Manufrance was the trademark of Manufacture Française d‘Armes et Cycles de Saint Etienne St. Etienne France
Updated 10.27.2009 Click on images to see larger views
"Manufrance was a very large distributor of cycles, rifles and hunting goods, sewing machines and a whole range of household and sporting goods, based in St Etienne, the city known as the cycle manufacturing centre of France and home also for the other monster company, Automoto. Manufrance was one of the first companies to enter the mail-order trade and to this end published huge and very comprehensive catalogues - large tomes - each year. They are becoming very collectable in their own right.. However Manufrance was not just a distributor or retailer it was also a manu- facturer on a very large scale and made its own cycles, rifles and sewing machines along with other mechanical goods. Many Manufrance bikes were equipped with own-brand parts such as brakes, de railleur gears, hubs etc made on the premises, the company being very innov ative. One such innovation was the Retro-Direct derailleur gear whereby the pedals were pedalled backwards. I believe this was introduced in the 1920s Another innovation that became quite standard on the company's bikes was the practice of mounting the front brake at the back of the fork crown, clearly in an attempt to reduce play and chattering and to avoid breakages of the brake spindle. Additionally, although not the pioneers of the lugless frame, the company used this form of construction for a very wide range of bicycles, including some elegant racing frames The catalogues for the 50s and 60s displayed a wide range of bikes comparab le with that of any other manufacturer, and included top-of-the-range road racing and touring machines with Reynolds 531DB frames and equipped with full French specifications. The company fell on harder times in the 70s and cut back on its manufacturing base. I think that it was around this time that the "HIRONDELLE" name - a wholly-owned marque was introduced. The frames were made elsewhere but the bikes were assembled in-house. One of the delights of Paris right through to the 70s was the immense triangular Manufrance retail shop, situated just adjacent to Les Halles, the huge wholesale fresh food market that served Paris. This imposing and elegant structure was later destroyed along with many fine old buildings in order to redevelop the area. The result is the Beaubourg centre in which the ultra-modern Georges Pompidou Centr e is situated. I think that the Manufrance shop was demolished at the same time. The company's problems continued right into and through the 80s until a young French entrepreneur and aspiring politician set his sights on the company. This unprincipled fellow, by the name of Bernard Tapie...yes THE BERNARD TAPIE owner of the LOOK-La Vie Claire team that sponsored Greg Lemond and HInault in the 80s, was seen as a "turn-around expert" by the French government who enabled him, with grants in exchange for promises, to revive the fortunes of flagging and dying companies, thereby saving workers from the dole queue. Unfortunately Tapie was very selective in what he saved...and kept for himself; the remaining companies having their assets stripped out and sold off. Such was the fate of Manufrance. Tapie bought out the failing company for very little money and is famous for addressing the assembled workforce and promising them and the company a bright new future under his stewardship. The promises and the hopes were short-lived as Tapie stripped the company bare and sold off its assets in very quick time. Tapie went on to honours as a Minister in the French government under Francois Mitterand..and also a Minister for Europe, until his corrupt practices with his Olympique Marselle football club led him into both bankruptcy and a spell in jail. On coming out he has refashioned himself as a poet, a singer, a film actor - not unsurprisingly quite a good one - and now in his late 50s, as a media celebrity, because everyone still loves a scoundrel. There is even a court case running whereby he may not only be freed of repaying his creditors, but may even receiving some recompense from the State. As for Manufrance, there is still a shop in the centre of St. Etienne, that I visited in 2002. It had on display a range of bikes, quite good ones, but their Columbus and Vitus tubed steel frames, equipped with long out-of-dat e Suntour and Shimano groupsets and Mafac brakes too readily betrayed their age - relics of the last clearance sale of the defunct factory. In the glass show cases were a lonely handful of the last of the Simplex gears.. the ones produced just before Simplex merged to become Stratec... and then went into bankruptcy, and disappeared forever.
Jan 2009 Norris Lockley on the Classic rendezvous e-mail list
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