Hirondelle is the bicycle brand of Manufacture Française d’Armes et Cycles (also known as Manufrance), an iconic business based in St Étienne, France.
It would not be totally ridiculous to style Manufacture Française d’Armes et Cycles as the Amazon of its time. The world wide web was first tested in 1990 and by 1994 Jeff Bezos had founded Amazon to sell one of the stodgiest and most traditional of retail goods - books. His blinding innovation was to get properly organised to sell over the internet - arguably the first company to do so. From there on Amazon was unstoppable, selling everything under the sun and terrifying bricks-and-mortar retailers throughout the world.
In 1879 the french post office was organised into its modern form and by 1887 Étienne Mimard and Pierre Blachon had founded Manufacture Française d’Armes et Cycles. Initially they specialized in, wait for it, those, at the time, crucially modern, fast growing and must-have commodities - small arms and bicycles. Its blinding innovation was to get properly organised to sell by mail order - the first company to do so in France. From there on Manufacture Française d’Armes et Cycles was unstoppable, selling everything under the sun and terrifying bricks-and-mortar retailers throughout France. It’s worth noting that Sears also only issued its first mail order catalogue in the US in 1888.
Weirdly, for many years Manufacture Française d’Armes et Cycles seemed to think that one key element of their mail order operation should be that they actually manufactured a significant fraction of the goods that they sold. Their operation in St Étienne appears to have covered the acreage of a decent sized town and to have employed a crowd of workers that would exceed the gate at many a Premier League Football Clubs. This commitment to manufacturing created a critical mass of demand in St Étienne for bicycle components and, perhaps more important, a critical mass of skilled and knowledgable cycle engineers.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Manufacture Française d’Armes et Cycles mail order catalogue became gradually vaster and more encyclopedic - but it generally included a healthy section featuring their own Hirondelle brand of bikes and a fair selection of surprisingly practical cycling accessories and clothing (although I have my reservations about the range of compact, lightweight, cyclist’s pistols on offer - 6 Francs for a single shot, 15 Francs for a revolver). However, all things run their courses, and from the start of the second world war Manufacture Française d’Armes et Cycles, now renamed Manufrance, gradually lost its way, not least because Étienne Mimard refused to collaborate with the Germans and the company was severely punished as a result. By 1979 Manufrance was locked into a sequence of financial crises and liquidations - a story in which the name of Bernard Tapie inevitably appears. Following liquidation in 1985, in 1988 the rump of the company was purchased by a local businessman called Jacques Tavitian, who remains in control today.
In terms of the history of the derailleur, Hirondelle and Manufrance played two bit parts: