Thursday, March 13, 2014

Classic Derailleurs: Campagnolo Evolution

No derailleurs capture the spirit of the classic era more than the Campagnolo's derailleurs from the 1950s through the 80s. Beginning with the Gran Sport in 1949, through the original Record, then Nuovo Record and Super Record, and even the C-Record of the 1980s, Campy's derailleurs evolved in small ways over the years, but never strayed far from their original design. They stood the test of time, and were widely copied.

Tullio Campagnolo, with a bike equipped
with one of his 1940s Corsa derailleurs.
Cambio Corsa derailleur.
Campagnolo's previous derailleur system, originally developed in the mid-1930s, was the rod activated Cambio Corsa model -- which had a pretty narrow gear range and was cumbersome to use. These early derailleurs used no pulleys, because racers of the time were convinced (mistakenly) that pulleys would add too much drag. To shift gears, the rider reached down low and behind himself to work the levers mounted on the seat-stay. The rider moved one lever to open the rear wheel quick release, then backpedaled while turning the second lever which operated a "fork" that moved the chain from one cog to another. The wheel moved forward or backward in the dropouts to adjust chain tension. Then the first lever was used again to close the quick release and to lock the wheel in place. A later variation, called the Paris-Roubaix, performed the same basic functions but with only one lever instead of two. To see one of the Cambio Corsa derailleur systems in operation, see here: (YouTube --this guy actually makes it look easy!).
The Simplex derailleur was state of
art in the late 40s.

In 1949, Italian racing legend Fausto Coppi famously won the Tour de France using Simplex derailleurs (Simplex had paid him to switch), which was probably something of a slap in the face to Tullio Campagnolo. The Simplex was a cable operated plunger-type derailleur that was considerably easier to use than Campagnolo's rod-operated designs. Many other top racers also were using Simplex, but ultimately the "defections" told Campagnolo that he had to do something big to reestablish his company at the top among racers of the day. The result was the Gran Sport.

The prototype Gran Sport, with dual-cable
operation. Production versions would utilize
a return spring with a single cable.
The Gran Sport, first introduced at a Milan trade show in 1949, used an articulating parallelogram design, as opposed to the push-rod or plunger action, to move the pulley cage in and out. That first prototype shown used dual cables to move the unit back and forth, but production versions used a single cable plus a return spring. The design was refined further over the first couple of years until a "definitive" version was finalized by 1953. With only minor changes, that Gran Sport design was the basis for almost all of Campagnolo's better derailleurs, as well as much of their competition, until the "index shifting" era.

The definitive Gran Sport, early 1950s.
The original 1963 Record.
A short-lived model.
The Gran Sport was made right up into the 1960s, but a slightly improved model was introduced in 1963 called the Record. Made of chrome-plated bronze and steel, the Record didn't look much different from the Gran Sport at first glance. The biggest difference was that the pulley cage pivot was moved slightly forward and upward in relation to the jockey pulley. This change improved the capacity and overall performance as compared to the Gran Sport. This Record derailleur was the top of the line for the next few years, but its time in production was very short overall, especially considering the longevity of other models.

An early 80s Nuovo Record from my collection.
The next refinement came in 1967 with the introduction of the Nuovo Record, made from cold-forged aluminum. The new derailleur was lighter, and it was a much more refined product cosmetically, too. The old Gran Sport and chrome-plated bronze Record looked almost crude by comparison. The Nuovo Record is the true classic among Campy's derailleurs: tough, reliable, and beautiful. That model derailleur would continue to be made, virtually without changes, until the early-to-mid 1980s. Such longevity in any bicycle component is really hard to imagine in today's market, where every year new "upgrades" make last year's components "obsolete" and any design more than a couple of years old is described as "tired" or "long-in-the-tooth."

Second-generation Super Record.
(wikimedia commons)
The original Super Record
was basically the same as
a Nuovo Record with some
titanium bolts and a black
anodized body.
In 1975, Campagnolo introduced the Super Record group. The original Super Record rear derailleur was almost identical to the Nuovo Record except for the use of titanium for the pivot bolts, and some black anodizing on the body. It was revised further by the end of the decade to include a smooth, non-textured face plate with a screened-on logo, and a slightly different pulley cage that I believe actually increased the capacity slightly over the Nuovo Record. Both derailleurs were manufactured and sold side-by-side until around 1984 or so.

In the mid 1980s, Campagnolo made a significant design revision with the introduction of the C-Record model. The basic parallelogram architecture was still based on the old Gran Sport of the 1950s, but the shifting performance was improved somewhat by adding a spring to the upper body pivot -- something that Simplex had done for decades. The styling was smoothed dramatically, giving it a modern aerodynamic look. Visually, it was attractive, but ultimately in performance it could no longer hold its own against the competition coming from Japan.

Mid 80s C-Record. Modern yet
old fashioned at the same time.
As influential as it was, there were definite shortcomings in the basic parallelogram design of the Campagnolo derailleurs from the 50s through 80s. For one thing, they tended to need a bit of finesse to get from one cog to the next -- the usual technique was to overshift a bit, then back off to get the chain onto the desired cog. The necessity for this "overshift/back-off" technique was exacerbated as one moved outward on the freewheel to smaller cogs because the chain gap between the cogs and the jockey pulley would increase -- the movement of the parallelogram simply did not allow for a consistently close chain gap needed for quick shifting across the whole freewheel cluster. In my own experience, making the shift to the outermost cog can be particularly troublesome and can require some serious finagling. Being able to shift under any kind of pedal load was also unlikely. These shortcomings were easy to overlook in the era of friction-only shifting. The technique needed for shifting was just a skill one acquired until it became automatic. Sure, Japanese derailleurs from SunTour in the 70s and 80s shifted better, but Campy had "mystique," "tradition," and legendary long-term durability. One often heard clich├ęs like "Campy wears in, the competition wears out." Then again, one also heard, "Campy derailleurs shift badly, forever."

1988 Chorus -- scanned from a Campy catalog.
Slant parallelogram, with a "twist."
By the end of the 1980s, just like forty years earlier, it was pretty clear that something big had to be done with Campagnolo's derailleur design. The old basic parallelogram architecture that was introduced on the prototype Gran Sport in 1949 just would not work as well as the slant parallelogram design first created by SunTour in the 1960s, and adapted by Shimano in the early 80s as part of the first truly successful indexing system. Campagnolo tried to make their traditional derailleurs work with indexed shifting, but the weaknesses of the old design just wouldn't allow it to work reliably in that mode. In 1987 - '88, the Chorus was Campy's first attempt at a slant parallelogram (with an interesting "twist" -- literally -- that allowed the angle of the parallelogram to change). In 1991, Campagnolo finally introduced the first major overhaul in their derailleur design, fully copying the "Japanese" designs with slant parallelograms and double spring-loaded pivots. That is now the basis for all derailleur systems today, regardless of brand or country of origin.

Coming up in the next post: Copies and Competition. Stay Tuned!


  1. I believe the reason that Campagnolo didn't directly copy the Suntour design was a patent that eventually ran out.

    The guy in the YouTube who made the shifting look easy was The Great Aldo Ross.

    1. That is exactly the reason. I used to work for Suntour.

    2. Thanks for the comments, Gunnar. I believe there is another video on YouTube of Aldo shifting the single-lever Paris-Roubaix. And I know you'll be practicing on your new Galmozzi.

      About the SunTour design -- their patent ran out around 1984, I believe. The Shimano Dura Ace was introduced immediately afterwards. So I'm not sure that Campagnolo was worried about the patent -- but I'll bet they were hoping to do something innovative rather than simply copying their Japanese competition. It was a neat idea, but it didn't last long.

  2. Kyle, you left out the truly bizarre 1988 Campagnolo Croce d'Aune rear derailleur. The cable pulled the derailleur body back and the rod on the side of the body pushed the body and cage inward to shift up to a larger gear! --Chuck of Velo-Retro

    1. Actually, I'm planning to take a look at that one in a future post. I may email you for more info about it, since I've always found it to be a wonder. My thought is that in the mid-late 80s, Campagnolo was doing anything they could to remain not only competitive, but innovative -- but while still staying true to their heritage. The original Chorus, the Croce d'Aune, and even the original Athena -- all had different approaches to improve shifting performance -- the fact that they were all offered by the same company at roughly the same time period is compelling. Thanks for the comments!

  3. Campagnolo made a derailleur called the "Turismo" in the early sixties. This is not the "Gran Turismo" steel long-cage unit of later years, but rather a working-class version of the Gran Sport, that lacked the chrome plating but was otherwise essentially the same. I removed one in the late seventies from a 1961 Capo; sanded off the nickel (?) plating and polished out the brass underneath, fitted it with chromed Gran Sport screws and pulley cage, added the original Spence Wolf long cage with Simplex Tourist 303 idlers, and still have it on my Hetchins Magnum Bonum.

    1. Modifying Campy derailleurs was practically a cottage industry. I've seen some really interesting Franken-campy derailleurs over the years. My favorite modification (and one I'd like to try sometime) is to combine the spring-loaded upper pivot of the old single-pulley Sport model with the lower half of the Gran Sport - which creates a Campy derailleur that shifts more like a Simplex.

  4. No mention of the Sport model which preceded the Gran Sport. Had one pulley wheel only

    1. No, you're right I didn't mention the Sport, but it was really an evolutionary dead end design. However, it did NOT precede the Gran Sport. Shockingly, the 2-pulley Gran Sport was designed first - in 1949. The single pulley Sport came out around 1953, already made obsolete by its older brother.

  5. Hi Retrogrouch,
    A very good round up of Campy derailleur history there.
    A tiny anorak point here.
    Your photo of the Nuovo Record is captioned 'Early'80's'.
    It has hollow steel pins and the parallelogram return spring on the lower inner one. I bet it has the later flat-backed inner parallelogram plate with no inscriptions as well.
    This makes it a mid to late '80s.
    Does it have a PAT and Year on the top knuckle?
    No Pat or year code at all i.e. bare, would put it as'86-87 after the patent had expired.
    11 is '85.
    I have just taken delivery of an '86-'87 set with no PAT markings. It is that late a model it has the bronze (instead of nylon) lower knuckle/pulley cage pivot bolt top hat thrust washer insert. (what a mouthful).
    Best regards,
    aka 531Man