Thursday, June 19, 2014

SunTour Derailleurs

Back when I was first getting into good bicycles, I drooled over Campagnolo, but I rode SunTour. It was much more affordable -- and it worked better. For 20 years, until the introduction of Shimano's Dura-Ace 7400 series in 1985, SunTour had the best shifting derailleurs of their era.

SunTour was a brand name for Maeda Industries, originally Maeda Iron Works, founded in 1912. According to Frank Berto's The Dancing Chain, the company started out making parts for agricultural machinery, but their first bicycle products were sprockets and freewheels. The bicycle products were marketed under the name 8.8.8., which was intended to remind their Japanese consumers of B.S.A. -- a name many in Japan associated with quality.

In the 1950s, SunTour made derailleurs (or perhaps more accurately, derailleurs were made for them by other companies) that were based on pull-chain plunger-type French designs. Dubbed the "8.8.8. Wide," some versions of these mounted to the chain-stay, while others mounted to the dropout.

Here's a dropout-mounted SunTour, probably from the late 50s. This one is marked on the pulley cage as "SunTour 4" but I saw a nearly identical one on Disraeli Gears (minus the "SunTour 4" markings) identified as a later version of the 8.8.8 Wide. According to several sources, these were made for SunTour by a company called Iwai, or Iwai Seisakusho. Overall, it is very similar to some early '50s Huret models, such as the Competition.
SunTour's first parallelogram derailleur was introduced in the early 1960s, called the Skitter. With its design and its 2-dimensional stamped steel construction, it was very similar to the Huret Svelto of the same period. According to Berto, by this time, SunTour was manufacturing derailleurs in their own factory, though some claim the Skitter was made by Huret. I'm inclined to think this was not the case, however. The adjusting screws and the cable attachment points are in totally different locations on the SunTour compared to the Huret.
In 1964, SunTour quit copying other manufacturers' models, and revolutionized derailleur design with its Grand-Prix. This was the derailleur that introduced the world to the slant-parallelogram design. Dropping the parallelogram to a nearly horizontal orientation, then canting it at an angle, the slant parallelogram moves the pulley cage downward as it moves inward, thereby following the profile of the freewheel cluster and keeping a more consistent chain gap. Maeda/SunTour patented the design and defended it closely for 20 years. All modern derailleurs use the slant-parallelogram.

SunTour Grand-Prix -- the first slant-parallelogram derailleur. It's worth noting that it was also a "low-normal" design -- that is, the spring tension pushes the derailleur to the largest cog rather than the smallest. Shimano would later do this and call it "Rapid-Rise." I should also point out that over the years the model was sometimes labeled "Grand-Prix," sometimes "Gran-Prix," sometimes with or without a hyphen -- demonstrating a certain unfamiliarity with a western alphabet and the English language. One could see the same issue with the SunTour name itself -- most times it was "SunTour," other times it was "Suntour" (without the capital "T"), and other times it was rendered as two words: "Sun Tour." One could also see it in the name of their "Spirt" (as opposed to "Spirit") front derailleur.
SunTour's design spread across their line and was available in a variety of models. For instance, on the lower end, the Skitter was redesigned as a slant-parallelogram version, but retained the original Skitter's stamped steel construction. Like the Grand-Prix, it was also a "low-normal" derailleur.
With castings as opposed to cheaper stamped construction, the Competition was another step forward in SunTour's derailleur offerings. 
The V-series, first introduced in '69, was another big advance for SunTour and really set the standard for what people expected from a high-quality derailleur in terms of looks, performance, and weight. The upper and lower pivots were cast in aluminum, as was the pulley cage. The parallelogram plates were steel on earlier editions. The V-series would go through some minor changes and improvements over the next few years, such as relocating the adjustment screws, and eventually moving to all-aluminum construction. Shown above is the all-aluminum V-luxe from the early 70s. There was also a slightly lighter VX model, and a long-cage VGT.
I spotted this cool "drillium" version of a SunTour V in a 1974 issue of Bike World magazine. Note that all the raised or embossed details, such as the name and logo on the parallelogram face plate, have been filed off, drilled out, and highly polished. Pretty cool.
Around 1975, SunTour introduced the Cyclone, which looked beautiful, shifted flawlessly, and was one of the lightest derailleurs available. Only the Huret Jubilee was lighter (about 175 g. vs. 140 g.). It also looked expensive, but wasn't. According to The Dancing Chain, in 1975, a Campagnolo Nuovo Record or a Huret Jubilee cost about $40, a Shimano Crane (Dura-Ace) was $20, and Cyclone cost only $16. Ironically, it was SunTour's more "fair" pricing policy that kept it in a lower "status" as compared to the competition in the eyes of some American cyclists. Rather than price their products based on what the market would bear, SunTour set prices based on production costs plus a fair profit, according to Berto. To people accustomed to the notion of price-equals-prestige, there was a perception that SunTour components were somehow less desirable than offerings from Shimano or from Europe. Smarter riders recognized the better value.

In the 80s, Superbe Pro would be the top-level group from SunTour. The example shown is probably from about 1984 with smooth, aerodynamic styling. Really pretty, lightweight, and sweet shifting. I raced with one in the mid 80s. This was near the end of the line for friction-only derailleurs.

When SunTour's patents on the slant parallelogram expired in 1984, Shimano was ready to pounce. Their revised Dura-Ace 7400 series took the slant parallelogram and combined it with a spring loaded top pivot to usher in the "indexing" era. Both SunTour and Shimano had offered indexed shifting years earlier -- SunTour's Mighty Click, and Shimano's Positron (and those were hardly the first click shifters either) -- and neither had made much of an impact, so SunTour probably just shrugged at the new "SIS." (I remember scoffing at SIS, myself. Why would anyone need that? I remember thinking.) But SIS was a hit, and suddenly SunTour was the one playing catch-up. They never fully recovered, and neither did anyone else. By the end of the 80s, Shimano was the dominant force -- the Microsoft of bicycle components. The Microsoft comparison is an apt one on several levels, by the way.

What can I say? I write this blog on a Mac. I always preferred Mary Ann to Ginger. If I lived in New York, I'd probably root for the Mets. And I've always been a SunTour guy.

6 comments:

  1. SunTour has always been a smart choice. Great value.
    I've had Supurbe and Cyclone stuff pass through the fleet over the years. They are obviously nice pieces, but I've always been partial to the ARX line, as they were always really cheap, but worked really well. I like the "simpleness" of their design/look. The "Tiagra" level of their day, I suppose.

    You bloggy folks need to quit talking about Suntour, now. I just now went to the 'bay in another tab to see what was out there and, man, the prices are getting a little too lofty... Quit giving away the secrets!


    Wolf

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    1. You're right, Wolf, about ARX -- I like the ARX front derailleur, particularly, and have a couple of them in use now. The rear derailleur is very similar to the Cyclone, apart from the steel in the parallelogram plates, so it would certainly shift just as well as its more expensive brethren. I think even on ebay the ARX stuff is still a pretty good deal. But the Cyclone and Superbe tend to get up there in price a bit.

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  2. I wonder how much that drillium V weighed.

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    1. The weight on those wasn't bad to begin with -- but that's some pretty serious drilling. I'd be interested to know, too.

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    2. As an old SunTour fan, I enjoyed this post.

      You bring up a point Berto made in "The Dancing Chain": Some people--and bike manufacturers--equated SunTour with lower quality because its most expensive derailleur (the Cyclone) could be had for less than a Campagnolo Valentino or Shimano Crane--or even a midlevel Huret derailleur. That makes a certain amount of sense.

      Interestingly, I first read "The Dancing Chain" at the same time I was reading a biography of Auguste Rodin. The great sculptor charged American collectors more than he charged Europeans because, he said, Americans equated cost with quality, or at least prestige.

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    3. Thanks, Justine -- there you go -- another good comparison.

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