A Book about SunTour

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Many Bicycle Quarterly readers wrote to tell us how much they enjoyed Takayuki Nishiyama’s in-depth article about SunTour in the Summer 2016 Bicycle Quarterly (above). SunTour was one of the world’s most innovative component makers, yet little has been written about this company. SunTour went out of business in the 1990s, but the company still is fondly remembered by many cyclists today.

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Now Hideki Sasaki has added new books on SunTour to his “Derailleurs of the World” series. These books are the most complete catalogues of classic derailleurs. Every derailleur is shown in photos, with dates and a few specs. His latest work on SunTour is a real tour de force. SunTour was so prolific that their derailleurs require two volumes! Of course, front derailleurs and shift levers are included as well.

Paging through these volumes reminds me of SunTour’s genius and, sometimes, madness. Their first derailleurs were straight copies of the same Huret derailleurs that René Herse used on his bikes. Even though they were made from stamped steel, their quality was excellent. For the wider gear ranges of cyclotouring bikes, they worked better than most other derailleurs. Junzo Kawai, SunTour’s charismatic chairman, had decided that if he was to copy, he should copy the best.

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The copying lasted only for a few years, before SunTour improved on the originals with its immortal slant parallelogram. This solved the problems of inconsistent chain gap that had bedeviled derailleur makers ever since they had started to attach parallelogram derailleurs to the dropout instead of the chainstay. Even today, all modern derailleurs for multiple chainrings use a slant parallelogram. The SunTour book shows a few fascinating prototypes, including one made from folded sheetmetal (above).

The slant parallelogram was pure genius, but what about the adjustable cage length of some models? Perhaps it was intended for riders who wanted to use a straight block one day, and mountain gearing the next? Swap your freewheel, adjust the cage length, add a few links to the chain, and off you go! Genius or madness?

Sasaki’s book are very detailed: The classic Cyclone derailleur that took the American market by storm during the bike boom is shown in no fewer than 18 variations. With its slant parallelogram, it handled wide-range gearing better than all other derailleurs of the time, yet it was inexpensive, simple and reliable.

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SunTour was one of the first companies to offer mountain bike derailleurs. The Mountech GTL was SunTour’s answer to the Huret Duopar, with a third pivot that kept the chain gap constant on wide-range freewheels.

Paging through the book, I learned that the Superbe Pro rear derailleur on my bike (the Mule) is one of the last, made from 1986 until 1994. It sold for the equivalent of $ 120 in Japan – three times the price of the less expensive models.

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I was amazed that the immortal Power Ratchet bar-end shifters remained unchanged from 1972 until 1985. I expected at least half a dozen iterations, but there is just one entry (above in the middle). Why change what works so well? If only SunTour had applied that lesson to their other products! Perhaps this much-missed component maker would still be with us.

The photos may not have the sparkle of the best professional studio images, but they are clear and informative.The descriptions are brief, and unfortunately for most of us, they are in Japanese. Yet the important details are easy to figure out: model number, weight, dates made, and price in Yen. We can marvel at the sheer variety of SunTour’s output, but without knowing what makes them so special, it can be hard to appreciate them. Fortunately, after having read Takayuki Nishiyama’s Bicycle Quarterly article, I recognized many derailleurs, and I was able to fit many of the derailleurs in the new book into their context. That way, SunTour’s fascinating story emerged in ever-more detail.

The “Derailleurs of the World” series now has three titles:

These books are printed in very small quantities and are difficult to find outside Japan. We are placing a one-time order for the SunTour book, as well as the earlier volumes on Simplex and Campagnolo. If you would like a copy, pre-order it by October 20. We won’t stock these books, so please order now if you want one. The books will be shipped in November.

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Further information:

  • Compass Bookstore for ordering the Derailleurs of the World books.
  • Bicycle Quarterly 56 features Takayuki Nishiyama’s article on the history of Suntour.
  • Bicycle Quarterly 45 explains how SunTour PowerRatchet and Simplex Retrofriction work, with great drawings by George Retseck (above).

Update 10/21/2016: The order for the Derailleurs of the World books is now closed. The Bicycle Quarterly issues mentioned above are still available.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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15 Responses to A Book about SunTour

  1. When I got my first custom built bike (c.1974) I wanted to get a Campagnolo gruppo but couldn’t afford it. My wise old LBS owner brought out a black version of the then new Dura Ace (I think it was called Crane) derailleurs and said “These are better, people only buy Campag ‘cos it’s what they know”. About a year later he showed me a SunTour Cyclone saying “These are the best yet”. I loved the Cyclone RDR’s, especially the ones that had the split cage so you could take the chain off the pulleys easily. Later I used Superbes and Superbe Pros–I had one of these for over 30 years and still regret selling it. In the late 1970s I met two Japanese cyclists who said they worked and rode for SunTour, and had ridden in many parts of the world. When I met them they were riding to Uluru (Ayers Rock) on beautiful custom bikes with braze on centre pulls and SunTour components (and tubulars). We corresponded for a while but eventually lost contact after their limited English and my non-existent Japanese became too big a handicap. I got the impression they were both testing and promoting the components, but I may be wrong. I’ve often wondered about them, who they were, and what became of them.

  2. Michael says:

    I am enjoying my SunXCD rear derailer.
    One of the few current production all silver drrailers that works with triples.

  3. Have you seen the components of the reborn Suntour, SunXCD? Is the quality as good?
    I have their rear hub, the construction is similar to what some other manufacturers have in current hubs, as for the cartridge bearings, freewheel mechanism and axle end plugs etc. and it has been working as it should so far. Would be nice if the freewheel body was made of steel though.
    How are the rest of their components, anything special?
    http://sunxcd.net/about/

    • Unfortunately, SunXCD doesn’t have a real connection to the old SunTour. You can see that from their products, which are rebranded Taiwanese budget components. The derailleurs are re-labeled Microshift. The hubs are the same as many other makers offer. The cranks appear to be made from the same forgings as many of the less expensive cranks that recently have entered the market. The quality has been so-so, with many of the first-generation cranks breaking after very few miles. There was a stress riser that was introduced when the crank manufacturer didn’t follow the drawings closely, but I wonder why this wasn’t discovered during quality control or testing.

      The only connection to the old SunTour is that a relative of the late SunTour president, Junzo Kawai, is involved in the company. However, he was never involved with the original SunTour, so there was very little transfer of knowledge. Of course, none of the old factories, tools or drawings exist any longer, and SunXCD hasn’t developed their own components beyond a few cosmetic changes.

      When SunXCD started, I and many others had high hopes… It would have been nice to see SunTour’s spirit of innovation again. I’d love to see their take on electronic shifting. (They licensed the Browning electric shifter and marketed it under the model name “Beast”!) Why not bring back some of the old components, like the Power Ratchet bar-end shifters, perhaps updated and improved? Perhaps a GreaseGuard system could solve the durability problems of modern bottom brackets with their tiny bearings? What about RollerCam brakes for 650B cyclotouring bikes? There are so many possibilities.

      With SunTour’s rich heritage, it’s sad that SunXCD sells inferior copies of TA cranks, of all things. Especially when you consider that SunTour was the first company to offer a dedicated mountain bike group that replaced the TA cranks on American mountain bikes…

  4. HaloTupolev says:

    Most disappointing cycling experience: switching an Accushift barcon to “friction” mode.

    • SunTour was a mid-sized company, caught in the middle when Shimano really took off. They spread themselves way to thin, and in many ways lacked a clear direction for much of the 1980s. As exciting as the many products they licensed from young American mountain bikers were, they didn’t fit into a coherent program, and getting them ready for production spread SunTour’s engineering capacities much too thin. And some of the decisions were poorly thought-out. Trying to make the indexing work with many different freewheels meant that the system was difficult to understand, and often the wrong components were installed on the bike.

      I had a similar experience when I built my first touring bike in 1990, but with Shimano. The distributor sent a Dura-Ace freewheel instead of the Ultegra we ordered (I worked at a bike shop in college), and we couldn’t figure out why it didn’t index with the Ultegra shift levers and Deore XT rear derailleur. I shifted to friction, and the bike remained with friction shifting as I slowly replaced the mountain bike components with dedicated cyclotouring parts that worked better for the purpose.

      Only later did I find out that back then, Dura-Ace wasn’t compatible with other Shimano indexing. The shop where I worked sold mostly mountain bikes, and didn’t know about these intricacies of road bikes. (Dura-Ace was the first Shimano SIS indexing system. The other groups incorporated improvements, but each new Dura-Ace was kept “backwards-compatible” with older generations for a while.)

      • Jacob Musha says:

        The 6/7/8 speed Dura Ace shifters and rear derailers indeed used a different cable pull than the rest of the Shimano lineup, but the cassette/freewheel spacing was the same. So your Dura Ace freewheel should’ve worked with the Ultegra shifters and XT rear derailer. Unless it had the wrong number of cogs, or it was an old freewheel from before Shimano introduced indexed shifting.
        http://www.sheldonbrown.com/dura-ace.html

      • The parts were all new and intended for indexing. Maybe it should have worked, but it didn’t. I played with the adjustment numerous times, but it either indexed on the higher or on the lower cogs, but never everywhere. Clearly, something about the spacing was off. Friction shifting solved the problem, and I never looked back. The Dura-Ace freewheel still is serving valiant duty more than 25 years later, albeit with a few cogs replaced.

      • HaloTupolev says:

        Heh… I actually prefer friction mode with Shimano shifters on systems that have low (by today’s standards) cog counts on the rear cluster. I like how much lighter it feels than the indexed mode.

        The thing about the Accushift barcons is that the RH shifter doesn’t *have* a true friction mode. When you switch it to friction, it just adds resistance on the indexing so that the shifter will hold its position when it’s not resting on a pawl, a sort of “indexed with trim” thing. It seems to be a kludge to compensate for the deficiencies of SunTour’s indexing.

        It was disappointing because I had a pair of Accushift barcons on hand when I was putting together a build, and discovered that they wouldn’t be compatible!

  5. Jonathan Gehman says:

    I always appreciated the fact that with very few exceptions, anything from SunTour would have some really useful benefit and that you could depend on a level of durability and support that Shimano never seemed interested in providing. I never worried very much about selling a new SunTour equipped bike but often had my fingers crossed with various “Revolutionary” advances from Shimano.
    Now years later I pick up all the nice SunTour bits that come my way and sometimes use them on even the new bikes I mess around with, but except for some of their best hubs,I pass on all the Shimano goodies.

  6. Michael says:

    This may seem like a naïve question but does it really matter which derailer one uses for friction mode only? Especially the front derailer?

    It is just a mechanism for pushing a cage back-and-forth so as long as the return spring works good and it moves far enough and high enough for your cogs that does it really matter which derailer is used? All things being equal with regards to durability?

    • I haven’t found much difference with front derailleurs, apart from weird hang-ups with funnily-shaped cages.

      For rear derailleur, those that are designed for indexing tend to be early-shifting, which means they hunt for the next gear. Unless you get the adjustment perfectly right, you can get “ghost-shifts” when pedaling hard and flexing the frame. Traditional derailleurs usually are “late-shifting” and thus tolerate this better.

      • michael says:

        So what would a recommended affordable rear and front frictioning derailer set be for your typical Rivendell road bike for triple front, seven cogs in the rear and 13 to 30. And where would they be easiest to get, eBay?

  7. In the 1970s I was given a department store bicycle, brand name forgotten, equipped with SunTour derailleurs. What a great bicycle that was for a young, strong guy! The gears shifted perfectly even though I disliked the shifters. I put lots of miles on the bicycle and wasn’t very good about chain cleanings or proper lubrication. My knowledge of SunTour products is nonexistent and I have a lot to learn about them and the history of the company.

  8. Alex M says:

    I love my Suntour ratcheting barcons. They date from around 1976 and still work exceedingly well. Love love love ’em.

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