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When I was a student, back in the mid 1970’s, I once attended a lecture called ‘Engineering the Perfect Bolt’. It was part of a series designed to interest science students in engineering and had such an utterly dull title that I simply had to attend. There was a kind of morbid fascination about watching engineers trying to appear interesting - it’s a bit like clergymen trying to play folk-rock-fusion.

The lecturer explained, in excruciating detail, the twelve features of a properly designed bolt - the profile of the thread which should preferably be rolled, the relieved part of the shaft just below the head, the carefully radiused junction between head and shaft, the raised circular area under the hexagonal head to allow the bolt to turn without the corners ‘digging in’ etc. etc.. We pampered scientists were supposed to marvel at the fact that there could be so much sophistication captured in such a humble engineered object. The lecturer ended his (for, strangely, the lecturer was a man) diatribe by stating that, of course, we would never come across a bolt which had all twelve of these features, but at least we would appreciate those few features that real-world bolts did actually possess.

A few weeks later I was fitting a Campagnolo Nuovo Record chainset, and happened to look at the crank bolt. This simple component was an engineering masterpiece - in defiance of the lecturer, every single one of the twelve features that he had mentioned in his tedious lecture was present and correct. To cap it all the bolt was beautifully finished (even though it would be hidden by a dustcap) and was made of some kind of steel that appeared to have near-infinite tensile strength.

For me, that bolt captures the essence of Campagnolo. I never found that Campagnolo equipment was particularly easy to use. I never found that Campagnolo equipment was particularly lightweight, or feature rich. I never found that Campagnolo equipment was problem free - in the mid 1970’s I saw a number of the afore-mentioned Nuovo Record cranks that had completely sheared (problems with the cold forging, I would guess). But there was an attention to tiny details that took your breath away. Frank Berto caustically comments that the Campagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleur shifted poorly, but was so well constructed that it would keep on shifting exactly as poorly - forever.

The classic Campagnolo equipment was not even remotely engineered to a price - in a fine Italian tradition it was always a slightly egotistical expression of its maker’s craft - and it was all the better for that. When Campagnolo did try to be price competitive (the Valentino series of derailleurs spring to mind) the result was always a disaster - Campagnolo’s design engineers simply did not (do not?) have a culture that allowed them to find (or even seek) the necessary least-worst compromises.

Campagnolo was founded in 1933 by Tullio Campagnolo in Vicenza, Italy.

The legend goes that Tullio Campagnolo was an experienced racing cyclist, who had struggled with removing his rear wheel during a snow storm on the Croce d’Aune pass during the 'Gran Premio della Vittoria' (a race) in 1924. Except that in some accounts this event occured in 1927, and meticulous research by Bicycle Quarterly has determined that the only year in which snow fell on the 'Gran Premio della Vittoria' was 1925. Whatever. But instead of taking the logical step of giving up cycling to take up a more comfortable sport (carpet bowls anyone?), Tullio Campagnolo went on to invent the quick release axle.

In the 1930’s the value of a quick release axle was only partly about repairing punctures. It was also about changing gears by ‘flipping’ your double fixed hub (as Tullio Campagnolo was failing to do in the snow in 1924, 1925 or 1927). Campagnolo latched onto this notion of the quick release as gear changer and developed a series of derailleur devices that involved toothed drop outs and long rods with levers on the end that allowed the rider to perform such manoeuvres without dismounting. The first of these appalling, but much loved, devices were hand made before the Second World War and were subject to a patent dating from 1933.

After the second world war, Campagnolo renamed their derailleur device as the 1946 Campagnolo Corsa and started to produce it in serious numbers. They went on to produce ‘improved’ versions including the 1949 Campagnolo Paris-Roubaix. Despite the fact that these derailleur devices were horrendously difficult to use, they were the equipment of choice for the winners of both the 1946 and 1948 Tours de France. I have banned them from this collection, partly because they do not conform to my idea of what a derailleur should look like (my rule is that a 'proper' derailleur should, at least, have a guide pulley), partly because they are intensely ‘collectible’ (read - expensive), and partly because, in my opinion at least, they have all the engineering style and élan of a colostomy bag.

In 1949 Fausto Coppi, the greatest racer of the time, the hero of all Italy and nobody’s fool, gave Campagnolo’s Heath Robinson technology a body-swerve and opted for Simplex pull-chain derailleurs. It was exactly the wake-up call that Tullio Campagnolo needed. His response was to develope a parallelogram derailleur, that became the iconic Campagnolo Gran Sport. The exact story of this epoch-making event is a little unclear. Some elements of it may be:

  • To quote Frank Berto: "Ernest Csuka, the well-known builder of Singer Cycles, told Raymond Henri that, at the 1947 or 1948 Paris Cycle Show, Tullio Campagnolo took a searching look at the Nivex derailleur and bought two of them". The Nivex was the leading parallelogram derailleur of the time.
  • Again, Frank Berto reports that Tullio Campagnolo purchased three patents from Francesco Ghiggini describing parallelogram designs for derailleurs. These patents dated from 1937, 1938 and 1941 and so could well have provided the basis for Tullio Campagnolo's thinking - but, on the other hand, he did not buy them until 1951.
  • And then there is the slightly beguiling role of Marcello Gambato, an employee of Campagnolo, who went on to be associated with Gian Robert. Marcello Gambato appears to have played some special role in the design of Campagnolo's early derailleurs.

Whatever the source of inspiration, the sequence of events went something like this:

  • A prototype Campagnolo Gran Sport appeared at the 1949 Milan cycle show. This was a twin cable design with no spring in the parallelogram.
  • For the 1951 model year, the Gran Sport acquired a sprung parallelogram and changed to single cable operation. The modern parallelogram derailleur had arrived.
  • In the style of 'batch' production in 'workshops' the Gran Sport underwent a plethora of minor changes over its lifetime. The pulley cage changed shape, the pulley wheels were, or were not, drilled, various elements of the pulley cage spring container were, or were not, wide or narrow etc. etc.. It's enough to make a derailleur collector froth at the mouth with excitement.

From this point on, Campagnolo was firmly established as the afficionado's derailleur. Highlights of the next 60-odd years were:

  • The introduction of the Capagnolo Record in 1963. This was essentially a Campagnolo Gran Sport - but with an offset pulley cage to give a more nuanced chain gap and slightly more capacity.
  • The arrival of the magnificent Campagnolo Nuovo Record in 1967. This was essentially a Campagnolo Record - but manufactured in aluminium. It was light, extremely strong and had an intoxicating pearly silver finish - apparently from being tumbled in a drum full of bamboo marbles. The Campagnolo Nuovo Record remained unchallenged as the Clubman's choice for the next two decades.
  • Eddy Merckx's dominance of competitive cycling from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Merckx was the poster-boy for Campagnolo.
  • The masterful marketing of the Campagnolo Super Record, introduced in 1975. This was a Campagnolo Nuovo Record with black anodising, Titanium bolts (and later with a redesigned pulley cage). But was hailed as the ultimate derailleur imaginable.
  • And then there was a hiatus. SunTour and Shimano had wrested away the technological crown. The talk of the bike shows was all about aerodynamics and indexing - not about spring classics or European race teams. Touring cycling and then mountainbiking were 'in' and road racing was 'out'. And Tullio Campagnolo was an old man - he died in 1983.
  • By the end of the 1980s, everyone thought that Campagnolo was headed for oblivion (in common with most of the European cycle component industry). But, after disastrous forays into mountain bike components and a blizzard of underwhelming, low-end, groupsets, they refocused on high-end road components, swallowed their pride and copied Japanese best design practices... and survived.
  • By 1991 the Campagnolo Record was a workably indexed, 'slant parallelogram', derailleur with two sprung pivots - a barely disguided copy of a Shimano Dura-Ace, but with Campagnolo's signature polished finish.
  • Since 1991, Campagnolo has been something of a leader in using carbon fibre in derailleurs and has managed (just) to keep up with developments in the world of electronic derailleurs.

In some ways this is a tale of company that was an insurgent in the 1950s, that dominated the 1960s and 1970s, that peaked in 1980 and that has been in steady decline ever since. However it is easy to forget that in a period of supposed decline from 1981 to 2010 inclusive, Campagnolo equipment won the Tour de France on 17 occasions, compared to 2 occasions for Shimano and 2 for SRAM. Even allowing for the removal of 7 'wins' by Lance Armstrong riding Shimano, this is a moderately devastating record!

Tullio would be proud.

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