09 January 2017

The Afghanistan Of The Bicycle Component World?

The Fatal Mistake was made in 1962.

At least, that's how Frank Berto (the author of The Dancing Chain) and others see it. At the time, the mistake's consequences weren't obvious.  The demise of the company that made the fateful decision took three decades. For a few years after it, the organization seemed to be doing better than ever.  

It's as if someone thrived, prospered and did some of his or her best work--and even looked better than ever--for a few years after swallowing a Death Potion.  The decline and demise would come slowly; along the way, the person who took the poison would have opportunities to take antidotes, or do other things to reverse the damage.  Instead, that person does things that would prolong their suffering and deterioration--all the while denying that he or she is in trouble.

The move I am talking about is not SunTour's decision to out-Duopar the Duopar:  the venerable Japanese derailleur-maker's decline and extinction was indeed protracted, but not quite to the degree of that of the company I'm about to mention.  Also, SunTour's decline was more obvious, as its attempts to come up with an indexed shifting system to compete with Shimano's were ill-conceived and, ultimately, disastrous.

The original Simplex Prestige derailleur, 1962

The Fatal Mistake to which I am referring is Simplex's introduction of their Prestige 532 rear derailleur.  It is, as far as anyone knows, the first such mechanism to be constructed mainly of plastic.  The parallelogram and knuckles were made of that wonder material, but the pulley cage was made of steel.  This resulted in what may have been the lightest derailleur available at the time--and one whose weight (220 grams) would be respectable even today:  about the same as an alloy Campagnolo Chrous or Shimano Ultegra/600 9-speed.

Of course, that Prestige probably couldn't handle 9 cogs and, even over 5, would not offer the same ease and precision in shifting as even Campy's or Shimano's current lower-end offerings.  But, for its time, the first Prestige offered a reasonably good shift, though not as nice as the company's Juy Export 61, introduced a year earlier.  

The JE61 (Who came up with that name?) seemed, at least superficially, to have the same design as the Prestige, the difference being that the JE 61 was rendered in steel.  But it was well-machined and -finished, and had brass bushings in its pivot points, much like the Campagnolo Gran Sport of its time.  In fact, Simplex's derailleur would not compare unfavorably to its Campy counterpart.

The Simplex Juy Export 61.  

Although questions were raised about the Prestige's durability (almost non-existent, at least in its first version), other companies felt they had to offer something at least as light in order to compete.  In fact, one small Italian firm tried, it seemed, to make a derailleur that had even more plastic than the Prestige.

That concern was called Gian Robert.  They seem to have begun making parts--crudely cast and finished copies or near-copies of Campagnolo components--some time in the late 1950s.  Some of GR's stuff made Triplex's products seem refined and elegant.  

One thing Gian Robert had in common with Triplex--aside from its attempts to look something like Campagnolo from a few meters away--is that few of its products made it to the US.  Some GR stuff was offered for a few years in Ron Kitching's influential catalogue, which also essentially introduced Shimano and SunTour to British cyclists. And, not surprisingly, some low- to mid-level European frames had Gian Robert parts hanging from them.

From the Ron Kitching catalogue, 1964

But those Gian Roberts shared an even-less-desirable trait with those first Simplex derailleurs:  They didn't last.  Their attempt to out-Simplex Simplex, if you will, succeeded--if you can call it that--in a perhaps-unintended way. From what I've read, GR's plastic derailleurs had even shorter life spans than the first Prestige derailleurs. According to one account in a British cycling magazine, the GR did reasonably well with a straight-block 14-18 five-speed freewheel.  Then again, what derailleur didn't?  But any attempt to use the derailleur with larger cogs--even as small as 22 teeth--resulted in the derailleur bending rather than moving the chain onto the cog.

Now, to be fair to Simplex, they did improve subsequent versions of their Prestige derailleur, adding steel reinforcement to the parallelogram plates.  (The later Prestiges had blue or red badges on black plastic parallelograms; the first version had a parallelogram that looked like it was made of pus-colored sparkles.  And they would make some very nice derailleurs, including one Bernard Thevenet rode to victory in the Tour de France, as well as the best non-indexed shift levers ever made. (I rode them with a Huret Jubilee rear derailleur on an otherwise all-Campagnolo-equipped bike.)  But few companies can survive on one product, as Simplex seemingly tried to do with its shift levers.

Gian Robert front derailleur on Rigi frame.

Ironically, Gian Robert met a similar fate.  Their plastic derailleurs disintegrated.  Their steel Campy knockoffs were nasty-looking and didn't shift much better.  But some of their other products were decent.  And one--for many cyclists, the only GR product they ever purchased--was actually essential for some riders:  a front derailleur which was the only one that would fit on the Rigi frame.

Ofmega Mistral "Maglia Rosa"

As for plastic derailleurs:  A few other companies, none of which exist today, made them.  (Hmm...Could it be that making plastic derailleurs is, for the companies that make them, what invading Afghanistan is for the countries that try it?)  Possibly the most glorious, if you can call it that, attempt was made by Ofmega in the early- to mid-1980s.  Their "mistral" rear derailleur was not only made of plastic; it also came in a dazzling array of colors like "maillot jaune" and "squadri azzuri" that were supposed to evoke major races and teams.  Their "maglia rosa" was intended to remind people of the jersey worn by the leader of the Giro d'Italia (as the "maillot jaune" adorns the front-runner of the Tour de France) but, as Michael Sweatman wryly notes in his Disraeligears, made it look, to some people, like a  sex toy or Barbie doll accessory.

To my knowledge, in the three decades since Ofmega (which seems to have gone out of business about a decade ago) ceased production of those derailleurs, no one else seems to have made a plastic (unless you count carbon-fiber offerings) derailleur.  But, as I have shown in some of my other posts, if an idea is bad enough, someone will try it again.  After my country, which will be the next to attempt an invasion of Afghanistan?


  1. Ron Kitching is a name I have not thought of for thirty years...

    Surely this is all research for a fat book history of bike parts. That Rigi frame is something I have never seen before, you keep surprising me.

  2. It's interesting to think that Ron had so much influence in the British--and, to a lesser degree, North American--cycling world. He introduced a lot of components, such as SunTour and Shimano derailleurs and Milremo accessories and wheelgoods.

    It seems that Rigis were made for a few years in the late '70's and early '80's. I didn't see a lot of them. But, of course, you only had to see one to remember it!

  3. I find it quaint that in the Gian Robert ad they come right out and call the thing what it is, plastic. Today no marketing guy would ever admit that it's just plastic. Dear God, call it polymer or something, anything but plastic. I guess that's why Rolex is coveted and Swatches are landfill fodder.

  4. Phillip--would anyone pay $6000 for a frame if it were called "plastic" or even "polymer"? "Carbon fiber" frames sell for that much, and more!

    I guess that in England, they could admit that something was made of plastic and it would still sell: Some, I suspect, would buy it just for its weather-proofness.

    1. All I know is my CF owning pals look very put out when I tell them that plastic forks belong on a picnic not a bike ride.

  5. Ron Kitching's bikes seldom made it into the heartland. i've only ever seen one example -in a shop window about 40 years ago- but remember seeing Ron's adverts in UK cycling magazines. The one i saw was rather "industrial" looking- meaning not a showpiece cosmetically but a basic work-a-day racing machine. R.K.'s ads sometimes featured a certain well-known British female racer whose face was blanked out in the pic (due to UK's strict rules concerning amateurism and sponsorship,) but a careful examination showed it was Beryl Burton who had a distinctive way of placing her hands on the drops (one hand higher up the hooks than the other.)

    Oh, and i got a good laugh from Phillip's comment about plastic forks! Thanks for that! May i use it sometime?

  6. Mike--I have seen only one Ron Kitching bike myself and my memory of it is the same as yours. I'm guessing that it rode decently, though it wasn't much to look at.

    Ron Kitching did have a lot of influence, though, on a couple of generations of British cyclists.

    I like the fork comment, too!

  7. Mike & Justine-feel free to irritate your plastic loving friends anytime.