Anyone out there who reads this feature on a monthly basis (both of you out there?) will recall that we have mentioned on several occasions our affinity for Zeus components. A few issues back Classic Corner featured several lesser known road groups that show up on classic bikes from time to time, but we skipped Zeus, and threatened to give it a feature of its own. So we'll break from tradition and keep our threat.
Zeus Industriale S.A. was established in 1926, in the town of Eibar, northern Spain. Eibar was known as the hotbed for precision design and production of everything from firearms to sewing machines.
Several small bicycle manufacturers were located here as well, and this led to the need for a company to produce small parts such as axles, nuts and bolts, and special fittings for bikes. Don Nicolas Arregui saw this need and established Zeus.
While these may have been humble beginnings, Arregui envisioned a loftier goal, and developed a company that would for years remain at the forefront of design, but never seem to get over the hump that was Campagnolo.
It is Tullio Campagnolo who is given wide credit for the first rear derailleur system, when in fact, Nicolas Arregui designed and developed a rear derailleur based on an articulated parallelogram in 1931. This preceded Campagnolo by several years, but did not quite make the grade in terms of operational reliability, and the development sort of stalled.
Then the hard luck story of Zeus began in 1936, with the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. For three years this war destroyed the country and forced Zeus to abandon bicycle parts in favor of producing items needed for the war effort.
Just as the Civil War had ended and Spain began to rebuild, and the bicycle industry started to resurface, the second World War began. An already pummelled industrial nation was now forced into survival mode with very little raw material, capital, or up to date manufacturing machines or methods.
Zeus stayed solvent in this period, and actually was forced to grow a bit because the bicycle became the means of transport for most of the population of a nation without fuel.This situation required that Zeus abandon its development of high tech, new products for the racing cyclist, and provide more basic, standard parts to keep the everyday bikes on the road.
At the end of World War Two, Spain was not considered a key power in Europe, and did not benefit from the economic aid given to other countries. Zeus returned to the design and pursuit of its initial goal, the cutting edge of racing equipment; however, Spain was essentially derelict of raw materials, especially high grade alloys, and Zeus was being surpassed by its competition. In fact, even into the Seventies when the company was enjoying success, the sting of the post war period was evident in this out take from the company brochure: "The great European powers, through geopolitical necessities, enjoyed unprecedented aid......thus, the technological development which Zeus had attained during the thirties was stifled and Italy became the leader in this field, occupying the place that we had hoped for ourselves."
This mindset may have actually motivated the company to surpass all others, because once back on track, Zeus was at the forefront of design from the early Sixties to the early Seventies, and was enjoying great success the world over. Many professional teams were using the parts, and certain components were substituted by riders who normally rode with Campagnolo equipment, such as Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Simpson.
Product quality was very near equal, sometimes surpassing the Italian competition, but the striking thing was the nearly identical design and appearance of items such as derailleurs and brakes. We've talked with several collectors and historians who suspect that production of some of Campagnolo's components was actually "farmed out" to Zeus, along with co-creation of new technology.
Zeus was not content to produce only components for the bicycle, and endeavored to expand, hoping to overcome the giant that was Campagnolo in the world market. As the company grew to three separate factories, it produced a lower and mid-product line of parts and complete bicycles, drawing on its past experience.
This product was called Alfa, and the name extended from the frame through to each component, which could all be purchased separately or as a complete unit.
For the competitive racer Zeus manufactured hand built frames, in three models, for the young racer up to sponsorship of top pro teams. These frames were designed to work in conjunction with the company's Criterium line of components, its top line group, which was very similar to Nuovo Record from Campy.
Our image of these bikes is a white frame with red panels on the down tube and seat tube, with white lettering inside the panels and red lettering elsewhere, built with Reynolds 531SL tubing. These are very cool, and quite rare in the U.S., and yes, we really want one.
Hennie Kuiper won the 1972 Munich Olympic road race on one of these bikes, giving Zeus some momentum for its next product release. The Zeus 2000 group was the company's benchmark, based upon the patented use of titanium.
This new alloy was partially used in the crank, pedals, and headset; while the bottom bracket and pedal axles were mostly titanium. This lightweight group was revolutionary, and arrived a year or so before Campagnolo's Super Record group.
While Zeus enjoyed great success and reputation throughout the world, it never seemed to crack the American market in a big way. The hard times and difficulties of its early years, none of it any fault of the company, seemed to always limit its potential. Campagnolo was always the Goliath, and Zeus the David.
And while David was watching Goliath, a new Goliath came along from Japan
with two heads, Suntour and Shimano. Then the bicycle world turned upside
down with those new "mountain bikes." More hard luck for Sr. Arregui's
company and the white flag was raised.