Saturday, March 12, 2016

Disc Brakes: Nothing New Under The Sun

I was flipping through an old bike magazine from 1973 (Bicycle Spokesman -- don't see that one often) and came across this full-page ad for the "all-new" Shimano disc brake:

"A disc brake from Shimano! It is the new look on bicycles. When you have it on your bike you've really got it made"  Odd that the main selling point seems to be style more than function.
No, it was not a surprise to me that disc brakes were being introduced for bikes in the early '70s. I'd seen them before. But it was just a reminder that, as always, there's nothing new out there. It was in that same decade that many cars were starting to move to disc brakes, and of course there were some who believed then -- just as now -- that what's good for cars must be good for bikes, too.

Shimano's disc brakes went through a couple of versions or generations, and were available on bikes at least throughout the '70s. Interestingly, you'd be hard-pressed to find any high-end bikes from that era that came with them (In fact, I can't think of a single one). Like Shimano's Positron index-shifting system, the disc brakes were almost always spec'd on lower-end and cheap department store bikes, even though it added to the cost of those bikes as compared to ones with regular rim brakes front and rear. Huffy and Murray had 10-speeds with the disc brake (only on the rear, I believe. I've not seen them on the front wheel). Some Sears Free-Spirit bikes had them, and J.C. Penny offered bikes with them too.

Any knowledgeable Schwinn fans probably know that Schwinn had a disc brake as well. It was introduced as an option on their Sting-Ray "Krate" series of bikes and on the Manta-Ray (a 24" wheeled Sting-Ray) in 1972-73. I don't believe it was offered on any of their 10-speeds, and the catalogs I've seen don't even list it as an option on the tandems, for which one would think it could have been marketed as a drag brake.

The first Orange Krate, as pictured
in the '68 Schwinn catalog. Notice
the bike's inspiration in the
The Krates were supposed to make kids think they were driving a dragster, so anything that was remotely automotive was part of the image. They had a springer "suspension" fork, a 16" front wheel with a drum brake, and a big 5-speed stick shift mounted on the top tube. The rear tire was a fat car-like slick with raised white letters. The rear disc brake was a short-lived option introduced late in 1971 for the '72 model year. I've searched for some time to discover who actually made the brake for Schwinn, as many of their components were re-branded from other companies, but I was completely stymied. It was clearly not the same as the Shimano unit, and Schwinn at that point was primarily still getting its imported components from European suppliers (like brakes from Weinmann, or derailleurs from Huret for example). It's possible that it was made exclusively for Schwinn by a company like Bendix, which also made coaster brakes and some 2-speed "kickback" hubs for the company. If anybody knows who made the brake unit for Schwinn, leave a comment. It would be cool to know.

So, if disc brakes were so great and apparently all the rage, why didn't they catch on?

I can't speak from experience, since I've never ridden a bike with these early disc brakes, but I can only imagine they didn't live up to the promises. They also look like they were heavy as hell, so they certainly weren't going to be found on higher end bikes. Another thing to notice is the ad copy that says "It offers a smooth, shock-free braking force that prevents the wheel from locking and skidding." I don't know what they mean by "shock-free" braking (something to do with grabbiness?) but if the brakes couldn't be locked up, how powerful could they have been? Going along with that, these rear-wheel-only disc brakes play into the false notion that one overwhelmingly finds with entry-level bike riders -- that braking on the front is dangerous, and the rear wheel should be the main brake. The opposite is true, but many inexperienced riders were convinced that a strong brake on the front would lead to taking a header over the bars.

No doubt that today's disc brakes are much better than these early versions. And today's discs aren't likely to disappear like some fad after a few years. Nevertheless, even though these early discs shown here are old enough to be called "retro," they aren't anything for a retrogrouch.


  1. As a teenage bike butcher I had a couple of those old disc brakes, one of the Schwinn units off the rusty Crate bike I found behind a neighbors house and a Shimano off a JCPenney bike my best friend and I dragged off the top of a 20 foot tall pile at the scrapyard(HEY YOU KIDS! YOU BE CAREFUL UP THERE!!). I think the return spring on the Schwinn unit must have been just about rusted through because it never wanted to release. I never put it on a bike but remember being stunned at what it weighed. It might not have been great at scrubbing speed but it certainly would have kept you from getting much up.

    The Shimano ended up on the front of a GT Extra-Long Pro BMX I turned into a gravity bike. The disc was threaded like a freewheel so I screwed it on a rear Skyway Tuff Wheel with some of the axle spacers removed and bodged up a bracket to clamp the caliper to the left fork leg. It looked like the business but wasn't a particularly effective brake. It was spectacularly good at warning anyone that you were coming down the hill though. It too weighed nearly as much as an adolescent refrigerator.

    I'm still amazed those gravity "sleds" didn't kill us or give us a case a tetanus at the very least but it was more exciting than homework...


    1. I actually have a Schwinn Orange Krate, which has the front drum brake, but not the rear disc brake. You definitely could not get that bike up to any good speed without the aid of a long, steep downhill. Getting up the hill would have been a huff and push kind of ordeal. It is by far the heaviest bike I own. Heavier than my loaded tourer complete with racks, bags, fenders, lights, and all.

  2. Those early bicycle disc brakes definitely did not live up to teir promise. Even those who couldn't have known how much better a Masi was than a Murray could tell that the disc brakes on their bikes weren't "all that". In fact, even Phil Wood's brakes were known to fade out when they heated up, a common occurence on tandems (where the PW disc was primarily used).

    Interestingly, some Krate bikes--as well as some Schwinn tandems--from the 1960s and 1970s came with rebranded drum brakes made by Atom, the French manufacturer of hubs, freewheels and pedals that was affiliated with Normandy and Maillard.

    1. The drum brakes were a feature of all the Krate bikes, I believe. I also think I read somewhere that early mountain bikers in the "Repack" days looked for those drum brakes to rebuild into wheels for their "klunkers."

      The Phil Wood disc brakes were really unusual. They remind me more of an automotive clutch than a disc brake. I think the problem that doomed those was that some of the discs would break apart. I almost included the PW disc brake, but decided it was something that could be a whole post on its own.

    2. You're right about the Phil Wood discs breaking apart, and drum brakes in "Repack". I've never tried a drum brake on a bike, but I imagine that it probably didn't heat up the way coaster brake hubs did.

  3. Santana used these on some of their first tandems. There's actually a Shimano disc brake equipped Santana on eBay right now:

    1. You're right - though that looks like a different version. It's set up as a drag brake, which is a good thing for tandems that get ridden over hillier terrain.

  4. My old disk brake set up was beautifully made and marked Made in France. As Schwinn was a major buyer of Maillard hubs, could be that the disk brakes on Krates were made by them. The Atom front drum brakes were Maillard. THe Maillard factory stands empty in Incheville, France but I believe the Maillard family still "runs the town" and could probably tell you everything

    1. That's more info than I've gotten from anyone else on the Schwinn disc brake. Thanks!