Monday, June 16, 2014

Nivex: The Grandfather of Parallelogram Derailleurs

A lot of people credit the Campagnolo Gran Sport as the first parallelogram derailleur. A lot of people would be wrong.

While Campagnolo's Gran Sport was a breakthrough design, particularly among racers, and was the design that spawned many copies and imitators, another, superior parallelogram derailleur was introduced more than ten years earlier: the Nivex.

Classic Nivex parallelogram derailleur. This example has a clamp 
for mounting to the right chain stay. Other examples mounted
directly to the stay without the clamp, for a more secure attachment.
The Nivex was first made in 1938, and is named in Frank Berto's authoritative history The Dancing Chain as the first parallelogram derailleur. Like some other touring derailleurs from the era, such as the popular Cyclo, it mounted to the right chain stay, forward of the rear axle. Its movement was controlled with dual cables, as the parallelogram did not have a return spring. It did have a coil spring for chain tension with a unique linkage that kept tension constant throughout the range, and it had a capacity of 28 teeth. Though it was mainly stamped steel construction, and not particularly pretty, it was acclaimed for its shifting performance.

Jan Heine, of Bicycle Quarterly, has praised the Nivex as one of the best-shifting derailleurs ever made. In a test of a 1962 Alex Singer, Heine wrote: "The Nivex derailleur shifted as precisely as always, but I had to adjust my technique. . . I had to stop 'over shifting.' With the Nivex, you move the lever until the new gear engages, and that's it. No fine-tuning necessary. The compensator lever on the spring keeps the chain tension constant, so every shift is exactly the same, no matter where you are in the gear range." (Jan Heine) Heine's respect for the Nivex is such that when he had a new, custom-built randonneur bike built in 2011, he had it built to use a vintage Nivex derailleur.

Notable frame builder Alex Singer was also a fan of the Nivex design. On Singer's bicycles, the derailleur was chrome-plated and prettied up. Unfortunately, however, apart from its use on some very nice cyclotouring bikes in the 40s and 50s, the Nivex derailleur just didn't catch on. Berto's book points out that it was first introduced during the economic recession that came just prior to WWII. Of course, the war years would have hampered the company's fortunes as well. Ultimately, the company didn't have the resources to market it to its full potential and production was ended some time in the 50s. According to Jan Heine, the French constructeur Dujardin purchased the remaining stock of parts and continued assembling derailleurs until the late 60s (Bicycle Quarterly, Vol.2 No.2).

Here's a Nivex mounted onto a classic randonneur bike. Notice how the parallelogram's natural arc of movement carries it both inward and forward, thereby keeping a consistent gap with the cogs. The Campagnolo-type parallelogram, hanging downward behind/below the axle, moves inward and upward, so it has a closer gap to the larger cogs, and a wider gap to the smaller cogs, leading to inconsistent shifting across the range. Frank Berto's The Dancing Chain says that Tullio Campagnolo purchased a couple of Nivex units in 1947 or '48. He must have decided that racers would prefer a single-cable derailleur that hung from the rear dropout, however, as the articulating parallelogram was the only element he used on the Gran Sport. 
Some bikes made for the Nivex derailleur, like some of those from Alex Singer, had special hubs and dropouts. For wheel removal, one would shift the chain onto an integrated chain holder on the dropout, then undo the special wing nuts with semi-axles that thread into the hub. Once removed, the wheel dropped out cleanly without touching the chain.

Nivex Descendants:

Years after losing its marketing power, SunTour took a look back to the Nivex when it designed its doomed S-1 in the early 90s. Like the Nivex, it mounted to the right chain stay, with the parallelogram pointing backwards towards the rear axle. It really was, in many ways, an updated, modernized version of the Nivex. Interestingly, it had an indexing mechanism built into the derailleur, rather than in the lever as in most index-shifting systems. Unfortunately for SunTour, it was introduced at a time when the market was clearly dominated by the Shimano juggernaut. Furthermore, it required a special mounting boss on the chain stay so it couldn't be simply retrofitted to existing bikes. As far as I know, the only company that specified the derailleur on any of its models was Schwinn, on its '93 Criss Cross -- a touring/hybrid model. Without any other OEM support, and no aftermarket demand, the S-1 faded into obscurity after only a year or two.

SunTour S-1 -- specified as standard equipment on the Schwinn Criss Cross in 1993. Note the brazed-on attachment point on the chain stay. Look closely, and you can see what appears to be a chain holder attached to the derailleur hanger, not terrifically different from the Nivex-equipped bikes of the past -- such an item would greatly simplify wheel removal, though one would almost certainly have to place the chain onto the holder by hand, so it wouldn't be quite as clean and effortless as the Nivex design.
Though not exactly the same as the Nivex, a similar idea (and clearly sharing some DNA with the SunTour S-1) lives on today in the Dahon Neos derailleur, made by SR/SunTour for use with some Dahon and Tern small-wheeled folding bikes. The biggest difference from the previous designs is that it mounts to the dropout, just ahead of the rear axle, as opposed to mounting to the chain stay. The advantage is supposed to be that it limits some of the damage that can occur to the derailleur when the bike is folded, or packed for travel.

Obviously, most derailleurs since the 1950s took their design cues from the Campagnolo Gran Sport design which mounted to a hanger on the rear dropout. Different manufacturers made incremental improvements to the design over the years, such as adding spring-loaded top pivots, or the drop-parallelogram which oriented the body in a more horizontal fashion, or even the slant parallelogram that canted the body so it pivoted downward as it moved inward for more consistent chain gap. All of those changes improved the shifting, but all of those incremental improvements did nothing more than to finally bring the "modern" rear derailleur up to the shifting performance available on the Nivex since 1938.


  1. I look for your posts right after, even sometimes before, NYC Bike Snob. You have replaced Lovely Bicycle in my reading. Thanks for taking the time to write your blog. Readership will increase as word gets around. Informative and funny, that's what you are. Jim Townsend

  2. Very interesting, and a cautionary tale for those who buy modern bikes with proprietary fittings. I'm probably the only person who looks at even modern carbon bikes and thinks "will those parts be available for replacement in even five years?"

    It's actually worse than that. I sprung for a lightly-used SRAM X1 wide-range MTB cassette with "replaceable" alloy large cogs. I thought I'd pick up a spare cog while they were available, but guess what? While they are replaceable (in that they can be taken off and put back on...) SRAM never made the individual cogs available as separate parts. Nice one!

    1. Replaceable -- but not available. Yeah - that figures.

  3. I'm curious about the "constant chain tension"... What shifting problems or inconsistencies crop up with derailleurs with varying chain tension?

  4. I have one of these CrissCrosses, good bike and some of them like mine came with butterfly bars, they are a bit heavy. It's a real nice derailleur actually and a pleasant bicycle. I'm sure I'd be able to put some kind of regular derailleur on it if the rear one ever breaks down. It's cockeyed taking the rear tire out and putting it in, I had to do it for them at the LBS even and at that, even when it was up in a mechanical stand. Pretty sturdy bicycle.

    1. I have a neighbor who has one. I saw him riding it around the neighborhood park, and I noticed the "backwards" derailleur. When I was talking with him about it, he had no idea that it was so different from most derailleurs. He apparently never tried to take the back wheel out, either. They are pretty nice bikes -- probably good commuters.

    2. Brooks: Thank You for your response! Tip of the hat.

  5. One issue with this type of derailleur is shared by the Kleins that had a dropout behind the derailleur hanger, and that is in trying to get the wheel out without having to handle the chain. This can be done without too much difficulty with standard dropouts, whether vertical or horizontal, but you're bound to get some serious grease on your hands pulling the real wheel out of a bike with this style derailleur.

    1. Yes - that's what made the special dropout and hub that Alex Singer used such a nice innovation - but not all bikes had it.