Friday, February 26, 2016

Excel & Elgin - American Derailleurs from Beatrice Foods

It's probably not widely known that the U.S. had a bicycle derailleur and component industry in the years shortly after the Great American Bike Boom -- long before the CNC'd boutique parts craze that began in the 1990s. Nor is it likely that many people know that the now-defunct mega corporation Beatrice Foods was behind it.

Beatrice Foods? Their slogan used to be "You've known us all along" because they were the parent company of all kinds of brands and products that were a big part of everyday American life: Peter Pan peanut butter, Butterball turkeys, Hunt's tomato products, Tropicana orange juice, and much, much more. In addition, they also were the parent company of numerous non-food-related companies such as Airstream campers, Samsonite luggage, Avis car rental, and others. In the 1970s, probably due to the bike-boom, they must have decided that bicycle components were a good bet.

According to Frank Berto's bicycle history The Dancing Chain, the Illinois-based Beatrice got started in the bicycle component business in the early '80s, but according to the Disraeli Gears site, it seems that the start may actually have been earlier than that - at least by the mid '70s. Their line of derailleurs and other components bore the name Excel, although the name Elgin also enters into the history.

The Excel Dynamic of the late '70s was a blatant copy of the
Huret Allvit -- but without all the "refinement" the original
was known for. Ha Ha.
There have been a lot of companies and products that carried the Elgin name -- many of them based in Elgin, Illinois: watches, sewing machines, and bicycles, among others. Elgin bicycles were a brand owned by Sears (based in Chicago, you may recall) and sold at least up until WWII. In the 1970s, many Sears Free Spirit-branded 10-speeds were using derailleurs with the Elgin name, and made in the USA. Both Elgin and Excel derailleurs were made in the same Illinois factory, and the same basic derailleurs could apparently be found marketed under either brand name.

Unlike the made-in-the-USA CNC'd derailleurs of the '90s, which were extravagantly expensive creations hewn from colorful anodized aluminum, the Excel and Elgin derailleurs were bottom-of-the-barrel stamped steel copies of verging-on-obsolete French Huret and Simplex units. The Excel Dynamic was a cheap, less-refined clone of the Huret Allvit (except that it was almost impossible to adjust, and had menacing springs poking out dangerously), and the model known as the Elgin American was a copy of the old Simplex Prestige, complete with plastic pivot bodies. There were also front derailleurs that worked somewhat like old Campagnolo Valentino units, but cheaply stamped out of steel and shrouded in plastic. Together, these derailleurs were used on Sears Free Spirits and other American department store bikes in the late '70s. Big surprise there, right?

One can still find parts diagrams of the old Excel derailleurs on Sears Parts Direct. Shockingly, some of the small parts are still in stock. Why would anybody rebuild one of these things when it would be easier to just replace it with a better derailleur?
Here is an early '80s edition of an Excel steel derailleur. It's been prettied up a bit compared to earlier versions, and the plastic pivot bodies have been changed to steel, but it's still basically a Simplex derivative (maybe with a little Shimano Lark thrown in for good measure).

In the early '80s Excel also began importing Italian copies of SunTour derailleurs. Made by Cambio Rino, the rear derailleurs looked remarkably like SunTour Vx and Cyclone models. Called Excel Gruppo Rino, they didn't hide the group's origins. The Rino-made derailleurs are a real curiosity because they are faithful SunTour knockoffs -- including SunTour's patented slant parallelogram, even though that patent wouldn't expire until the end of 1984. It is unclear whether Rino (and by extension, Excel) faced any legal action for violating the patent, or if they paid some kind of licensing fee to SunTour for the rights to use the design. One can search for the answer to that question and find nothing definitive either way. Nevertheless, I've never seen one up close, much less used one, but I have no doubt that they worked just fine. Why wouldn't they? While the imported Rino components made up the company's high end, their American-made French-inspired steel derailleurs continued to be sold as the budget line.

In the early '80s, ultramarathoner Lon Haldeman figured prominently in Excel's advertising. Haldeman was a notable user of the higher-end Excel components in the Race Across America.
In 1983, Excel introduced their Ultimate line, which was also made for them by Rino. The ads proclaim it the "official" component group of the '83 Race Across America. The Ultimate rear derailleur also utilized the SunTour slant parallelogram, but looked less like a faithful copy than a heavily streamlined refinement -- or a derailleur-shaped blob of molten aluminum, depending on your taste.
Also in 1983, Excel introduced the Cambiogear, an expanding chainwheel crank that shifted gears without a derailleur. I wrote about that one back in January. Made of graphite-reinforced plastic, it offered 16 sequential gears with a 3-to-1 range. Unlike the Rino-made derailleurs that made up the company's "high end" products, the Cambiogear was made in the USA. The product was only available for about one year before disappearing. Judging from the advertisements in the bicycle magazines (it seems that they stopped appearing sometime after '83), Excel must have gone under not long after. That was it for American-made derailleurs for the rest of the decade.

The Excel Cambiogear was
an expanding-chainring crank
introduced in 1983.
The '90s brought a resurgence of American bicycle component makers, mostly using CNC technology - like Joe's, Precision Billet, Paul's, White Industries, and others. Most of those companies are still in business today, though few if any of them are making derailleurs anymore. And of course there is now SRAM which has made serious in-roads against Shimano and Campagnolo -- but while that company may be U.S.-based, as far as I know the derailleurs and most other components are made in Taiwan.

I'm not implying that Excel's American-made components were in any way good -- far from it -- but in the '70s and '80s, Excel was about the only game in town for American-made bicycle derailleurs for the burgeoning "10-speed" market. Yes, Schwinn had components with their own name on them, but most of those were made overseas and re-branded. Otherwise, any bicycle parts made in the USA were primarily for kids bikes and heavyweight cruisers. But any discussion of American bicycle components wouldn't be complete without including Excel.


  1. It seems to me that the general American attitude about bicycles is reflected in the products Excel and others produced: a bicycle is a mere toy meant only to last until the child becomes a driver, so quality and serviceability are unimportant. This idea can still be seen (albeit no longer made-in-America) at one's local Walmart or Sears (does Sears still sell bikes?)

  2. How is it, that I've been at this professionally, for close to 30 years, and I cannot recall ever seeing any of these?

    I've shined more turds than I can count, worked on plenty of bike boom stuff, seen a lot of "what? Never heard of that one" components, and never saw this moniker, ever.

    I'll happily cop to some unnatural lust for the Ultimate grouppo for my display case though. Got more oddities than I know what to do with, and that would fit right in.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I saw a few of those Elgin and Excel derailleurs because they were equipped on Free Spirits and other cheapo bikes, which occasionally came into the shops in which I worked. We used to joke that Elgin/Excel took all of the worst features of the Huret Allvit and Campagnolo Valentino derailleurs and combined them with the construction of the plastic Simplex derailleurs.

    I have seen some Elgin bicycles. They are like other balloon-tired bikes made at that time by manufacturers like Columbia. Some of the old Elgin watches, though, were pretty nice. I had one (given to me by my grandfather) until it was stolen during a break-in. The new (battery-powered) "Elgin" watches , like the new "Motobecane", "Dawes", "Mercier" and "Windsor" bikes, bear no relation to the old ones and are made in the Far East.

  4. Now that I think of it, I recall seeing those ads for the Excel Gruppo. But I don't recall seeing the actual components. I don't doubt they were made or that Lon Haldeman used them in the Race Across America. I guess not many other cyclists used them.

    1. I see the cheapo parts on eBay pretty regularly, and there are some Rino-branded parts on the 'Bay right now, but the Excel branded Rino parts must be awfully rare. Probably not even available for more than a year or so.

    2. I worked at the Excel Dynamic plant in Carol Stream (30 mi W of Chicago) IL in 1977. I was in between my soph and jr years of college. The factory was small and simple. The work force consisted of housewives and unskilled stoners. We made minimum wage. I rode my first 10 spd, a Raleigh Record, the 10 mi between Carol Stream and Naperville. The boss was looking at my bike and recommended we try the rear derailleur. We removed the Huret Alvit and installed the Excel. Even the company engineers thought the frt changer was junk. I used my Excel for years. I only changed it as my fitness levels required a faster, but wider range, freewheel. We were a happy, if low payed shop, but the plant closed in maybe 8/77. I returned to college, earned a commission in the Army and returned to Chocago in 1985. I learned that all bike parts production had been moved to Brazil.I never tested the front deraillieur. The boss never offered it and it truly looked awful, but the rear one worked VERY well, even if it was cheap. Brian Wheater

    3. I'd be curious if the derailleur you had installed was the Allvit copy, or the Simplex-type version. The one that was more similar to a Simplex would, I believe, work pretty well. I know it had sprung pivots top and bottom, so it would probably work better than Campy at the time, even if it didn't have the same level of finish. I actually have one of the Allvit copies, but I think it's more suited as a paperweight than a gear changer. I wouldn't mind finding one of the Simplex-type.

  5. I worked at the Excel Dynamic plant in Carol Stream IL in Summer of 1977, between Jr and Sr college. I rode my Raleigh Record to work and the boss took notice. He mounted a rear changer on my bike to replave the Huret Alvit. Even the engineers thought the frt changer was junk. The Excel Dynamic rear changer worked VERY well and I only replaced it when I had to install a wider range freewheel. The factory was very small and low tech. The work force was housewives and stoners and we all earned minimum wage. I think even the mgmt. and engineering was kind, but not top notch. The plant closed in 8/77. I heard all production moved to Brazil. Still, a good if cheap changer.

  6. My Bertin is equipped with the Excel Gruppo Rino front and rear derailleurs and the red bullseye pulleys. They have been on the bike since 1982.

    1. Those are apparently pretty rare, as it's hard to find the Excell branded pieces in the real world. There were plenty of ads, but finding the parts, or a bike equipped with them is no easy feat. The Rino branded ones are easier to find, which isn't saying much.

  7. I have pictures of the bike and the installed parts. The parts were ordered by a bike shop in Albuquerque, NM in 1982. They replaced the original components and have been running ever since then. No idea how to post the photos here.

    Here are the links on TinyPic