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Front Freewheel Systems?

Old 03-10-17, 07:49 AM
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MikeinBuffalo
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Front Freewheel Systems?

Was perusing my local CL for parts when i came across this:

https://buffalo.craigslist.org/bop/5987330959.html

Panasonic Villager Frame, Red
Late 70s/Early 80s

Seat tube measures 22.5 inches from center of top tube to center of bottom bracket.
Top tube measures 22 inches from center of seat tube to center of head tube.

Includes bottom bracket and crank installed. The crankset is a unique "Front Freewheel" system. Instead of the cassette/freewheel on the rear wheel containing a ratcheting pawl system, allowing one to coast, this is achieved in the front. The result is a chain that moves as long as the rear wheel is spinning. This allows one to shift so long as they are moving, but not necessarily pedaling. This is a unique technology that was only manufactured for a few years.
1982 Shimano Catalogue Page 35

I have the frameset and crank only. To build up this bike, you will need to build/acquire a rear wheel with a compatible gear cluster for the FF system.

The frame is in a rough cosmetic shape, lots of scratches, scuffs, missing paint. In addition, the headset is missing the locknut. You may want to install a new headset, but if you have the right size locknut available, that will work too. The bottom bracket could use a cleaning, but it spins fine and the front freewheel spins fine as well.


I have never heard of a front freewheel system. Google isn't much help.

Anyone remember these? Did they work? What kind of rear gear cluster would you use with this? I'm intrigued.

Thanks,

Mike
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Old 03-10-17, 08:13 AM
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The ffw system uses a special freewheel with (stiffly) individually moving cogs. The advantage is as described: you can shift if the wheels are turning, but you don't need to be pedaling. For whatever reason, it was only ever implemented in a low-end way. This was often paired with a Shimano Positron rear derailleur, but that's not a necessary component. My experience is that the front freewheel is loud as hell--like three times as loud as a regular freewheel. The chainring spins disconcertingly. The system is technically interesting, but not particularly better than a regular freewheel, particularly as implemented. There's a good article about it on sheldon brown.

I've seen this implemented on one-piece bottom brackets and the (slightly nicer) three piece. Imagine a normal bike ride with an additional ZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIIZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Last edited by Roll-Monroe-Co; 03-10-17 at 08:21 AM.
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Old 03-10-17, 08:43 AM
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Old 03-10-17, 08:50 AM
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Yes, the concept did work but was aimed at cyclists new to derailleur equipped bicycles, as the premise was to mistake proof shifting for newcomers. Consequently, they were found on entry level bicycles.

The key to the system was the friction freewheel used on the rear hub. It did freewheel, but had a much higher threshold than the crankset freewheel. Under normal circumstance, the crankset would freewheel and the rear cog would be driven, as long as the wheels were turnings. This allowed shifting when coasting. It also allowed problem free shifting when backpedaling, which was a common error made by cyclists who were new to derailleurs but familiar with 3 speeds. If one's pant cuff got caught in the chain, the rear freewheel would over ride the front.

The system was used with Shimano's Pre-Select rear derailleurs, often a Positron version. This allowed you to pre-select a gear, For instance if were caught in a stop light in too high a gear, you could select a gear. The derailleur would shift once you pushed off and the rear wheel started turning. You didn't have to shift under a high load because you were in the wrong gear.

Since it aimed at entry level, the gear choices were limited. There were 3 cranksets (one piece, cottered three piece and cotterless three piece) but I don't recall ratios beyond 36/48T, 39/52T & 40/52T. The friction freewheel came in 14-28T and 14/32T versions.

The problem was that the system added weight and cost more than a standard set-up, at the level where consumers were most concerned about cost. Also, most salespeople marketed it negatively rather than positively. They didn't emphasize the advantages but rather as a shift system for people who don't know how to shift. Telling a person they don't have a skill set and require the "dummy" version, killed a lot of sales.

Edit: Like Postitron, it is often considered a short lived product, which is incorrect. It was introduced in 1977 and lasted through 1984. Eight years is a respectable lifespan.

Last edited by T-Mar; 03-10-17 at 09:03 AM.
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Old 03-10-17, 08:51 AM
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The front freewheel system was used with Shimano's "Positron" indexed shifting system. Unlike modern indexed shifting, the indexing was done at the derailleur. The front freewheel allowed shifting even when the bike was coasting. The rear "freewheel" wasn't really a freewheel, but a stack of cogs, each of which could turn independently. No ratchet in the rear; just a friction coupling on each cog to help prevent chain jams. The system was marketed toward low-end, entry level bikes for inexperienced riders, but was not enthusiastically received and disappeared from the market after a few years.
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Old 03-10-17, 09:00 AM
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Unfortunately, FFS came in a time when sport/racing bikes were becoming leaner/more serious, shedding once wanted "convenience" items on their bikes like safety levers and side stands, because new riders want to approach cycling as a ore serious sport and the bicycles not "toys" as was the case for many people during the bike boom years of the 70's.
I think the FFS might have been more beneficial on town/utility bikes. Shimano kinda misread the market with their new invention in the late 70's/early 80's.
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Old 03-10-17, 09:33 AM
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Well that's interesting. Its definitely an interesting idea but wouldn't it form bad habits in new cyclists?
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Old 03-10-17, 09:45 AM
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Apparently not all of you were around when teaching people how to shift a 10 speed was a common task in a bike shop.

It was a different time. Back then, most (American) cyclists were accustomed to coaster brakes and 3 speed hubs. The idea that you had to be pedaling to change gears was a little odd to many people. The Shimano FF catered to that market. It made those newfangled 10 speed things a little more comprehensible. Yeah, they were noisy.
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Old 03-10-17, 11:13 AM
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Originally Posted by Salamandrine View Post
Apparently not all of you were around when teaching people how to shift a 10 speed was a common task in a bike shop.

It was a different time. Back then, most (American) cyclists were accustomed to coaster brakes and 3 speed hubs. The idea that you had to be pedaling to change gears was a little odd to many people. The Shimano FF catered to that market. It made those newfangled 10 speed things a little more comprehensible. Yeah, they were noisy.
Agreed, in the early 1970s, few cyclists knew how to shift properly, even those that had bought a 10 speed. Consumers were often too self-conscious to inquire and sales personnel often couldn't be bothered. Consequently, many boom era bicycles were never shifted out of the gear that they were in when they left the LBS. If they were shifted, it was often only to find a comfortable gear, in which it stayed thereafter. This is why so many boom era, entry level bicycles have shifting problems when they're resold. Many were rarely, if ever, shifted and the worn chain often meshes properly with only one gear.

My experience is that the front freewheel itself is not any noisier than a standard freewheel. However, the increased amount of surrounding reflecting surfaces and slightly closer proximity to the rider makes it sound louder.
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Old 03-10-17, 11:50 AM
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I've had a few pass through my hands, really nothing too bad about it other than it was heavy and fairly unnecessary. They all seem pretty durable and the ones I had didn't shift any worse than low end standard equipment.

FWIW, I still have to teach people how to shift 10 speeds when I sell them off....
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Old 03-10-17, 11:57 AM
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Schwinn also offered that system as well. I had a WTH moment when I found one in the piles of bikes at the co-op.

-SP
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Old 03-10-17, 12:07 PM
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The Villager in particular was a dog. I picked one up to convert to a SS. I removed the crankset and was surprised that the BB shell was not threaded. OUCH. I've been slowly selling off a stash I have of NOS FFS shifters/cables. Realize that replacement cables for the RD are unobtainium.
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Old 03-10-17, 12:38 PM
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At first I thought about the Pinion Gearbox P1.18 Gearbox | PINION | DRIVE TECHNOLOGY | but now I see this is a little different.

Interesting concept. I wonder why Shimano chose to introduce new technologies to low-end bikes? (See also indexed shifting).
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Old 03-10-17, 01:24 PM
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Originally Posted by MikeinBuffalo View Post
Was perusing my local CL for parts when i came across this:

https://buffalo.craigslist.org/bop/5987330959.html

Panasonic Villager Frame, Red
Late 70s/Early 80s

That's only overpriced by about $40.
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Old 03-10-17, 01:43 PM
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>>>Interesting concept. I wonder why Shimano chose to introduce new technologies to low-end bikes? (See also indexed shifting).

Lots more low-end products are sold than high end.

Shimano saw a problem that masses of people had: many folks found it unintuitive and difficult to shift while pedaling, especially when it meant letting up on pedaling pressure to do it smoothly. Shimano came up with an engineering solution, which was within their area of expertise (rather than a modify-behavior solution, then and now a can of worms.)

And there's the salesmanship angle: you gotta have a gimmick.
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Old 03-11-17, 07:59 AM
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The Positron rear derailer cable was unique too. A (unique) "U" shape cable from the shifter & back. Seems some were scared of drop bars & dee-railer bikes. But it did lead to the index shifting,, in a few years. They were fewer (adult) bike choices back then,, not like today with many hybrids...MTB's,, and other niches out there. Chris
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Old 03-11-17, 01:01 PM
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Originally Posted by wrk101 View Post
The Villager in particular was a dog. I picked one up to convert to a SS. I removed the crankset and was surprised that the BB shell was not threaded. OUCH. I've been slowly selling off a stash I have of NOS FFS shifters/cables. Realize that replacement cables for the RD are unobtainium.
Originally Posted by BluesDaddy View Post
That's only overpriced by about $40.
+10 PASS! Makes a satisfactory boat anchor is about it.
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Old 03-11-17, 01:21 PM
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On a normal bike if you go out riding in your bell-bottoms or your mumu (kind of an issue in the 70's) & it gets caught in the chainring - no problem, just stop pedaling. With a front freewheel (or fixie for that matter) you're getting sucked into the machine - that's likely why the example above has such a large chain guard.
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Old 03-11-17, 02:05 PM
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I expect they put it on entry level bikes because that is where 1) the big sales volume is.. and 2) the entry level cyclist does not buy a race bike right off..

posters to this forum, doing that, are quite an anomaly..




...
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Old 03-12-17, 08:27 AM
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I fixed up a small Schwinn with a 5-speed FFS. That rear shift cable was some stout wire! Worked fine for the woman that needed a bike to get around her neighborhood.
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Old 03-12-17, 08:59 AM
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I wonder how many here talking about this stuff have actually tooled around on a FFwheel bike. I have a Schwinn World Tourist with it, and actually like it a lot for urban riding. I did lose the positron and put some nicer wheels on it, and it has the nicer three piece crank.
The reasons I like it are the chain guard, so no pants clips, and unless I go to satin bell bottoms or something its probably never going to catch the pant leg. The shifting feels ponderous compared to my road bikes, but its a smooth transition and is very stop and go friendly. Since I take the bike with me to city's I dont live in, and am doing the tourist thing where I want gearing but do not want to think about it at all, its nice. It helps that the bike itself is actually a very nice solid ride.
For comparison, most of my road bikes are eight to nine speed shifted with down tube or bar end friction.

My only problem with it is the relative non-serviceability. Took another one apart for exploratory practice, and decided to just dribble oil into the mech every now and again.
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Old 03-12-17, 09:14 AM
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MikeinBuffalo, My only experience with FFS was when I was asked to overhaul a couple of automatic shifting bikes by my daughter's mother-in-law...I was stuck.

Long story short, I was able to make one working bike out of the pair. Freewheeling noise wasn't intrusive by any means and after some trial and error everything worked quite well. The bikes were made between the early and mid '90s and I'm fairly sure that at least the crank set was Shimano, but it was many years ago.

Brad
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