Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Retro Friction - Part Two - Copies and Competition

In my previous post, I looked at the Simplex Retrofriction shift levers -- widely regarded by many riders as the best friction levers -- ever. Using a spring loaded clutch, they held the levers in place against the pull of the derailleur spring, but allowed a nice light touch and excellent control for shifting. But they weren't the only game in town. Today I want to look at some of the copies and competition, as well as an evolutionary missing link!

A pair of SunTour BarCons. A great
set of shifters for touring.
SunTour Sprint levers - fresh from
the box. Minty!
SunTour probably had the most popular competitor to the Retrofriction lever, known as the Power Ratchet. I've searched a bit to see exactly when they were introduced, but couldn't pin it down exactly, but suffice it to say, they were pretty much right on the heels of the Simplex version. Power Ratchet worked in a similar way to Retrofriction except that instead of a smooth pawl-less clutch, it used a very tiny ratcheting mechanism. When moving the levers, one could feel tiny little clicks, but it was still a smooth working shift lever with a fairly light touch. The bar-end version was incredibly popular with touring cyclists. There were also down-tube and even stem-mounted versions, and later a thumb-shifter version for mountain bikes. The last versions of the Power Ratchet were offered on one of SunTour's higher end road component groups, Sprint, and it had an even finer-tooth ratchet than previous versions, making them extra smooth. Today, Dia-Compe makes a reproduction of the extra-fine Power-Ratchet mechanism (available fromVelo-Orange), and Rivendell offers another reproduction under the name "Silver" which is even styled quite a bit like the old SunTour Sprints. I still use both the original SunTour levers as well as the newer reproductions and I like them a lot.

Shimano Fingertip Bar-end shifters.
Thumb shift and stem-mount versions
were also available.
Shimano made a competitor as well, but it worked a little differently than either the Simplex or SunTour. Called Fingertip control, Shimano essentially made a spring-loaded lever which counterbalanced the spring in the derailleur. No clutches or ratchets. A fairly simple idea and it seemed to work pretty well (though I don't recommend taking them apart -- I've done it and had a helluva time getting the spring back in place!). These were available as a bar-end shifter and later as a thumb shifter for mountain bikes. I have also seen a stem-mounted version of them, but if they had a down-tube mounted version (I'm sure they must have!), I have yet to find a pair.
C-Record Retrofriction.

I think the most interesting competition came from Campagnolo who were probably tired of seeing so many racers replacing their shift levers with the Simplex ones. In 1985, which was just after the introduction of Shimano's SIS, Campy released its C-Record group with levers that worked and felt very much like the Simplex Retrofriction levers. Finally, racers who insisted on an all-Campy bike could get the same smooth shifting control that riders with Simplex were enjoying for more than a decade. Alas, Campy had finally caught up with their French competitor, only to be caught completely unprepared for the indexing competition from Japan. It nearly killed them.

Prior to Campy's release of the C-Record Retrofriction, however, was a little-known version modeled on the Super Record/Nuovo Record levers. Like a Missing-Freaking-Link!

A Missing Link!
For me, the discovery came one day about nine years ago while I was searching "Campagnolo" on eBay (something I do a lot). I saw a pair of NOS (new-old stock) SR/NR shift levers listed that looked a little odd to me. The base of the levers was larger and wider than the regular ones that are almost ubiquitous on eBay (where they often sell for $30 - $40). I hadn't seen a pair like that before, but nothing in the listing mentioned them being different or special in any way, and they didn't seem to be getting any special attention from bidders, either. The seller apparently believed them to be "normal" Super Record shifters, but I started wondering . . . could these be an early version of a Campy retrofriction-style shift lever? I looked up old Campagnolo catalogs online and couldn't find any reference to such a thing existing. I searched Campy timelines for clues and found nothing. I even emailed a couple of people whom I thought might know something about them and was told no such thing existed! I bought them anyhow. Turned out, my suspicion was exactly right. Since then, other sets have come up for sale (but very rarely) and I even found a seller in the UK who had acquired a small stock of them and sold them online (all gone now, however). But don't expect to find any secret or hidden bargains on them anymore.

What exactly was the story on these shifters? I'm not really sure. I've read that Campy never put them in their catalogs but quietly produced a fairly limited number of them as early as 1983, then discontinued them not long afterwards just as quietly. Other people have suggested they were put out as sort of a prototype -- something with which to get some feedback from racers. Then when it came time to put them into full production, they made the C-Record version and discontinued Super Record and Nuovo Record entirely. Either way seems plausible (in fact, they could both be true to some extent), or it could be something else entirely, but I've never seen a definitive answer.

Last version of Campy's Retrofriction
levers with more cable-pulling capability.
Some day I'll try these with a 10-sp cassette.
By the way, before discontinuing their Retrofriction levers for good, Campy made one more version with a larger, asymetrical "barrel" on the right-hand lever for more cable-wrapping capacity -- probably useful for 8-speed cassettes. I have a pair still in the box, but I haven't tried them out. But I even wonder . . . if they would work with 8-speed cassettes, would they also work on 9 or 10-speed setups which are overall the same width? Hmm. . . something new to try. . . someday.

Correction - 9/25/13: Reading an article on the Simplex and SunTour levers in the Autumn 2013 Bicycle Quarterly (Vol. 12, No. 1) which just came out, I found a reference that the SunTour Power Shift levers may actually have come out just ahead of, not just after, the Simplex Retrofriction levers. Apparently, the Power Shift bar-end levers appeared in an ad from New Cycling, in Dec. 1971, whereas the Simplex Retrofriction levers were introduced in 1972. My research into the subject couldn't find the SunTour levers available prior to 1973. 

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