freewheels.  Said freewheel had gears ranging from 14 to 34 teeth--the widest range available at the time.  It was paired with chainrings of 48 and 54 teeth.  Yes, you read that right. The small chainring was 48 teeth--on a fully-loaded touring bike

Had that flaw been corrected, and had Nishiki shaved a bit of weight off the Safari, would it have sold better--and would Nishiki have continued making it? Could it have become an idea whose time had come?


  1. I toured for many years with the half step gearing and it seemed quite natural to find just the exact gear. Only when I started to seek lower gears did I change... Bike being nicked sort of helped the change!

  2. Yikes on that gearing! My LHT has a 48 tooth chainring as the largest of three. I can almost match the top end, though, since my smallest cog goes to 11 (just like Spinal Tap's amps! :) ). The cogs top out at 34, too, though with 9 of them, it's more gradual than the old five speeds.

  3. Ailish and Coline--My Nishiki International--which was the Safari minus the bags, fenders and such--had identical gearing to the Safari. Being young and full of testosterone(!) I of course changed the freewheel--to a 14-24, if I recall correctly.

    I think chainring setups like the one on the International and Safari made sense when we were riding five-speed freewheels, which usually had greater jumps between gears than today's cassettes. I think that was the reason why John Forrester used to recommend--and folks like me rode--half-step gearing.

    Also, the 54 tooth front ring made sense when the smallest cog on most freewheels was 14 teeth. Now I'm going to brag: Before I started taking hormones, I was riding a 54 tooth (and a 39) in front with an 11-23 cassette on my Land Shark racing bike! I don't think I'd try that today!

  4. When my touring days stopped I changed the wide range freewheel to 13 ( low at the time) to 18 with 57 to 36 front triple. These days when I am tempted to give it a spin I long for that wide range back again... Pushing the big gear needs a good down slope too.

  5. Coline--I don't think I've ever used a 57 tooth front. Props to you!

  6. "The year after Nishiki discontinued the Safari...."

    "... one would have been left with the Nishiki Kokusai (which became the International in 1974)...."

    I did not become interested in Kawamura-built Nishiki bicycles until about 1990... so my reasoning is inductive, based on following internet breadcrumbs.

    Counting Kokusai/International as a touring frame, through most of the 1980s, the Nishiki line included two touring frames. From the "inaugural effort" of the Safari, Nishiki's hi-end touring bikes seemed to flow from Safari ===> Ultra Tour ===> Grand Tour ===> Continental ===> Cresta. The earliest Ultra Tour frameset I have seen is dated 1980, so there may be another model name between.

    Over its history, the design of the International underwent some changes. In terms of marketing, my sense is that the International was the sweet spot -- that is the entry-level/most affordable of Nishiki's hi-end bicycles.


    BTW, you mention the years of manufacture for the Safari and the transition year for Kokusai/International. Is that all based on personal recall? Something you read on the internet? Documentation that you can share?


  7. Answered my own question (which I don't see here now) about Kokusai to International transition. Seems authoritative enough, coming from Howie Cohen's website.