It's kind of a fun topic, and probably worth a look at the parts and how they got their reputations.
Suicide Shifters: Sometimes parts take on these morbid nicknames because they are risky to use, maybe because they have developed a reputation for breaking at inopportune moments. That is NOT true of these, however. There's really nothing suicidal about "suicide shifters," and as I understand it, it's really only in the U.S. that they have the name. Suicide shifters are derailleurs (usually front units, though not always) that are operated by a relatively large/long lever that is often located between the rider's legs, or anywhere vaguely in that general vicinity.
|Simplex "suicide shifter" on an old Falcon (found on the CABE).|
There are a few brands and varieties of these front derailleurs - many of them French, and many of them made or used through the '50s and '60s. Some worked by twisting the handle on the lever, or by pushing it forward/back, or in/out. There's not really anything particularly dangerous about them (certainly no more dangerous than the big saw-toothed chainring within inches of one's calves and ankles), but perhaps American men are/were more paranoid about reaching between their legs to shift than their European counterparts?
|"Suicide Shifter" on an old Indian.|
People of my generation probably have fond memories of this old beauty:
|1968 Schwinn Orange Krate|
|Cinelli "death pedals" (photo from Velobase)|
To get into them, the rider would line up the cleat and slide it between the channels on the sides of the pedal, then move the lever which would pop up a pin that would lock the cleat securely in place. I'm sure the perception was that once locked in, there wasn't any easy getting out of the pedals in an emergency. I guess one could say they "hung on like death"? Understand, however, that at this same time, many riders were strapping in with leather straps cinched tight over slotted cleats, and it wasn't so easy to get out of those in a hurry, either. Both systems still required that the rider reach down and either loosen the strap or slide the lever to get out.
It's also worth noting that (as far as I know) the Cinelli pedals were really intended for track use, not road, which is a very different kind of riding environment. I mean, it's not as if one should need to disengage from these pedals in a hurry to avoid being nailed by a taxi.
Lambert Death Fork: Here's an item that did actually get its nickname because of a bad reputation for breaking (though again, I'm not sure anyone ever actually died as a direct result). The Lambert bicycles from England in the early '70s were an interesting attempt to offer high-performance bikes at a reasonable price. Besides having a lot of unique brand-specific components, the bikes were notable for having a high-tech weight-saving aluminum fork.
|The Lambert "death fork" (photo from ClassicRendezvous)|
I've read that the number of broken forks was only about 1% of about 30,000 bikes equipped with them, which doesn't sound so bad -- though if I had one, I'd still be extra cautious. I mean, Lambert/Viscount is long gone, and I assume Yamaha long ago washed their hands of the whole thing, so if you get hurt, who are you going to sue?
Death Stems: There are a few old stems that fit this description, but the most well-known are the AVA stems like the one shown here.
|The AVA "death stem" (photo from VeloBase)|
It's important to note that not all models of AVA stems were prone to failure, and that they weren't the only ones. There were some similar-looking stems made by Atax and Pivo that could also break in much the same way. By the way, I don't want to get bunches of emails asking "is my stem safe to use?" There's no way I can tell everything about every brand and model to say which ones are OK and which ones aren't. Remember, we're talking about components that are 50 years old.
I will say that some of these lugged-style aluminum stems are a little more robust than others, and if they have a regular wedge as opposed to the cone-type, they might be a little more reliable. Also, if there is only one expansion slot instead of two, that is a good sign. If I had one of the type with a single expansion slot and really wanted to use it, I'd probably drill a little hole right at the top of the slot and file it so there was a nice, smooth, stress-relieving transition. But again, there can still be risks. These old stems are really cool looking, but on my vintage bikes (which I actually ride), I don't hesitate to install a more modern, reliable, cold-forged stem.
Style only takes a person so far, and I'd really like to keep all my teeth.