A piece of history: Universal Brakes

HISTORY

The company was founded by Eugenio and Carlo Pietra in November 1919. Before then, the Fratelli Pietra had produced motorcycle forks, war supplies and other components, like pedal cars for children.

1920 - The brothers met Ugo Bianchi, who was working as a mechanic at the Legnano company and convinced them to start producing bikes components. So they decided to specialize in the production of the brakes.

1935- The first success. Giuseppe Olmo won the Milano-Sanremo on a bicycle equipped with Universal brakes and after that victory, many champions started dominating the cycling world thanks to the brakes of the brothers Pietra: Coppi, Bartali, Gimondi, Merckx, Vigna, Moser and many others.

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1950 - Universal innovators patented the Quick Release, a system that is still used to this day, and were able to keep up with other competitors for many years.

Universal's peculiarity - and its defect at the same time - was that it only produced brakes. It maintained a monopoly in the sector until 1968, but then Campagnolo imposed itself on the market with its set groups complete with brakes. The cycling teams stopped sponsoring with Universal and decided to switch to the competition. For a while, there was the idea to take the lead from rivals and create a Universal Group but the project foundered because of the lack of support from distributors. The situation became increasingly critical, and after a slow agony in the eighties, the company closed in 1992.

With the cessation of activity, all handmade designs and prototypes were stored rather than disposed of, and this proved to be another great fortune for Universal.

Thanks to the numerous historical cycling events throughout the country, such as the Eroica, the Viscontea, the Ducale and the Lacustre, Universal brakes have found a second life. This allowed Maurizio, Giancarlo and Marina Pietra, grandsons and heirs of the founders, to take over the company, a hundred years after its foundation, and make it flourish again by supplying fans and collectors with vintage spare parts.

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MODELS

Model 39 - Both components are stamped ‘UNIVERSAL’ with the ‘brev’ number 361666. This appears in full on both sides of the pivot bolt on the stirrup of the calliper. The calliper has a wrap-around return spring. The front calliper is shorter than the rear but a very short front calliper (left) was also available stamped simply 'UNIVERSAL BREV' on front stirrup both sides of the pivot bolt. Photographs of Fausto Coppi on his Bianchi set up for Simplex gears for his victory in the 1949 Tour de France appear to show this brake that has no QR mechanism and a lever that incorporates a fixing clamp as part of the main body of the lever, requiring left and right-hand casting. The body could be made of steel or alloy.

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Model 51 (Right) – It has a shallow front calliper and long standard rear, incorporating the new sliding arm QR mechanism. The earliest models have wrap around return springs as previous models. The callipers are stamped ‘UNIVERSAL EXTRA’ on one side and ‘BREV. 453949’ on the other side of the pivot bolt. Later examples have springs restrained on pegs at the back of the callipers. These have ‘BREV 453949’ stamped on the QR mechanism and probably occur from the 1960s onwards. (This feature also appears on the ‘Super 68’ model). Early QR mechanisms are plain or stamped ‘MADE IN ITALY’.
The earliest levers had pointed ends to the castings and were crimped like the model 39. Shortly after the levers become fatter and have completely open backs. The third group with pointed ends are strengthened with the casting folded round at the back where it hinges to the body. They also feature a full rubber hood. The same lever was used later on the models 61 and super 68. However, most levers seem to just taper off at the ends but these may also stem from the 1960s onwards because the 1950s catalogue shows only the pointed versions. The threaded cable adjustment pillars on the body of the levers have their own protective conical rubber covers on later examples. The early versions have an adjuster with raised knurled sides, made of rubber that is too fat to receive such a cover.

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(1) Universal CX
(2) Universal 61 brake levers
(3) Universal Mod. 39
(4) Universal Extra Mod.51

 

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