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Japanese Bicycles in the U.S. Market

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Sheldon Brown photo
by Sheldon "Nickname" Brown
with minor revisions by John Allen
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[Sheldon wrote this article largely from memory, based on his long experience in the bicycle retail sector. His coverage is uneven, as he did not go so far as to research topics of which he had little personal knowledge. I leave the article largely as he wrote it, though I have run a spell check and made a few additions. Sheldon left a few headings only as notes to himself with no content following, and undoubtedly he left other topics unmentioned. If you can help fill out the article, please feel free to write in.

Also see Frank Berto's article "Sunset for SunTour" -- highly recommended. -- John Allen]

Japanese Bicycles

Japanese bicycles are often of very fine quality, but few are available in the U.S. market today, due to unfavorable currency exchange rates. There are still many very fine Japanese bicycles available on the used market, and this article is intended as a guide to them.

Japanese Bicycle Brands...Quick Jump

Japanese Parts...Quick Jump

History of Japanese bicycles in the U.S.

I divide the history of Japanese bicycles in the U.S. into four periods:

  1. The Dark Ages
  2. The Invasion
  3. The Glory Years
  4. The Flight to Taiwan

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The Dark Ages...through the early 70's

After the Second World War, Japan was primarily known for making cheap knockoffs of foreign designs, competing on the basis of cheap labor. This began to turn around in the camera and electronics industries in the 1950s, but Japanese companies didn't figure out how to make and sell bicycles for the U.S. market until the early 1970s.

As the 1970s opened, the U.S. market for adult bicycles was basically owned by the French and English. While Japanese bicycles were manufactured to very tight tolerances, and nicely finished (considerably better than their European competition), the Japanese had not yet come to terms with the average American's being taller and heavier than the average Japanese. (This gap was wider at the time than it is now, due to the privations the Japanese population suffered during and after the war.)

Royce Union

he most widely distributed Japanese bike of this era was sold under the name Royce Union. This was a 10-speed, pretty much all steel except for the handlebar stem and the Dia Compe brakes. This bike was only available in one size, 20", which was considerably too small for an average American man. It was equipped with Araya steel rims, which were beautifully made, much smoother and truer than European steel rims of the era...but not strong enough to withstand the weight of an average American rider. This was partly due to design, and partly due to the fact that Japanese steel was not as good as European (nor American) steel.

Even though these bikes were not durable, they did have their good points, most particularly the Shimano Lark rear derailer. Although the Lark was quite heavy, it shifted markedly better than the French Huret Allvits and Simplex Prestiges that were coming through on the bikes from Europe.

Cotterless cranks

Aluminum-alloy cotterless cranks had been a high-end item, not found on the run-of-the-mill European ten-speeds that sold for around $150 in the early 1970s bike boom years. The Sugino Maxy cotterless crank was a game changer. The inner chainring was attached using the 110 mm bolt circle, which survives to this day in very wide use. The Maxy's outer chainring was swaged to the right crank, and so was not interchangeable -- though it was possible to saw off a worn chainwheel and bolt a replacement one to the remaining spider.The Maxy was much lighter and easier to work on than cottered cranks, and gave a competitive advantage to mid-priced Japanese derailer-equipped bicycles.

The Invasion...Mid '70s--Early '80s

The SunTour Derailers

Although Japanese derailers had appeared as original equipment on Japanese bikes, the SunTour VGT was the first model to make a big splash in the aftermarket. The VGT was a wide-range touring derailer, using SunTour's patented "slant parallelogram" design. The VGT was a reasonably light derailer, with a large chain take-up capacity, and a very light action, compared to the early '60s designs from Simplex and Huret. The shifting ease and performance were dramatically superior. When a rider who had been using French derailers first tried out a VGT, the effect was as startling as the later transition from friction to index shifting.

{Agreed -- been there, done that. My first ten-speed had a plastic Simplex derailer. The flex of the derailer could be felt through the lever. The Simplex would only shift to the next sprocket by pulling the lever past the centered position for that sprocket -- and then sometimes the shift would be to the second sprocket. The VGT's feel was crisp and clean. -- John Allen]

Gene Ritvo and The Fuji S-10-S

The first Japanese company to figure out the U.S. market was Nichibei Fuji (not to be confused with all the other Japanese companies that are called "Fuji"; "Fuji" is roughly the Japanese equivalent of "Acme.") The U.S. importer at the time was Eugene Ritvo, from the Boston area, and he seems to have been the first knowledgeable U.S. cyclist to succeed in getting a major Japanese bike maker to listen to him.

He spec'ed the breakthrough model, the S-10-S, and, when the first batch had persistent spoke breakage problems, he insisted that all of the wheels be replaced.

The S-10-S featured Sugino Maxy cotterless cranks (while competitive models from Europe were still using steel, cottered cranks). It had a well designed, butted frame, available in a full range of sizes, nearly indestructible Ukai aluminum rims, and the bike soon acquired an excellent reputation for reliability and performance.

The S10-S had aluminum handlebars and stem, Sunshine high-flange hubs, and a Belt leather saddle. This model name was continued for several years. In 1977 it was upgraded to 12-speed, and later the name was changed to S12-S.

Proportional sizing.

Japanese tires

Japanese tires also made an important advance. European tires had been made with cotton cord, which was prone to damage, even from sharp pebbles and which was subject to mildew and rot. Japanese tire manufacturers began using nylon, which is much stronger, and also allows a tire to be lighter. Because there was no longer a need for a substantial covering of rubber on the tire's sidewalls to protect against rot, they could be made thinner, decreasing rolling resistance.

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The Glory Years...the mid-'80s

Throughout the '70s and early '80s, "Touring" was the hottest buzzword in the industry, and it was hard to find any bicycle part that didn't feature "tour" or "touring" in its name or advertising.

The loaded touring bike was the most prestigious type of bike, and was generally recommended as the ideal general-purpose bike for the serious cyclist. Unfortunately, such bikes were not available from stock; a buyer would have to start with a "sport touring" bike and make various modifications to turn it into a thoroughbred touring machine. Around 1985, the industry finally figured out how to make a good off-the shelf touring bike. Suddenly, all of the Japanese builders got it together at once, and serious, ready-to-ride touring bikes became available, with triple chainwheels, cantilever brakes, triple water bottle mounts, front and rear rack braze-ons, bar-end shifters, 40-spoke rear wheels, sealed bearings. Centurion, Fuji, Miyata, Panasonic, Shogun, Specialized, Univega and others offered these bikes. Some of these companies offered 2 or 3 different models at different price ranges. At the same time, the mid 1980s, the dollar reached a peak against the Japanese Yen (260 ¥ to the $!) The Japanese tourers of this era were a value unequalled before or since.

Unfortunately, however, the touring market turned out to be finite and limited. The baby boomers were aging and beginning to be gainfully employed, and many of them were less enthusiastic about loaded touring than they had been in their student days. The huge volume of touring bikes turned out in the 1985 model year didn't sell out right away. Running on momentum, the Japanese continued pumping out wonderful touring bikes through the 1986 model year...but far too many of these bikes were still unsold at the end of the '86 selling season.

The bicycle industry has always tended toward a "pack mentality." Everybody wants to make whatever is most popular, and nothing else. At the end of the '86 model year, all of the manufacturers said, with one voice "Whoah! Touring bikes are over!. No more touring bikes! Now we will all build...mountain bikes! Touring bikes became extinct at the production level. Well into the early '90s, a cyclist seeking a touring bike would be sold a left-over '86.

The Flight to Taiwan...late '80s...

Around 1987, the bottom fell out of the dollar, and it became worth less than half what it had been against the Yen. Japanese bikes became un-affordable for most Americans.

Ten years previously, the Japanese industry, under American guidance, made the transition from shoddy bikes, unsuited to the U.S. market, to a position of dominance in the U.S. market. This cycle was repeated as the Taiwanese bicycle industry, under Japanese guidance, learned to build bicycles with the design and quality needed to succeed in the U.S. market.

Headsets

J.I.S. vs I.S.O.

Shimano vs SunTour/Sugino/Dia Compe

Throughout the '70s and '80s, the Japanese bicycle industry was polarized into two contending factions: Shimano vs. everybody else. "Everybody else" mainly amounted to a loose association between SunTour (derailers, shifters & freewheels), Sugino (cranks) and Dia Compe (brakes.) While European and American manufacturers would feel free to pick and choose components, Japanese bikes would generally be equipped with parts entirely from one camp or the other.

Shimano started out as the underdog, and had a reputation for being a bit flighty and always changing its product lines, while SunTour and its allies were more stable. Dealers liked this stability, because it simplified parts replacement. In this era, Shimano replacement parts were hard to find in bike shops, partly because of the constant churning of new model introductions and partly because Shimano didn't do a very good job of communicating with or supporting the dealers.

Unfortunately for SunTour et. al., Shimano's willingness to keep trying new ideas led to some real improvements in technology, and eventually the more conservative parts makers got left behind like the European manufacturers before them.

Indexed Shifting: Shimano Wins All Of The Marbles

Indexed shifting was not a new idea. It went back at least to the 1930s. The problem was to get it to work well enough to be worth the trouble. In the early '80s, both SunTour and Shimano were working on the problem. SunTour had a system called "Trimec" which was offered as a gimmick feature on a few mid-range models, but it didn't work too well, and SunTour abandoned it.

Shimano's first attempt was called "Positron." At the time, Shimano was supplying parts mainly for department-store and other low-end bikes, and reasoned that these bikes were most likely to be bought by beginners, who were the most likely customers to have trouble mastering conventional friction shifting. Thus, Shimano introduced the Positron system on low-end bikes, where it languished for several years. In an effort to make shifting even easier for beginners, Shimano also developed the Front Freewheeling System, where the freewheel was built into the bottom bracket, instead of the rear hub. The putative advantage of this was that it permitted the rider to shift while the bike was coasting, since the chain was in motion even when the rider wasn't pedaling. (The FFS was sometimes used with Positron, sometimes without it; Positron was sometimes used with FFS, sometimes without it.)

Positron never succeeded in a big way. For one thing, since it was used on cheap bikes, the parts of the system had to be cheap to make, so it was difficult to get the needed precision to make the system work well. In addition, the system became associated with cheapo beginner bikes, so there was no tendency for the technology to "trickle up" to mid-priced bikes. Shimano gave up on Positron, but didn't give up on indexed shifting.

Shimano's next attempt to market indexing used exactly the opposite approach, an approach which has been followed ever since in Shimano's strategy: Start at the top, then let the technology "trickle down."

S.I.S. (Shimano Indexing System) debuted in the top-of-the-line Dura Ace racing group in 1984 (1985?) as a 6-speed system, using conventional cables, with the detents (clicks) built into the shift lever. The original Dura Ace S.I.S. lever set was a masterpiece of ergonomics, and offered the option of switching the index mode on or off.

At first, many racers laughed at S.I.S., because they already knew how to shift. Some complained that indexing was unsuitable for racing use because the audible click could be heard by one's opponents, so they'd know when you were going to attack. Others objected that the indexing wouldn't work with the spare wheels on the team car that had Regina freewheels on them. None of these objections amounted to much for most riders, and S.I.S. was an instant success. In 1986 it "trickled down" to the 600 EX group, and by 1987 it had become almost impossible to sell a bike with friction-only shifting.

With S.I.S., Shimano had opened an un-closeable gap on the competition. SunTour soon came out with its own indexing system which was "just as good" as the Shimano system...last year's Shimano system! Shimano continued to improve on S.I.S., and the market soon realized this. By the early '90s, it had become extremely difficult to sell any bike that didn't feature Shimano derailers.

Having acquired a near-monopoly on the derailer market, Shimano attempted, with considerable success, to extend that monopoly.

Before the S.I.S. revolution, you could mostly use anybody's shift lever with anybody's derailer. Indexing introduced the concept of "dedication" to bicycle technology: If you wanted S.I.S., you had to use a Shimano shift lever, Shimano cables and housing, Shimano derailer, Shimano freewheel or, better yet, cassette hub and a Shimano chain. It said so right in the manual.

(I bought a first-generation Dura Ace shift lever set when they first came out. I didn't think the indexing would amount to much, but I needed a new set of levers, and loved the feel of the Shimano units. Once I had them installed on my favorite bike, with a SunTour Cyclone derailer, Regina Oro 6-speed freewheel on a Campagnolo Record hub, and a Sedisport chain, I couldn't resist trying to get the indexing to work. It wasn't that hard to do, mainly I just needed to install an adjusting barrel in the Cyclone derailer so I could fine-tune the cable tension. This system is still going strong, and indexes just fine.)

Integration Marches On

Having persuaded people that they needed to match their shift lever, derailer, freewheel and chain, Shimano gradually extended the "dedication" principle as a way to grab more market share for its cranksets, hubs, etc.

Shimano introduced front-indexing, while telling people that it could only be guaranteed to work if they used Shimano cranksets...and soon, Sugino was no longer the #1 crank company.

In 1990, Shimano introduced combined brake-shift levers, so that if you wanted upper-end Shimano shifting on your mountain bike, the shifters were (at first) only available with brake levers attached...and soon, Dia Compe was no longer the #1 brake company.

Shimano introduced cassette "Freehubs" around 1980. Initially, the major selling point was that it was easier to change clusters as a "cassette" so that a racer could customize gearing for a particular course. These hubs also had a superior axle/bearing design which made them pretty much immune from broken/bent axles. They were a hard sell, though, because if you bought one, you could only use Shimano cassettes, while a conventional thread-on hub would let you use anybody's thread-on freewheel. Freehubs didn't really catch on until Shimano introduced 7-speed S.I.S...and offered 7-speed freewheels only in close-ratio sizes appropriate to road-racing bikes...so, if you wanted a 21-speed MTB in 1989 (and everybody wanted a 21-speed MTB in 1989!), you had to have a Shimano Freehub.

Hyperglide

In fairness to Shimano, I should add that the introduction of 7-speed MTB shifting coincided with the introduction of Hyperglide, which was the final nail in SunTour's coffin. This brilliant innovation used specially shaped sprocket teeth and ramps on the sides of the sprockets to provide notably smoother shifting. Previous derailer shifting had worked by having the derailer move the chain sideways so that the resulting chain angle would cause the chain to derail from the sprocket it was on. Once the chain was derailed, with any luck, it would soon fall onto the next sprocket, and soon mesh with it. With Hyperglide, however, the sprocket were specifically designed so that as the chain left one sprocket, the ramps and special teeth would cause the chain to be fully engaged with the new sprocket before it disengaged from the old one. The result was smoother, quieter, faster shifting than anyone had believed possible. Part of what made this work was that the rotational position of each sprocket was aligned with that of the adjacent sprocket. This cannot be done with sprockets that thread onto a freewheel, it only works with splined sprockets that slide on in only one orientation. This is more easily done on a freehub cassette than with a thread-on freewheel, due to clearance problems.

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Japanese Bicycle Brands

The following is a list of some Japanese bicycle brands that I have come across, with scattered information about them. I welcome additions and corrections, most of this material is from memory, which may be faulty.

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Note that many of the brand names commonly perceived as being manufacturers, are not actually manufacturers, but rather are trading/importing companies, who have bicycles made for them by other companies. This is not a bad thing, and many of the top brands work this way. The company whose name is on the down tube will design the bike, specify the equipment, and provide quality control. Some brand names have been, at different times, manufacturers and importers. In fact, sometimes a company with an actual factory will have some models made by other (overseas) factories, while making others in-house.

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American Eagle
A short-lived brand name from the mid-70s bike boom. I believe that it got into trouble for the misleading name, and reverted to the Japanese name "Nishiki."
Azuki
House brand of Louisville Cycle & Hobby, Louisville, Kentucky
Bianchi
While Bianchi is best known as an Italian brand, it was having bicycles built in Japan to its specifications for several years in the late 1980s. These were particularly nice bikes, with better workmanship than the Italian models.
Bridgestone
Bridgestone is an enormous multinational company, one of the largest tire companies in the world...and a fairly small bicycle company, with its own factory in Japan. In the late 1980s and early'90s, its U.S. bicycle division was run by Grant Petersen, a brilliant, talented and idiosyncratic designer.

Petersen, a hard-core cyclist, marched to a different drummer than most of the industry. He introduced many innovations to the market, and also strongly resisted other trends and innovations that he didn't approve of.

Bridgestones have a backwards numbering system, and, generally, the lower the number, the higher the quality.

Road Models RB-1, RB-2, RB-3, RB-T

Bridgestone "road" bikes, particularly the legendary RB-1, combine frame design taken from classic Italian road bikes of the '70's with excellent Japanese workmanship and functional, reliable parts. The RB-1 was extremely popular with racers, and held its own against competing models costing hundreds of dollars more.

The RB-2 had the same geometry as the RB-1, but with slightly less expensive tubing and considerably less expensive parts.

The RB-3 was a low-end model, of little interest.

The RB-T was a touring bike introduced in the early '90s, a time when touring bikes were extremely out of fashion with manufacturers. It was a very nice bike, but had trouble competing with the left-over stock of mid-80s touring bikes still in the pipeline. This bike also came with Avocet slick tires, which are splendid tires, but difficult to sell, since most people assume (incorrectly) that they will provide poor traction.

Mountain Bikes MB-1...MB-6

Bridgestone was one of the first companies to jump on the mountain bike bandwagon in the 1980s, but from a "road" perspective. Early versions of the MB-1 came with drop handlebars and 126 mm dropout spacing!

The predominant style of mountain bikes in the early-mid '80s had the "California cruiser" geometry inspired by the Schwinn Excelsior "klunkers", with 44 inch wheelbases, 18-inch or longer chainstays, and frame angles in the high 60-degree range. These bikes were very stable for downhill use on Repack hill, but were not very good climbers. Petersen's Bridgestones had much steeper frame angles and much shorter chain stays, making them considerably more maneuverable and nimble than the older designs, and considerably better climbers. In the '80s, this design was considered "radical", but it proved itself on the trail, and was copied by everybody a few years later. This Bridgestone design still is the standard for rigid-frame MTBs.

Some MTBs were made in Japan, others in Taiwan, different models in different years. You can easily tell which, because the Japanese models all used lug construction, while the Taiwanese models were T.I.G. welded.

In the early '90s, the Taiwanese MB-0 (a.k.a. "MB-Zip") pushed the envelope of lightness for steel-framed mountain bikes. These top-of-the line bikes were amazingly light, but, unfortunately, a bit too light, and prone to frame failure if ridden hard off-road.

The XO series

The CB-1...CB-3

There was constant tension between Bridgestone USA and the parent company in Japan. While the bosses realized that Petersen was a very talented designer, he was perhaps a bit too individualistic and eccentric for the corporate culture. There were forces in Japan that wanted to make a more mainstream bike, like everybody else. In the give and take between the divisions, some models went one way, others the other way. The CB-series (City Bike) was intended as a bike for the non-enthusiast. There was nothing wrong with them, but nothing special, either. These were all Taiwanese models.

Bridgestone bikes tend to have long top tubes.

This site has an extensive separate Bridgestone section, including complete catalogue scans from 1987-94, click here.

Centurion

Centurion, like Diamondback (formerly "Diamond Back") was a trademark of Western States Imports (W.S.I.). Starting in the late 1970s, W.S.I used the Centurion brand for its road-bike line, and Diamond Back (later Diamondback) for its BMX and MTB lines.

The Centurion "Comp TA" was a particularly nice sport bike, but W.S.I. had to abandon this model designation due to a conflict with an automotive tire manufacturer that owned the trademark. W.S.I. substituted the model name "Dave Scott Ironman", making this possibly the first mass-produced bicycle targeted at the triathlon market.

In the early '90s, W.S.I. stopped using the Centurion brand name, and applied the Diamondback brand to its road models as well as the BMX/MTB lines. There is also an unrelated Centurion bicycle company based in Denmark

See Ashley Wright's more detailed Centurion article on this site.

1984 Centurion catalogue scans on this site.

Diamond Back

Diamondback BMX, MTB Formula One

See also "Centurion"

Fuji

Fuji started the "invasion" with the S-10-S, the first Japanese adult bike designed successfully for the U.S. market, and later the first moderate-priced 12 speed. The "Newest" racing bike was a serious contender in its day. The Del Rey was an excellent sport-touring bike. The "America" was an early "credit-card" touring bike, featuring 18 speeds, SunTour barcons (a SunTour trademark for bar-end shifters), and 622 mm (700c) wheels (which were rare in the U.S. at that time, in the late '70s-early '80s.)

The Fuji Touring Series was a fine range of loaded touring bikes in the mid '80s.

Fuji fell on hard times in the early '90s. It was one of the last Japanese bike companies to shift production to Taiwan after the fall of the dollar against the Yen made Japanese bikes uncompetitive in the U.S. It is my belief that Fuji, being a latecomer to Taiwanese production, took a while to build up a good working relationship with the Taiwanese factories, because the early '90s Taiwanese Fujis were not so hot. Current Fujis are fine, but the company has not yet recovered the reputation it had during the Glory Years.

See also the Classicrendezvous Fuji Page.

C.Itoh
Brand name used by Bridgestone in the early '70s. These were pretty crummy bikes.
Kabuki

When Japanese bikes were in high fashion, many companies went out of their way to market bikes under Japanese-associated names, including Lotus, Mikado, Shogun, and probably others. Kabuki was a trade name of Bridgestone (a Japanese company with a non-Japanese name!)

The Kabuki line used some unusual construction techniques, specifically, a system of sticking the frame tubes into a special mold and forming cast aluminum "lugs" in place around the ends of the tubes. The most notable of this line was the "Submariner" which used un-painted stainless steel tubing, and was marketed in seacoast areas for its rust-resistance. Because the cast aluminum lugs were not flexible like steel lugs, these bikes didn't use a conventional seat-post binder. Instead, they used a seat post with an expander wedge like that of a handlebar stem...you had to remove the saddle from the seatpost to adjust the height, then re-install the saddle! Even sillier, many of these frames had what looked like a conventional seatpost bolt mounted in a projection of the rigid lug, simply to provide a place to mount a cable stop for the center-pull caliper brake!

Kuwahara

Kuwahara is best known for its highly regarded BMX line. Kuwahara BMX bikes were featured in Spielberg's E.T. The Extraterrestrial (Bob Haro was doing the stunts.)

Kuwahara also made touring bikes and tandems, not widely distributed in the U.S.

Kuwahara supplied the bikes for the 1988 Canadian Olympic team.

Lotus

The Lotus brand was introduced in 1980. It was made by made by Tsunoda, distributed by Alpha Cycle, Syosset NY.

Maruishi
Matsushita

Matsushita (pronounced "mat soo shta") is one of the largest corporations in Japan, if not the largest. It doesn't emphasize the Matsushita name in English-speaking markets, and is better known as "National" or "Panasonic."Panasonic is most noted in the bicycle market for its tires, which are among the best.

Mikado
Miyata

Miyata is a major manufacturer, and made bikes for export under other names as well, notably Univega. Miyata even draws its own tubing, and pioneered triple-butted tubing. The mid-80s Miyata 1000 was possibly the finest off-the-shelf touring bike available at the time.

Here are specs for the 1984 Miyata 1000, from the catalogue, provided by Bill Mennuti:

Frame:

On the complete bike:

Miyata touring bikes, including the 1000 and the lesser (but still extremely nice) 610, came with very unusual tires, Panasonic radials. These may be the only radial bicycle tires ever sold.

[And for good reason: the radial cord provided too little lateral rigidity, making the tires feel odd. -- John Allen]
Nishiki
Nishiki got off to a good start in the U.S. market, but made the error of selling some models to department stores, creating bad feeling against the line among independent bicycle dealers. Nishiki lost a great many dealers as a result of this.

Later, the Nishiki brand became a division of Derby, along with Raleigh and Univega. The Nishiki and Univega names were retired in 2001 so that Derby could concentrate on its Raleigh brand.

Panasonic

Panasonic, the bicycle brand of the mighty Matsushita conglomerate, made very nice bicycles, beautifully built, but never very successful in the U.S. market.

In the late '80s, Panasonic had a plan to supply semi-custom bikes, using "just-in-time" production methods. The program was called "P.I.C.S." (Panasonic Individualized Custom System). The frames were stock, but were painted to order (with the customer's name optionally painted on the top tube) and with a custom-length handlebar stem.

Panasonic also made bicycles under other names under contract, most notably, for Schwinn...the Schwinn Le Tour was the first non-Chicago Schwinn.

From a posting by Yellow Jersey's Andrew Muzi:

Japanese-built Panasonic/National/Matsushita frames are of excellent quality at each price range. You can distinguish them from outsourced bikes by the serial number location. Osaka-built frames are serial numbered on the lower headlug. The second digit is the year, e.g., T5M78563 would be a 1985 frame

Peugeot

Peugeot is primarily an automobile manufacturer. Most Peugeots were built in France, but there was a period in the mid- late-'80s when Peugeot mountain bikes were being built in Japan. These were very well-made, lugged-frame bikes, but of somewhat dated design even then. Current Peugeot bikes sold in the Americas are made in Québec.

For information on French-made Peugeots, see my French Bicycles Page.

Puch

An Austrian company, but some Puch models were made in Japan.

Raleigh & Rampar

Sometime in the '70s, Raleigh of England sold the U.S. rights to the Raleigh name to Huffy. During this period, some models were made in Japan, though most were sourced from Taiwan. The "Rampar" name was originally a house-brand name for parts distributed by Raleigh U.S.A. (RAleigh AMerica PArts) but was later applied to low-end Asian imported bikes distributed by Raleigh U.S.A.

Raleigh U.S.A. is now a division of Derby, along with Univega and Nishiki.

Royce Union

See entry under "The Dark Ages"

Soma

A short-lived brand of decent-quality bikes.

[Also Greek for "body", as in "psychosomatic", and Aldous Huxley's name for a feel-good drug in the book Brave New World. It is the name of a city in Japan-- John Allen]
Schwinn

Le Tour (made by Panasonic.)

Sekine
Shogun
Skyway

A low-end brand from before the bike boom, not to be confused with the maker of the Skyway BMX wheels.

Specialized

In addition to complete bicycles, Specialized is a major brand name in parts.

Suteki

This was a Sears-Roebuck brand. Here's a Suteki Web page.

Takara
Terry

Georgena Terry, specializing in bikes for women (usually with a smaller-than-usual front wheel) was getting very nice frames from Japan for several years.

Univega

A brand name of Lawee, Inc., former importer of Motobécane. Most Univdga Japanese bikes were made by Miyata.

Univega was one of the first major companies to market mountain bikes in the early '80s, with its Alpina series.

Univega was later a division of Derby, along with Nishiki and Raleigh, but the Univega and Nishiki brand names were retired in 2001 so that Derby could concentrate on its Raleigh brand.

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Japanese Components

Akisu

Forks

Araya

Japan's leading rim manufacturer. Araya rims are very well made, but can't compete at current exchange rates.

Arai

Drum brake

Asahi

Major spoke manufacturer. Asahi makes Wheelsmith spokes.

Avocet

Tires

Belt

Leather saddles supplied on early Fuji bikes. They were known for being nearly indestructible, but taking longer than average to break in.

Cateye

Originally, Cateye was best known for their reflectors, which came on virtually all Japanese bicycles, and many from other countries as well. Cateye is still a major player in this market.

Cateye also made handlebar tape (and the world's best handlebar plugs).

Cateye was one of the first companies to make a reliable cyclecomputer, and remain the world's leading maker of cyclecomputers.

Cateye also makes lighting equipment of various sorts. Like everything else Caeye makes, it is of very high quality.

Dia-Compe

Long the leading brake manufacturer. Dia Compe invented the "safety lever", and reached an agreement with the Swiss Weinmann company, permitting Dia Compe to make knockoffs of the very popular Weinmann brakes, in return for letting Weinmann use Dia Compe's "safety levers."

Dia Compe is the leading proponent of threadless headsets, under their trade names "Aheadset" and Diatech."

DID

Formerly a leading maker of chains. The DID "Lanner" chain was highly regarded in the early '80s, before it was eclipsed by the advent of the superior French "Sedisport" (now "Sachs") chains.

Hoshi

A major spoke manufacturer. In the early '90s, Hoshi introduced a bladed spoke with a special head that could be inserted into a standard hub. These were briefly very popular, until they started breaking.

IRC

Tires (Inoue Rubber Company)

Ishiwata

From a rec.bicycles.tech posting by Andrew Muzi:

I am intimately familiar with Ishiwata and their products, having been in the factory a few times, spec'd many bikes with their steel and built with it. I still use Ishiwata tube for frame repair.

The material [022] is virtually identical to Columbus SP/SL/SLX. The top range of tubes were seamless double-butted and the finish quality [as delivered to the builder] was much higher than Columbus. The tubing gauge of the 022 is 0.9/0.6 mm, exactly the same as Columbus SP. It's called "022" because the frame tube set weighs 2.2 kilos. The same material drawn thinner to 0.8/0.5 mm is called "019" because it weighs 1.9 kilos, just like Columbus SL. Many builders, then and now, mix gauges so a small frame might be all 019 but a 56 would have 022 chainstays and downtube for example.

Trek in the late '70s built three racing frames, one with Ishiwata, one Reynolds 531 and one Columbus. Geometry and weight were identical. The prices were unreasonably different because of the cachet of Italian tubing, making the Ishiwata frame the best value. Marketing took over later as the Ishiwata was dropped completely. With the advent of aluminum, the currency crash and the Japanese depression, Ishiwata closed the doors in the early '90s.

Kashimax
Saddles
KKT
Kyokuto
Kyokuto
One of the leading makers of pedals.
Maeda
Parent company of SunTour
Mikashima/M.K.S.
One of the leading makers of pedals. Still in business
Mitsuboshi
Comp III, Comp Pool, Cruiser Mits. Silver Star
National
Schwinn Super Record, Le Tour, Cycle Pro
Nitto
Maker of very fine handlebars, seatposts. The Nitto "Technomic" stem is a conventional "road-type" stem with an extra tall column, and solves difficult fitting problems for many riders.
Ritchey
Nitto bars, stems; tires, Sugino cranks, Dia Compe brakes. Rims, Logic prestige tubing
Sakae Ringyo/S.R.)
Formerly the #2 Japanese crank manufacture behind Sugino; currently #2 behind Shimano. Also a major maker of handlebars and stems. Laprade seatpost
Sampson
Pedals
Sansin/Sunshine

Sanshin made Sunshine hubs. My understanding is that the company picked "Sunshine" as a brand name since it sounded close to Sanshin, non-Japanese had trouble pronouncing Sanshin, and Sunshine has nice English-language connotations. Around 1985 the company seems to have dropped Sunshine and labeled its product Sanshin.

In addition to producing product under its own label, Sanshin also acted as a subcontractor for SunTour; all SunTour-labelled hubs came from Sanshin. I don't know if there was any corporate cross-ownership, but, in the late '80s, Sanshin's president was Mamoru Kawai, the younger son of Junzo Kawai, Maeda/SunTour's chairman.

Sanshin's factory was in Shiga-ken, maybe an hour from Maeda's offices in Sakai-shi. In the mid-'80s, Sanshin was diversifying a bit into forging auto parts. I don't know what happened to them when Maeda was purchased then went under.

Sanshin made a beautiful ProAm model high-flange hub in the late '70s. The flanges only had 5 cut-outs, leaving a distinctive star-shaped center section. Very nice bearing quality, lots of polish and pretty anodizing.

--Paul Brodek

Shimano

See separate Shimano page.

Silver Star

Tires

Specialized

Tires, Handlebars, Cranks

Speedic

Saddles on early Royce Union 10 speeds. [I own a leather Speedic saddle, which I pulled off a Royce Union which a neighbor left in the trash. The saddle looks like a Brooks Pro, with large rivets, except that it has bag loops. The leather is of very high quality and very thick. I have ridden this saddle for thousands of miles and have yet to break it in! -- John Allen]

 
Sugino

Formerly the leading Japanese crank manufacturer, currently #2 behind Shimano. The Sugino "Maxy" crank was the first cotterless crankset marketed in large numbers on mid-price bicycles in the mid-late 1970s.

The Sugino AT was the first to use the 110 mm/74 mm bolt circle, and was possibly the finest triple crank ever.

 
SunTour

Cartridge hubs, VGT derailer

Suzue

Quite good hubs. Never got into cassette hubs, but still makes very nice track hubs.

Tange

The major Japanese tubing manufacturer.

Tube sets "Number 1", "Number 2", etc. have thicker walls as the numbers get higher.

Tange's top-of-the-line tube set is the heat-treated "Prestige."

Tange is also the leading Japanese producer of Headsets (Levin) and rigid forks, as well as a major producer of Bottom brackets.

Tioga

Tires (Mitsuboshi), Suspension forks, wheel disc, headsets, stems. "Tioga" also is the name of a county in north central Pennsylvania.

Ukai

Japan's number two rim manufacturer.

V.I.A.

Not actually a brand nor a model number, the Japan Vehicle Inspection Association is a quasi-official agency that promotes standardization and minimum quality standards for Japanese vehicles.

In the post WW2 era, most Japanese industries acquired similar governing bodies under the J.I.S.C. (Japanese Industrial Standards Committee). These agencies helped to turn around the international reputation of Japanese products from the former stereotype of cheap copies of western designs to their present high reputation for quality and reliability.

Wheelsmith

Currently #2 supplier of high quality spokes (after DT). These are made by Asahi.

Spoke divider

Spoke divider

Japanese Tools

Hozan (HKC)

Hook wrench, pedal wrench, truing stand

Minoura

Work stand, truing stand, road wrenches.

Sugino

Crank pullers.

Dating Tips

Center-pull caliper brakes were pretty much out of fashion by the beginning of the 1980s.

"Æro" side-pull brake calipers, with the upper arm close to the centerline of the bike, were mostly used in 1981-82.

Down-tube shift levers mounted on top of the down-tube, instead of on the side, were mainly supplied in the 1982-83 model year.

By 1986, most models had indexed shifting.

Mountain bikes with "U-brakes" under the chainstays were mainly from the 1987 model year, though some were made in '86 and '88.

Other Related pages:

Spoke divider

Classicrendezvous Japanese Classics Page

Spoke divider

Spoke Divider

Articles by Sheldon Brown and others
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