Updated May 18, 2019.
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. Working out of the back of his father’s hardware store in those early years, Tulio’s first employee didn’t come on board until 1940 and with the second world war on the doorstop, Campagnolo was on hold until the fighting was over in 1945. And it was not until the 50’s that Campagnolo really hit their stride as a manufacturer with the Gran Sport derailleur, culminating almost two decades 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, Maino, Umberto Dei and a host of other brands. The component manufacturers that first come to mind are Magistroni, Way-Assauto, Fiamme, Ambrosio, Balilla, Universal (Fratelli Pietra), Gnutti and Regina and they produced everything from cranksets to freewheels. A few survived the financial ups and downs of the industry and the eventual elimination of inter-European import tariffs, and a few still live on in brand name only, but regrettably most of these great companies are now long gone.
One of the early Italian manufacturers that has 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 1931, two years before Tulio Campagnolo filed his patent for the quick release mechanism in 1933. These new F.B. three-piece hubs were light and extremely well made.
It is widely agreed that the three-piece Campagnolo Gran Sport hubs were produced by F.B., who adapted their solid axle to a hollow axle to accommodate Tulio’s newly patented QR mechanism. In the photo below you can see that even the F.B. hub cones where stamped with the production year (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 may have shared a small production facility held by Campagnolo in Cognin, France in 1948 to service the French market given restrictive inter-European import tariffs during those years (see trade show promotion below).
Fratelli Brivio like most Italian component makers at that time would engrave the hubs with their customer’s logo. This practice lasted through until the late 60’s and even Campagnolo branded their first Record all aluminium hubs for Legnano, Frejus, Bianchi, Cinelli and others. Above is a photo of a F.B. 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 that suggest 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 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 Gnutti and there was would also applear to have been some limited usage by F.B. (photo below). I would no be surprised if the F.B. usage was within the scope of their collaborative working relationship during those early years with Tulio Campagnolo. The Gnutti produced QR levers actually acknowledges the Campagnolo license as law requires. 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 produced cranksets in the same overall style and quality as Way Assauto (est.1906), Gnutti (est.1920) and Magistroni (est.1921) with subtle differences in the inner web pattern of the chainrings. Campagnolo released their cotterless, all aluminium Record crankset in 1958 however acceptance was not immediate as some competitors experienced failures with the forged aluminium spider separating from the drive arm under extreme loading. This early complaint was quickly corrected, and by the time Campagnolo released the Nuovo Record crankset in 1967, the steel crankset retained with a cotter pin had become a thing 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 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 1931 and Campagnolo struck out in the back of his father’s hardware store a couple of years 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 Fratelli Brivio closed their doors however it would seem to have been in the late 1960’s.
There were no CNC machines in those days and the bicycle parts of this era often display 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.