If you were born after 1970 you may think that Campagnolo is the final word when it comes to Italian bicycle components. However nothing is further from the truth as Italy had many great component manufacturers long before Tulio Campagnolo filed his first patent for the quick-release hub mechanism in 1933. Tulio’s first employee didn’t come on board until 1940 and with the second world war on the doorstop, Campagnolo and the grand tours were on hold until the fighting was over. And it was not until the late 50’s that Campagnolo really hit there stride as a manufacturer with the Gran Sport derailleur, culminating about a decade later with a full ‘gruppo’ in 1968.
So who were the bicycle component makers before Campagnolo became the powerhouse that we know today. Well there were many high-quality Italian manufacturers, supplying parts to Legnano, Bianchi, Torpado, Atala, Umberto Dei and a host of other brands. The component manufacturers that come quickly to mind were Magistroni, Way-Assauto, Fiamme, Ambrosio, Balilla, Universal, Gnutti and Regina and they produced everything from headsets to freewheels. A few survived the financial ups and downs of the industry and the elimination of import tariffs, and a few live on as brands in the hands of others, but regrettably most of these great companies are now long gone.
One of the early Italian manufacturers that always interested me was F.B. or Fratelli Brivio S.A., (translated: Brivio Brothers Inc.) located at 9 Viale Italia, Brescia. Camino Brivio patented the three-piece hub using aluminium flanges and a steel shank in 1932, a year before Campagnolo filed his patent for the quick release mechanism. These new F.B. three-piece hubs were light and extremely well made. The marked similarity to the first three-piece Campagnolo Gran Sport hubs (the parts are interchangeable) lead most people to conclude that F.B. supplied components to Campagnolo in the early years before Campy had their own manufacturing capability. In the photo below you can see that even the F.B. hub cones where stamped with the year of production (in this case 43 for 1943) in the same format as supplied to Campagnolo.
This would be a good time to note that F.B and Campagnolo shared a small production facility in Cognin, France in 1948 to service the French market given restrictive import tariffs in those years.
Fratelli Brivio like most component makers would engrave their products with their customer’s logo or trademark symbol so that the entire bicycle would be branded. This practice lasted through until the late 60’s and even Campagnolo branded their Record hubs for Legnano, Frejus, Bianchi, Cinelli and other prominent Italian brands through this period. Above is a photo of a FB extralusso hub branded for Umberto Dei. The image below is a listing in the 1950 catalog from Emilio Bozzi for the same hub with a solid axle. And below that, an advertisement for an F.B. hub with patented Campagnolo quick release lever described as being made by ‘us’, inferring Fratelli Brivio.
I have also come across accounts suggesting that the Brivio Brothers worked with Tulio Campagnolo in prototyping his patented QR hub mechanism, and made significant contributions to the final solution as makers often do in supporting inventors, designers and engineers. And it does seem that Tulio Campagnolo began his career and company as an inventor and not as a manufacturer per se according to Steven Maasland, “It is also interesting to point out a bit of Campagnolo trivia. Campagnolo’s official corporate name for many years was (and maybe still is) Campagnolo Brevetti Internazionali SpA which translates into: Campagnolo International Patents Inc. No mention of cycling whatsoever.”
Campagnolo licensed the QR skewer design to Fratelli Brivio as well as to Gnutti. The FB usage could have been within the scope of their collaborative working relationship. The Gnutti produced QR levers actually acknowledges the Campagnolo license whether this was by contract or to elevate the Gnutti product with customers. These were early years for Tulio Campagnolo and like most businesses starting out, even today, alliances and collaboration are necessary to get things going if your pockets aren’t too deep. Collaboration also brings additional experience to the table and the Brivio Brothers had their production capability as well as their patented three-piece hub design to compliment Tulio’s new QR skewers.
The Fratelli Brivio quick release skewer.
The Gnutti quick release skewer showing the licensing from Campagnolo.
FB also competed with Way Assauto (est.1906), Gnutti (est.1920), Way Assauto and Magistroni (est.1921) in producing cottered steel cranksets for road bikes as well as city bikes. Campagnolo released their cotterless, all aluminium Record crankset in 1958 however acceptance took a few years as some competitors experienced failures with the chainring spyder separating from the arm under extreme loading. Campagnolo responded quickly however there were a few years that some competitors continued to prefer steel cranksets with aluminium chain rings. By the time Campagnolo released the Nuovo Record crankset in 1967, the steel cottered crankset had become a think of the past on competitive road bikes.
It would also appear from the image of the head badge above that F.B. had their own line of bicycles at some point in time. Whether they actually built the frames in their own workshops is unknown and I have yet to personally come across one of these bicycles. As businesses grow and look for opportunities they often venture out with products that often times do not stick for one reason or another and this could be the case here. In any event, if a reader has any more information on this aspect of F.B., a comment would be very welcome.
As previously mentioned, F.B was founded in 1932 and Campagnolo struck out in the back of his father’s hardware store a year later in 1933. Given the early collaboration between the inventor Tulio and the workshop of the Brivio brothers it is interesting to see the similarities in the logo or trademarks of the two fledgling companies. I am not sure of the exact year that F.B. closed their doors however it was sometimes in the late 60’s and about the same time that so many of the early Italian bicycle component makers disappeared. There were no CNC machines in those days and the parts of this era still hold the tool marks of their maker and a certain ‘soul’ that you can feel when you hold them in the palm of your hand. Treasures to be sure.