Shozaburo Shimano opened a machine repair shop in 1921. Fascinated with bicycles, he began studying and experimenting with metallurgy and manufacturing high quality freewheels.
Shozaburo died in 1958 and was succeeded by his three sons. In 1962, Shimano landed the Columbia account, their first major American customer. It opened the door for others and by 1965 Shimano had established an office in New York . Soon after, Schwinn began receiving complaints about noisy derailleurs on their ten-speeds. Sand and other debris would find its way into the mechanism and cause undo friction. Schwinn's Al Fritz sought a sealed bearing freewheel from its suppliers, but was turned down. Fritz mentioned the issue to Shozaburo's middle son, Keizo. Shimano quickly produced a sample and the door to America was blown off its hinges. After all, if Shimano's components were good enough for Schwinn, they were good enough for anyone.
Shimano became a public company in 1972.
In 1984, Shimano introduced indexed shifting and revolutionized the industry. A rider could click precisely from one gear to the next without feeling their way up or down the cassette. In 1986, Shimano started another movement when its components were sold as complete groups. This helped them block out competition that offered just one or two parts around the frame.
The late 80s were dominated by Shimano who was leading a standardization trend throughout the industry. Serious riders began to buy bicycles based on their components rather than the name on the frame. Shimano convinced the market that the drive train was the heart of the bicycle. Frame manufacturers were building their bikes to be fit with off the shelf Shimano component groups. The company had 60% of the market.
In 1995 Shimano had sales of $1.3 billion and made $54 million in profits. By comparison, a big year for Schwinn, was $5 million in profits (of course, Schwinn had declared bankruptcy and was purchased by Scott in 1993).
More coming soon…
No Hands, The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, An American Institution, by Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman
Dura-Ace () Shimano's component group for racing bikes.