A Reappraisal of Tullio Campagnolo

A Reappraisal of Tullio Campagnolo

When Bicycle Quarterly did an article on Tullio Campagnolo, you knew it wasn’t going to be another fluff piece re-hashing the same old stories and myths. We did some real research, and we were surprised by what we uncovered.
Cyclists who know their history have heard how in 1927, Campagnolo raced in the Gran Premio della Vittoria, got stuck in the snow when he could not open the wingnuts on his rear wheel, and lost the race. He then invented the quick release, which became the foundation of the company that bears his name.
That is the legend, but what is the real story of Campagnolo? Working with well-known cycling historian David Herlihy and other experts, we’ve pieced together the history of Campagnolo. Based on research in European archives, patent searches and contemporary accounts, the conclusions were published in a 19-page article in the Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly. The true story is different from the myth, but it’s no less fascinating.
Campagnolo was less of an inventor of ground-breaking innovations, and more of a visionary who foresaw trends and even shaped them. He adopted other manufacturer’s promising, but overlooked, ideas. He showed great ingenuity in improving those ideas to give racers exactly what they wanted.
Back to the quick release: It appears that Campagnolo did not invent it at all. The story of the race in the snow is a myth. There was a snowy Coppa della Vittoria, but in a different year (1925), and Campagnolo isn’t mentioned in the race reports as a favorite in any of the Coppas della Vittoria of the 1920s.
The original patent for the quick release, said to date from 1930, does not exist. Later patents by Campagnolo are written very narrowly for improvements or special features of the quick release, indicating that he could not patent the cam-actuated quick release itself.
Campagnolo’s next major innovation was a parallelogram derailleur, which introduced the general shape and operating principle for all rear derailleurs to this day. Campagnolo got this idea from a French cyclotouring derailleur, the Nivex (left). He was not the first to adapt the parallelogram derailleur for racing bikes, either: That honor goes to the JIC derailleur (middle). As so often, Campagnolo integrated these ideas into a product that was more elegant and better finished (right). His derailleur was successful where the other parallelogram derailleurs were not.
Campagnolo’s true strike of genius was the idea of the “gruppo” – a group of matching components. Before, customers of high-end bikes had to choose each component individually: brakes from Mafac, derailleurs from Simplex or Huret, hubs from FB, cranks from Stronglight or Gnutti, etc. Tullio Campagnolo made the customer’s choice easy by offering a full group of components. “Full Campy” became the hallmark of a top-of-the-line bike during the 1970s bike boom.
Campagnolo focused on the complete customer experience long before Apple popularized the concept. Campagnolo’s packaging was beautiful. The components showed balanced proportions and a beautiful finish. The quality was without reproach. The parts were easy to install and pleasant to use. Campagnolo backed their components with an unconditional lifetime warranty. And the company sponsored so many professional racers that more than 90% of professionals rode on Campagnolo (below). As a result, Campagnolo dominated the high-end component market for decades.
This is a major re-assessment of Campagnolo’s legacy. It reminds me of the re-evaluation of car maker Ettore Bugatti’s contribution in recent decades, from undisputed genius to a more human entrepreneur, who nonetheless imbued his products with a quality and mystique all of their own. I feel that understanding Tullio Campagnolo’s true contributions, as a visionary more than as an inventor, will only increase the appreciation of him and his company.
The Bicycle Quarterly article delves into many other questions. Why did Campagnolo patent and introduce his quick release not as a wheel retention mechanism (as we know it today), but only as a shifting aid? Why did he introduce a Nivex-style chainrest in the 1970s? Why did a French inventor who developed bar-end shifters and a novel front derailleur become the distributor for Campagnolo in Paris? And why did Campagnolo not continue to develop his components during the 1970s, which left an opening for Shimano’s rise in the 1980s? It’s a fascinating story – it probably would make a great movie!
Click here for more information on the Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly.

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Comments (26)

  • Owen

    Interesting you mention Apple as the parallels with Steve Jobs seem apparent. Apple didn’t innovate so much as rework and market existing technologies in innovative ways. The development of the mouse is the best known example. Looking forward to the article and keep up the good work!

    July 1, 2014 at 4:05 am
    • GuitarSlinger

      Both Jobs and Tullio [ as well as Walter Zapp ] being perfect examples of the old adage when it comes to the realities of creativity …. especially in the arts ;
      Beginners and Amateurs Copy
      Talent Borrows
      Genius Steals
      Genius being able to ‘ steal ‘ because the original ‘ creator ‘ was unable to see the full potential in that which he/she had created . Either that or the technology etc was unavailable at the time of ‘ creation ‘ to see it thru . Not to mention Genius being able to see connections where others only see obstacles . An axiom more true than many would chose to believe 😉
      As Brian Eno so well put it ; ” Nothing comes out of nothing ” One of the greatest single myths of the word ‘ creativity ‘ is that anything can/or does come out of nothing . Everything being a continuation , variation or riff on something else .
      Looking very forward to the full article as well Jan !

      July 1, 2014 at 12:01 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        If Campagnolo had just been a lone inventor, as the myth proclaims, he’d probably be forgotten today.
        Take the example of P. Gardini, G. Trottier and R. Déchanet, who invented the Nivex derailleur. Those guys were pure genius, solving all the problems of derailleurs on their first try. In addition to the novel parallelogram actuation, the Nivex featured constant chain gap, constant chain tension, protected mounting location, chainrest to facilitate wheel removal, superlight weight, and excellent durability. Solving all those issues took a lot of innovation. Yet today, Gardini et al. are virtually unknown, since they lacked the ability to popularize their invention. And modern derailleurs still don’t feature constant chain tension and a protected mounting.
        So we should be glad that Campagnolo was a visionary who could influence the bicycle world in profound ways.

        July 1, 2014 at 12:14 pm
      • GuitarSlinger

        Jan – I’d bet dollars to donuts [ to use an old idiom ] that if deeper research were done we’d find out Mssrs Gardini , Trottier , Dechanet etc all adopted their so called inventions from some other device that had come before . As Eno said . ” Nothing comes out of nothing ” . Fact is . From musical styles – to ‘ inventions ‘ – to innovations we fool ourselves when we think we know from whom , what , when and where the origins of much of anything came from . ” Invented ” being a myth we humans cling to more out of myth than reality . ‘ Invented ‘ being used in place of ‘ popularized ‘ in the continuation of such myths .

        July 1, 2014 at 2:20 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          We are digging into that, too… You are absolutely right, every invention builds on what came before. There are some fascinating stories still waiting to be told!
          It’s one thing to be inspired by others, and another to make up stories and claim to be first.

          July 1, 2014 at 6:13 pm
  • Greg

    True Story! The Unknown Crimes of Tullio Campagnolo! 😉
    Maybe do an exposé on Enzo Ferrari next? That dude was a scammer, too, right?
    This shift toward negativity and tabloid journalism in BQ doesn’t really suit you well, I’m afraid. 🙁

    July 1, 2014 at 7:04 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Enzo Ferrari himself said that he just was interested in engines, and the rest of the car was peripheral. He also is reputed to have said: “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t get horsepower.” It’s well known that if Lancia hadn’t gone bankrupt in the 1950s, Ferrari’s race results wouldn’t have looked nearly as good. So the “exposés” have been written long ago. The same for Bugatti, where it’s common knowledge that his efforts to simply scale up the ultra-successful Type 35 race car with an engine twice as large were a failure, and that he then copied the American Miller’s twin-cam heads to produce his wonderful Type 51. You can read that in most credible Ferrari and Bugatti books.
      Only in the bicycle world some aficionados seem to prefer myths and legends, and despise it when somebody who tries to figure out what really happened. Didn’t you ever wonder why there were two dates for the snowy race over the Croce d’Aune, 1924 and 1927? Researching this out has nothing to do with tabloid journalism. In any case, I doubt any tabloid ever has provided more than 50 references and sources for their “Elvis Lives and Fathers Baby with Hillary Clinton” stories.
      At first, it may come a bit as a shock to find out that Campagnolo wasn’t the “lone inventor with a file” whom we believed him to be for most of our lives, but in the end, knowing the truth allows us to value his real, and much greater, contributions to the world of cycling. And perhaps it’ll also free up the Campagnolo company to stop trading on myths and instead focus on marketing the better riding experience that its products offer compared to the competition.

      July 2, 2014 at 5:59 am
      • David Pearce

        Tabloid journalism? You and your article(s) are the complete opposite of tabloid journalism!

        July 4, 2014 at 8:59 am
      • David Pearce

        Also, thanks for opening my eyes to the whole Le Vélo — L’Auto fight, anti-semitism, the beginnings of the Tour de France, and the Dreyfus Affair. Fascinating history, and much better to bicycle down the road, and the road of life, with both eyes open and brain engaged!

        July 4, 2014 at 9:04 am
  • Bob

    I really enjoyed your latest magazine. Any well researched article that lays to rest some myths is always welcome. The piece on Campagnolo brought back memories of a shorter article by Dick Swann (of Kopp’s Cycle in NJ) published in 1971 (Bicycling magazine). Swann did not explore the man Campagnolo as much as take aim at the popular idea of superior Campagnolo quality. If I remember correctly (no longer have the magazine), he focused on the headset (inferior to Stronglight’s V4), hubs (inferior to Airlite), and cranks (again, inferior to Stronglight and subject to fatigue cracks as you mention).
    Keep up the good work.

    July 1, 2014 at 7:05 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It all depends on what you consider “inferior”. Campagnolo’s engineering wasn’t always that great, but the parts were beautifully made and beautifully finished. Working on a classic Campagnolo-equipped bike was a joy, which cannot always be said about the competition.

      July 1, 2014 at 7:24 am
      • Bob

        I agree. I think Swann was addressing how some of the components were designed, not the fit and finish. Campy’s chrome plating, for example, was consistently high quality and long lasting, unlike some of the competition which tended to flake off.

        July 1, 2014 at 9:14 am
  • David Pearce

    I wonder how Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox camera, compares to Tullio Campagnolo. I have a hunch that Zapp would fit more into the category of inventive genius, rather than great integrator and a “big-picture” marketeer. I feel that sometimes, a product emerges before a company, and other times, as with Campagnolo, the company emerges before the products. But there is no doubt that, one, Tullio was a genius at seeing the future, and making it (the Gruppo), and two, there is no doubt that Campagnolo “became” an excellent design company, and certainly to this day is committed to innovative design.
    I have recently gotten into film photography, particularly Minox. Besides enjoying the slim (and protected!) shape of the camera, and looking forward to carrying it my handlebar bag, I have been musing about the camera as a coveted item of its time, and comparing it to our current must have item, smartphones, and Apple does appear to be the most “integrated” of the smartphone / computer makers. And it is weird (at least to me) that both Minox and the iPhone are: sleek; have rounded corners; and fit satisfyingly to the hand.
    I feel, just as with the bicycles from the golden age of cycling that you illuminate and describe, that the Minox system is a top-notch illustration of excellent design.

    July 1, 2014 at 7:28 am
  • rodneyAB

    I find the Rene Herse crankset to work well under the control of a Campagnolo Nuevo Record front changer.

    July 1, 2014 at 11:46 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The Nuovo Record front derailleur was simple, but it worked extremely well, even over much larger chainring size differences than it was originally designed to handle.

      July 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm
      • kurtsperry

        I don’t think a Nuovo Record FD ever existed per se. A Record FD was supplied with Nuovo Record and Super Record gruppi until around 1980 when a Super Record branded FD with black painted parallelogram arms to differentiate them appeared.

        July 2, 2014 at 4:21 pm
  • David Feldman

    Two things that were advantages of Campagnolo are apparent constantly in my work–I’m a bike mechanic. Materials quality; just had the experience of cutting a well-maintained Nuovo Record hub out of a wheel for rebuilding. Bearings as smooth as any cartridge at 30+ years old! No doubt that my customer will get at least another rim life’s worth out of it. Campagnolo’s group concept stood out in the 1970’s when I started working in bike stores. Cycle parts distribution was a patchwork. There were no national companies who made the merchandise of multiple manufacturers available in multiple locations. With Campagnolo, even with distribution that wasn’t what we’ve come to enjoy lately, a whole bike’s worth of parts was available in one order as well as small parts for repairs. So, you could bike a whole bike-system of high quality parts from one source as well as the small stuff to fix it. No small thing in 1978!

    July 1, 2014 at 1:43 pm
  • marmotte27

    Loking forward to reading the story, but my copy of the summer 2014 issue hasn’t arrived yet.

    July 1, 2014 at 11:33 pm
  • Paul Ahart

    I too really enjoyed the article about Tullio Campagnolo. Reading about the stress risers in his cranksets gave me an “ah ha!” moment, explaining the strange occurrance of Nuovo Record cranks breaking. I had thought it was just powerful legs, not a design flaw. How could something so beautifully finished have…..a design flaw? Well done on the research!
    Regarding your comment about how well the Campy front derailleur works….I recently installed a NOS Shimano Deore 46-36-26 crankset on a customer’s old Bob Jackson bike, replacing the too-high-geared Campy crank. The old front derailleur shifts flawlessly with the “new” triple setup.
    And the Japanese stories….Iluminating and making me want to tour on those mountainous roads. Maybe I could drag along my wife’s cousin, who is fluent in Japanese. Get the whole cultural experience.

    July 2, 2014 at 7:33 am
  • Steve

    “The original patent for the quick release, said to date from 1930, does not exist. Later patents by Campagnolo are written very narrowly for improvements or special features of the quick release, indicating that he could not patent the cam-actuated quick release itself.”
    I’m not clear on what you are saying above. Is it that Tullio’s original patent is missing, or that one never existed? Did your search turn up an inventor for the quick release other than Tullio?
    Just a comment about doing patent research on Italian patent documents. The Italian patent system is very different than the USA. We had one patent office until 2012, making it simple to do a comprehensive search. Italy has a patent office in many cities (I’ve been told there are on the order of 100). We have the luxury of electronic filings these days to keep everything in order. Back in the 20s and 30s this would all have been done on paper and the lore about how “applications went missing” between the remote Italian offices are notorious. It is challenging to get a comprehensive search done on older Italian patents.

    July 3, 2014 at 5:46 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Fortunately, Campagnolo, like most other inventors, filed his patents in several countries, so even if we cannot find the Italian patent, we can find the French, German, British, etc., patents. We have pretty much every Campagnolo patent in at least three or four versions.
      To get the full story, you’ll have to read the Bicycle Quarterly article, but here is how we concluded that the 1930 patent does not exist:
      1. Nobody has been able to find it.
      2. The Campagnolo factory does not have a copy in their archives, either.
      3. The product history of Campagnolo doesn’t match the presumed patent timeline. Campagnolo first introduced the quick release as a shifting aid (in 1933), and only later marketed it as a wheel retention device. He patented the shifting aid in 1933. It makes no sense that he’d first patent the quick release as a wheel retention device in 1930, but not market it for that purpose.
      4. Campagnolo did patent the quick release as a wheel retention device in 1943. This would be a duplicate of his 1930 patent.
      Of course, it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist. (Just think of the Loch Ness monster…) However, as it stands right now, it seems unlikely that Campagnolo filed for a patent in 1930 for the quick release. Considering that the rest of the story, with the snowy pass and all, takes some liberties, the claim that he filed for a patent has little credibility unless somebody can come up with the patent.
      Who did invent the quick release? That is the one piece missing from the puzzle. More research is needed to figure that out. Unfortunately, bicycle technology in the 1920s wasn’t very well-documented – there was no Daniel Rebour making drawings of every innovation, no matter how obscure…

      July 3, 2014 at 9:05 am
  • Brian van Baush

    The controbution of Campagnolo lies in large part to his use of high strength alloy in his components, and the quality finish of these parts that lead their longevity. Compare any Campy part in his time to Shimano/Huret/Suntour, the finsih quality is not comparable.

    July 3, 2014 at 5:34 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      High-strength alloys were used long before Campagnolo started making components. You couldn’t make something like a Stronglight aluminum crank (introduced in 1933) without high-strength alloys. Campagnolo was one of the first to use 7000-series aluminum for chainrings – hence his lasted much longer than most at the time.
      I agree on the finish – Campagnolo’s was leagues above most other component makers.

      July 3, 2014 at 7:24 pm
  • Ints

    Interesting that you mention Ettore Bugatti as there is a wonderful exhibit of the Bugatti family works down in Oxnard California through September. In addition to all the other things they had a hand in creating, there is a bicycle designed by Bugatti in the exhibit. I’d be happy to forward the photos I have, the design solution he came up with is something else.

    July 3, 2014 at 10:04 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have heard about the Bugatti exhibit, and I’d love to see it. I especially like Ettore’s brother Rembrandt’s animal sculptures.
      The Bugatti bicycle was one of his earlier designs, with multiple tubes replacing the down and top tubes. From a stiffness perspective, it cannot have worked well. On the other hand, now that we know that stiffness isn’t desirable everywhere in a bike, parts of the design might be worth revisiting.
      Much less known is the fact that Reyhand credited Ettore Bugatti with suggesting the twin triangulation that Reyhand used on his high-end tandems. That design was used widely after the war by the French constructeurs, and resulted in the best-handling and -performing tandems I have ridden.

      July 4, 2014 at 6:20 am

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