Derailleurs - an introduction

Sachs-Huret Jubilee derailleur (2200) main image

The rear derailleur is, in many ways, the definitive bicycle component, it defines the ‘groupset’ and that in turn, defines the bike. Cyclists often use the shorthand of talking about an ‘Ultegra’ road bike or an ‘XTR’ mountain bike. In addition to this the rear derailleur is the most complex and machine like bicycle component, unlike handlebars or hubs it is a real ‘mechanism’, with plenty of mechanical action going on. Finally there may be something to Arnfried Schmitz’s whimsical idea that “collecting derailleurs is fascinating because they are small, complex and have two wheels - like a bike!”

I have been working in bicycle shops since the mid 1970s, and I decided to put together this collection to represent rear derailleurs that I have worked on, sold, heard about or seen at trade shows in that time. Some are gears that I had only heard of, vehemently discussed by crusty old geezers in draughty Cyclist Touring Club club rooms, some are models that I personally sold in their hundreds and some are exotic beauties that I dreamed of owning.

The selection has been driven by a number of personal and not-all-together rational factors. These include:

  • What I have bumped into. This collection is at least 50% random chance. I have missed out many of the classic ‘collectable’ models, partly because they are well documented and partly because you never ‘find’ them, you have to buy them at a cost that is more than I can afford!
  • What I find interesting in historical terms. I was born in the 1950’s and see the cycling world in terms of developments since the mid 1970’s. That’s why you will find lots of SunTour and early Shimano in this collection and, perhaps, less Campagnolo and 1950’s Simplex than there should be. SRAM and SR Suntour are also criminally ignored because they just seem too recent!
  • What I find interesting in engineering terms. I would rather include the, very odd, 1982 Simplex Selematic 5 than yet another 1950’s Simplex pull chain derailleur with some tiny variation.
  • What I find interesting in aesthetic terms. I can’t resist the blushing pink Ofmega Mistral, even though it is probably one of the least important derailleurs in the history of the universe.
  • A desire to demonstrate diversity. I would rather include Favorit, Kharkov, Sanko and DNB models than include a complete collection of the annual variations of the Campagnolo Nuovo Record, very fine though that gear is.

I have tried to include the good and the bad, the worn and the new, the exotic and the commonplace.

Most of all I have tried to use a dry collection to tell some stories. People, both consumers and producers, are often passionate about bicycles, and the story of the derailleur has its share of drama and tragedy. Simplex more or less single-handedly created the mass market for derailleurs, and in the mid 1950’s was as dominant as Shimano is today. Then a single decision, to shift from metal to plastic, set them on the road from triumph to disaster. Huret took up the crown with a set of brilliant but flawed designs, and sold many millions of gears during the Great American Bicycle Boom of the early 1970’s, only to have SunTour decimate their sales in the later part of the decade. Then it was SunTour’s turn for disaster, with Shimano relentlessly out-manouevring them during the 1980’s. This all sounds like the cut and thrust of the everyday world of business and it is, but it is still the stuff of pride and passion.

Frank Berto, in The Dancing Chain tells a story of how when Schwinn switched their seminal Varsity model from the Simplex Tour de France gear to the Huret Allvit, Lucien Juy, the owner of Simplex ‘never forgave’ them. In a similar vein, a number of people have claimed that the surviving members of the Huret family are still so aggrieved by what happened to their company, in turn, that they refuse to discuss it with outsiders.

I have two memories that stick in my mind.

The first of these was being introduced to a member of the Juy family, the owners of Simplex, at a trade show. He was a distinguished looking gentleman in a beautiful French suit and immaculate shoes that must have cost more than I earned in three months (not hard at the time). I thought that I was being very polite, making vaguely positive small-talk about his new range of products for that year etc. etc.. Afterwards I was roundly told off by the person who introduced us for not being respectful enough to a member of one of the ‘royal families’ of the cycle industry. I was completely taken-aback. This was the early 1980’s and, although I would never have let on, I regarded Simplex as a fairly unimportant manufacturer of rather down-market plastic derailleurs. I certainly had no intention of using or even stocking any Simplex products if I could possibly avoid it. I had forgotten, or perhaps had never really understood, that, 25 years earlier, this was the company that had done more to establish the modern sports bicycle than any other. The mighty had fallen, had fallen hard but had clearly not got round to dressing the part.

My second memory was of having a long and disturbingly emotional discussion with an engineer from SunTour in the late 1980’s. This man simply could not understand why the market would only accept derailleurs that had two sprung pivots. He had spent his life designing derailleurs with a single sprung pivot that consistently out-performed Shimano models with two sprung pivots. He was adamant that you could design excellent indexed derailleurs with a single sprung pivot, but bicycle manufacturers simply would not fit them. It was all, apparently, a conspiracy against SunTour. Customers who he had worked with for decades, who had built their bicycle manufacturing businesses on the back of SunTour’s brilliant single sprung pivot designs, who he had thought were his personal friends, had turned their back on him etc. etc.... And here we are, 20 years later. SunTour is long ignominiously sold to the Taiwanese. However, the best mountain bike gears available, the SRAM X0, the Shimano XTR M972 and the Shimano Deore XT M772 all have a single sprung pivot. All these gears are clearly the grand children of the Suntour V and all index excellently. It has been suggested that, in a few year’s time, these designs will trickle down and all mountain bike derailleurs at all price points will have only one sprung pivot. My engineer acquaintance was dazed, confused, disheartened and distraught because he was so, so, technically right, and so, so tragically, commercially wrong.

No collection of derailleurs will ever be ‘complete’ or even ‘comprehensive’, but I hope you find enough stories and points of interest in this collection.

The technical information on this site is as accurate as I can make it - a real expert would probably disagree with some of it, and would certainly disagree with many of my opinions. Where weights are quoted I have personally weighed the derailleur on my trusty digital kitchen scales. Where lengths are quoted I have measured them myself with a vernier caliper. For gear capacities my first port of call is usually Sutherland’s Handbook for Bicycle Mechanics, which I tend to trust more than some manufacturers’ figures. Where data has a question mark beside it I have my doubts about it.

As ever with bicycle parts all the dates are particularly unreliable, and often hard for Europeans to understand. Back in the 1970’s derailleurs were like Hollywood films; we often got new models many years after they were released in the USA.

If (when) you spot errors please contact me.

You can browse the derailleur collection in five different ways:

  • By derailleurs. This is a huge unwieldy list sorted by brand - but it gives you the big picture.
  • By brands. Look at each brand in turn - and get a wee spiel about the brand for good measure.
  • By countries. Check out the countries you never expected to see on a derailleur site.
  • By decades. Going all the way back to the nineteenth century.
  • By themes. I have grouped derailleurs in ways that interest me, and may hopefully interest you. People seem to particularly like the coloured selection.

In addition to the derailleur collection the site has three further sections:

  • A collection of documents relating to derailleurs, such as catalogues, instruction leaflets and patents. Some of these are surprisingly beautiful and/or interesting. Others, well they are derailleur catalogues.
  • A collection of spurious trivia loosely related to derailleurs. If, for example, you are hungry to explore the derailleur’s place in contemporary music, film, literature or fashion then this is the section for you.
  • A list of links that I have found entertaining and often useful.

As a handy guide, each of these sections of the site has its own colour scheme, and its own drop-down menu - very modern.

You can use the arrows like this to move to the page that I deem to be logically next (or previous).

Finally no website is complete without a 'social media strategy' - and this one is no exception. You can find a link to my Facebook group in the footer of each page. This is what Facebook calls a 'closed' group - to avoid the evil that is spam-bots you have to ask to join it - but I am unlikely to refuse membership to anyone human. This group is growing, and is becoming a useful forum for discussing all things derailleur.

I hope you will find some of this stuff useful.