Shimano - the Dura-Ace story

Shimano Dura-Ace EX black derailleur (7200) main image Shimano Dura-Ace 25th anniversary derailleur (7700 SS) main image Shimano Crane GS black derailleur (D-511) main image

Shimano were late to introduce a parallelogram derailleur in 1965, and by the end of the 1960’s had been left behind again. Campagnolo had introduced the all-aluminium 1967 Campagnolo Nuovo Record, defining aluminium as the material of the moment. SunTour had responded with aluminium knuckles on their 1968 SunTour V, and had taken a further step with the 1970 face-lift of the V and introduction of the 1970 SunTour V GT. While all this was going on Shimano’s fanciest derailleur was still the all-steel 1967 Shimano Lark.

Despite this Shimano were in a position of considerable strength. Their 3.3.3. three speed hub was selling in the millions, they had a very strong freewheel business, and the Lark derailleur might have been unexciting but it was a highly profitable best-seller. Crucially they had also broken into US market, and were making derailleurs for Schwinn. It was time for Shimano to make a statement, to demonstrate their power.

And that demonstration of power was the 1971 Shimano Crane and Crane GS. Shimano had aimed high. Like the Campagnolo Nuovo Record (and unlike the SunTour V) the Crane was all aluminium including the parallelogram and pulley cage plates. Like the Nuovo Record (and again unlike the SunTour V) the Crane was lustrously finished. But like the SunTour V (and unlike the Nuovo Record) the Crane was a modern drop parallelogram design. Shimano could not use SunTour’s patented slant-parallelogram, but they could use their ‘Servo-Pantagraph’ design with two sprung pivots (compared to the single sprung pivot on the Campagnolo). Finally Shimano had taken another leaf out of SunTour’s book and launched a long cage, touring, version; the Crane GS - Campagnolo had nothing with a long cage that was remotely as sophisticated. The Campagnolo Gran Turismo was an ineffective neanderthal steel monster. Shimano were not bashful when pricing the Crane, they made it clearly more expensive than any SunTour, although it was, inevitably, cheaper than the Campagnolo Nuovo Record.

The Crane was commercially successful from the start, but the real breakthrough came with the 1973 facelift. At this point Schwinn, who were seeing strong demand for high-end touring bikes, ditched the Campagnolo Gran Turismo, rejected the Huret Super Allvit and adopted the Shimano Crane GS, rebranding it as the Schwinn GT300 Le Tour. As discussed in my piece on Schwinn, this was a crucial moment. Schwinn, the largest and most prestigious bicycle manufacturer in the US, had adopted a high-end Japanese derailleur in preference to the best that Europe had to offer. Japanese products had arrived at the top table.

Schwinn, however, did not adopt the standard Shimano Crane as the gear of choice for their road racing bikes, here they stuck with the Campagnolo Nuovo Record. This was despite the blandishments of Shimano who considered the geometry of the Crane to be far superior to that of the Nuovo Record. The Campagnolo road racing product was a tougher nut to crack than the pathetic Gran Turismo, it was aluminium and genuinely superior to Campagnolo’s touring product, it had proven reliability in prolonged competitive use and it had authenticity and heritage from its long association with the Tour de France, Eddy Merckx and the European racing scene in general. This last point was important to Schwinn, they themselves were American and felt open to attack by the Europeans on the grounds that American brands lacked true European racing heritage.

Shimano decided to give serious attention to the irrational and emotive issue of authenticity and heritage. In 1973 they put together a complete high-end groupset and called it Dura-Ace (a name that handily reflected durability - the other major quality of Campagnolo). However, the derailleur in the groupset was the 1973 version of the Crane, and was labelled as such. Shimano then sponsored the Flandria team on the European Pro racing circuit and were rewarded with a Tour de France stage victory and second place in the World Championships. In the 1973 World Championships Freddy Maertens claimed that Eddy Merckx deliberately set out to prevent him winning because Maertens was using Shimano equipment (Merckx was a close personal friend of Tullio Campagnolo).

The 1973 racing season established two things:

  • Firstly that Shimano were serious about the road racing market, and were prepared to take road racing culture seriously in order to break into it. From this point on Shimano was, in turn, given more respect than SunTour by the road racing crowd.
  • Secondly that building authenticity and heritage is a long game. European road racing is a cliquey business. Despite a continuous presence from 1973 onwards, a Shimano equipped rider did not win the Tour de France until Lance Armstrong’s first victory in 1999. I don’t have the figures, but I also suspect that Shimano did not have more than 50% of the market for road racing derailleurs until about that time. This contrasts markedly with their share of the market for high-end mountain bike deraileurs - which was probably over 50% from 1984 onwards.

Shimano stuck to their guns. The 1978 Dura-Ace EX was their first derailleur to use the Dura-Ace name. They also ditched the long-arm version to cement the road racing credentials of the sub-brand(Deore was the new groupset for high-end touring taking over from the Crane GS). The Dura-Ace EX introduced the idea that Dura-Ace should have high-tech guide pulley wheels. It also was an early shot in the gear-count war. Dura-Ace EX was explicitly a six speed system, using Shimano’s new freehub system.