27 January 2016

Before Carbon Fiber: Plastic Bicycle Components

Early in the 1970's Bike Boom, boatloads of ten-speeds from Raleigh, Peugeot, Motobecane, Dawes and other European makers came to these shores.  You may have had one of those bikes; perhaps you have one now. 

If it was made before 1975, chances are that its derailleur was made by Campagnolo, Huret or Simplex.  The latter company supplied the derailleurs for most Peugeots until the early 1980's, as well as for some models from the other bike-makers I've mentioned.  My Peugeot PX-10 came with the Simplex Criterium; the entry-level U-08 came with the company's "Prestige" mechanism.

Simplex Criteriun

In design and function, the Criterium and Prestige were the same.  The Prestige had a red-badged parallelogram while the Criterium had silver badge and cute red plugs in the pivot bolts.  Most interestingly, though, the parallelogram and knuckles on the Prestige were made entirely of Delrin plastic, while the Criterium's parallelogram had a steel reinforcement.

Simplex Prstige

Because of the materials used, Simplex derailleurs were often perceived to be "cheap" or of low-quality.  Actually, given the standards of what was available at the time, they shifted reasonably well--not as well as anything SunTour made, but at least as well as most of Campagnolo's offerings.  The chief objection to those plastic Simplex derailleurs was, aside from aesthetics, their durability.  When I worked in bike shops, I saw many on which the plastic had worn at the pivots and joints, leaving them with sloppy shifting.  In all fairness, though, I must admit that I didn't see as many broken ones as I expected, and I think stories of Prestiges or even Criteriums that exploded under normal pedaling pressure were exaggerated.

From the time the first all-plastic (except for the cage plates and bolts) Simplex derailleurs were introduced in 1962, increasing amounts of metal were added to the higher-level models.  Lucien Juy probably figured that racers and tourists rode more miles and under worse conditions than recreational riders did, so more durable derailleurs were necessary for them.  (While a Prestige would wrap up the amount of chain necessary for a triple crankset, it wasn't torsionally rigid enough to last very long in such use.)  By 1975, he had come full-circle:  His "Super LJ" was constructed entirely of alloy and intended to compete with the Campagnolo Nuovo Record, Huret Jubilee, SunTour Cyclone and other top derailleurs of the time.

(This state of affairs may have made Simplex the only component manufacturer whose professional-level wares were heavier than its entry-level stuff, or anything in between!)

Before carbon-fiber frames gained widespread popularity, Simplex derailleurs were among the few components to be made of plastic.  Another is one that, unless you were riding during the '80's, or have a bike from that period, might surprise you.

Stronglight cranks and headsets came on many of the same bikes that included Simplex derailleurs.  I never had any problems with the ones that came with my PX-10E; in fact, I have a soft spot for the Stronglight "93" crankset.  (The only reason, I believe, it's not popular today is its proprietary bolt circle of 122mm.)  The headset was ugly but at least it was smooth-running, sturdy and didn't require any special tools.

Stronglight A-9

Later, Stronglight made what some regard to be the best headset, ever: the A9. (The "Delta" is the A-9 with more seals and more smoothly curved cups.) I had one on my Mondonico Criterium; it was as well-made as anything I've ridden.  Many 30-year-old A9s are still in use today and people pay premium prices for them on eBay.  It's the headset I'd still be using if it weren't for Chris King.

Stronglight B-10

Although it was the lightest headset available at the time (and lighter than most headsets available today), someone though a lighter version was necessary.  So was born the B10, which shared the A9's tapered roller bearings but replaced the alloy cups with ones made out of--you guessed it--Delrin.

(The B10 sometimes bore the name of Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault on its locknut.)

I never used a B10 myself, and I never installed one. However, it came on some of Trek's touring machines during the 1980s, as well as other bikes.  Not surprisingly, they ran as smoothly as the A9s--at least for a while.  Accounts vary on how long.  But because roller bearing headsets are tightened with more force than ball-bearing headsets, owing to the tolerances of the roller bearings, tightening compresses the plastic cups more than it does to alloy ones.  From my limited experiences of working on B10s, I found they were more difficult to adjust so that they turned smoothly without play. 

I heard a few accounts of cups that broke.  If they were true, I wonder how many were the result of failure during a ride or of over-tightening. Or both.

B10s, apparently, were not in production for very long.  On the other hand, Simplex made plastic derailleurs for more than two decades.  That could be the reason why we see more extant Simplexes than B10s.  That, and the fact that during the Boom, many people bought ten-speed bikes, rode them once or twice and relegated them to basements and garages for decades afterward.  Then again, the same could be said for some of the Treks that came with plastic headsets:  People bought them for tours they planned but never did, or they actually did their planned tours and, afterward, their lives took them away from cycling.  Or thet simply found they didn't like bicycle touring.

In any event, it seems that--unless you count carbon bikes and parts as plastic--there have been few, if any, attempts to render major bicycle parts in the material during the past three decades or so.  Could it be that carbon bikes are really a disincentive for parts manufacturers to make plastic components and accessories to be used on non-carbon bikes?  Or is it--as rumors have it--that plastic derailleurs, headsets and other parts really disintegrate under you as you ride, or break at the worst possible moment?


  1. i had mixed feelings about the Simplex Prestige line... back when i was a shop rat, we sold Gitanes, which came out of the box with an unpredictable array of components. The derailleurs could be Simplex, Huret Allvit, and later on SunTour. The brakes could be Weinmann or Mafac. i liked the Prestige rear changer much better than the Allvit (also seen on many Schwinns of that era), but absolutely hated the Simplex front changer which was nearly impossible to set up to not throw the chain over (of course, the low-quality Gitane chainwheels didn't help!) The Allvit front was much better.
    i generally hated the basic Gitanes because of the mental gymnastics involved with trying to convince customers that all the components were on par with each other (i did prefer the Mafac brakes in spite of the squealy pads.) i was happy when the boss scored a container load of UO-8's the following year, but we were left with a large stock of the Gitanes which he wouldn't consider discounting to be rid of.
    i toured many miles on my Prestige equipped LaPierre before i moved on to a Carlton International with Campy Record (the older brass model rear) derailleurs.

  2. i remember also that for a time, i had a LeJeune Piste that for some strange reason i fitted with an all plastic (Nylint?) headset. It was a white cast thing with a very short stack height. i remember buying it after the original cheap headset brinelled and, typical of French bikes of the time, the steerer column was cut too short to accommodate a better quality -and therefore taller- headset.
    i used standard steel ball bearings in the nylon headset- a big mistake, i know now- which wore in worse than ever and the whole thing was abandoned in a month or two. i don't remember the brand name or whether there were supposed to be nylon or similar bearings meant to be used- it came with no literature.
    It was time when all sorts of strange componentry was appearing on the scene, and i fell prey to trying all sorts of oddball setups.

  3. Mike--Funny, I've just come across this:

    Could it be the headset you're describing.

    When I was working in shops, we used to joke that Gitane raided our parts bins every night and equipped their bicycles with whatver they found. I saw Gitanes that came out of the box with Sugino and Takagi swaged cranksets--at a time when they still came only on just-above-entry-level Japanese bikes (and were still superior to cottered cranks) and Simplex Prestige or Huret Allvit rear derailleurs.

    I agree with your assesment of the derailleurs: For a low-cost European drivetrain, the Allvit front and Prestige rear were the way to go. I'd also go with the Allvit levers(actually, they were just Huret's generic steel levers) even though they took a different cable end from the others and had to be disassembled to install the cable. Still, they worked reasonably well and were indestructible, in contrast to the plastic Simplex levers.

    And, yes, Mafac brakes were better than Weinmann or Universal, though either of the latter two wouldn't have been a deal-breaker for me in buying a bike.

    Those low-end Gitanes you describe remind me that "they don't make 'em like they used to...Thank God!"

    1. "they don't make 'em like they used to... Thank God!" AMEN! We used to joke that Gitane painted their bikes with war surplus paint that the Allies left behind in '45. Also i never saw a Gitane fork that was true out of the box!

  4. Mike--I could say similar things about low-end Bike Boom bikes from Atala (some were really scary), Raleigh, Windsor and any number of other manufacturers. But Gitane, I think, really made use of the "specifications subject to change without notice" disclaimer found in many catalogues.

    War surplus paint: That's a good one!

  5. Was it Nylfor who made the nylon headsets? I know I've also seen nylon seatposts -- was it the same company? I'm searching the net, but not having much luck. The plastic/nylon seatposts come up on ebay from time to time. What I seem to recall people saying about those pieces was that they were like "single use" components.

  6. Brooks-The headsets had the name "Nylfor" on them. Whether that was the name of the manufacturer or just a brand, I don't know.

    This is the first I've heard of the plastic seatposts. I don't think I'd want to ride one!

    1. "Nylfor" was the headset's brand name, and yes, it surely was "single use." Also, one such plastic seatpost did come my way on an old beat-up Gitane Track Standard i rescued (and raced after much modification.) The seatpost was branded Atax and went straight to the dustbin. It was cast from what looked like high density PVC and was just another French joke of a component. Still have the bike, though.

    2. Mike--It's disheartening to hear about that seatpost. Atax (a.k.a. Phillipe) actually made some good handlebars and stems.

  7. This is so cool. I am such a huge fan of their work. I really am impressed with how much you have worked to make this website so enjoyable.carbon fiber bike frame

  8. First of all i would like to thank you for the great and informative entry. I has to admit that I have never heard about this information I have noticed many new facts for me. Thanks a lot for sharing this useful and attractive information and I will be waiting for other interesting posts from you in the nearest future. Keep it up.
    carbon fiber bike parts