Origins: How Chris King headsets almost didn’t happen
Chris King Precision Components celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, still independently owned and operated on a daily basis by the company’s eponymous founder — a grand achievement in an industry rife with short-lived labels, corporate buyouts, and heralded brands steeped in history but now owned by whoever had the cash to pony up for the trademark rights. And yet, as iconic as the Chris King brand is, it very nearly didn’t happen at all.
Mention ‘Chris King’ in any circle of cycling friends and talk will invariably revolve around the company’s jewel-like hubs with their characteristic ‘angry bees’ ratchet mechanism, the remarkable durability of its bottom brackets, or fables of headsets that have long outlasted the frames in which they’re installed. You might even argue about favourite colours — and given the available rainbow of options, it’s bound to be a heated discussion.
Yet the thing that ultimately defines every Chris King product is the bearing hidden inside that shiny candy-like aluminium shell. Made in-house with stainless steel races, pressurised seals, and a secret custom process, it’s what makes each Chris King component what it is and sets it apart from its competition. And in the early days, it’s also what nearly sank the company — not once, not twice, but three separate times.
The relationship between bicycles and Chris King — the man, not the company — started out in typical fashion. He had gotten into road riding with a friend in high school and as is so often the case, they spent much of their free time at a local bike shop. King was also already working as a machinist back then and like all good tinkerers, he was constantly modifying, tweaking, and making bits as needed to improve their function.
“This was 1973 and the world of bike parts was pretty crude,” he told CyclingTips. “Sealed bearings in anything had barely shown up anywhere at that time so I started doinking around with existing parts, putting a better axle in it, sealed bearings, or something like that, and when I would finish one of these little projects, I’d take it over to the bike shop and most of them were pretty duly impressed with the handiwork. I wasn’t so much trying to impress as I was just having fun with this stuff. This was back in the day and age when people were trying to make bikes lighter by drilling holes in everything.”
One particular shop patron wasn’t so easily moved, however, and it was that nonplussed attitude that would eventually set the next four decades in motion.
“This one guy, I think his name was Randy Reyes, he was one of those hill climber guys. He would look at this stuff, shrug his shoulders, and be like, ‘so what’. He said, ‘this was all fine and dandy but if you want to actually put your time into something worthwhile, you should make a better headset.’”
Contemporary headsets were decidedly crude with even the favoured Campagnolo model of the day packing some fundamental flaws. Reyes thought the problem was its open design, which would essentially funnel road spray and debris coming off of the front tire straight into the lower bearing assembly. King, however, knew otherwise.
“At the time, the best headset you could get was a Campy road steel headset — a classic cup-and-cone bearing arrangement, machined out of mild steel, and chrome plated. Because they were only machined out of some kind of turnable steel, the way they figured they’d get hardness out of these things was to chrome plate them. But chrome plating isn’t very thick and a headset is going to take a lot of pounding. You’re actually going to need some through-hardness on the raceways but they didn’t do that. So you’d ride these things in a race season and about halfway through the season, you’d end up with dimpled bearings.
“So I went to my little drawing board in my head and started thinking about how I could make a headset.”
King may have been unusually skilled technically for his age but like anyone in their late teens, he wasn’t exactly swimming in excess capital — and he certainly didn’t have the personal resources to embark on an involved research and development project for what was then still very much a hobby. What he did have was access to a full machine shop along with a surprisingly convenient source of salvage parts.
“I was working at a medical instrument company that made these air tools for surgery,” King recalled. “It was a small company at the time but they had a warranty department that would get these units back out of the field. One of the things they made was like this die grinder, and they made an adapter for that unit that had a couple of planetary gear sets in it. These units would come back from the field seized up. In essence, what would happen is that the doctors would use these things and to get the blood and stuff off of them, they always had these trays of saline solution and just rinse them off. Of course, the instructions say not to submerge your air tools in saline solution but the doctors wouldn’t pay attention to that. So they’d rinse them off and use them through surgery and it was fine. But at the end, when they go to clean all this stuff up, they sterilised everything in an autoclave — basically just a fancy word for a pressure cooker.
“So that salt water that creeped into that bearing set and gear set would get mixed in with the grease and then when you put it in the autoclave and bake all the water out of it, what’s left is the salt crystals. That would seize the thing up and it would come back for warranty. The warranty department was basically instructed to take it apart, put all new parts in it, and then send it back out. They didn’t want to have any kind of failures in the surgical theatre making medical products where you’re trying to avoid any kind of liability, even back in those days.”
As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and King quickly realised that there was opportunity to be had.
“There was a 55-gallon drum that sat in the warranty department that they would throw all of these pieces into that, for the most part, were still good. They were just contaminated with dried salt. I saw in that barrel tons of bearings and it just so happened that the bearings they used in this high-speed/low-speed attachment was a thin cross-section bearing that was perfect for a one-inch headset. So I grabbed a couple of those, whittled up some cups, and made a prototype.”
According to King, those salvaged cartridge bearings were made to far better standards than what was commonly found in bicycles at the time. Their hardened stainless steel races were resistant to dimpling and corrosion, and the highly precise dimensions were built for faster rotational speeds than a headset would ever see. Even so, they didn’t have any seals on them and King still had to figure out how to keep the grease inside and the rest of the world outside.
“The first thing I started with was an o-ring,” he said. “The problem was that, in production, o-rings are toleranced on the cross-section of the ring itself at plus or minus three [thousandths of an inch]. Well, if you want to control how tightly an o-ring fits into a hole, you have to have pretty tight control of the cross-section. Remember that any tolerance on the cross-section is doubled on the diameter since you have it on both sides, so plus or minus three is six, times two is twelve. There’s no way that a 0.012” variation is going to work in this kind of application where I want a couple thousandths of crush on the o-ring or else this thing won’t turn. I had to come up with something different.
“So a number of months went by and finally, I remember the day. I was laying on the beach in Santa Barbara [California] and we were having a heat wave in January. I was sitting on the beach and the idea came to me on how I could make a seal for this thing. So I went back and did a little drawing and then whittled up some pieces and it worked, so I went, ‘now I can actually make this thing!’ It was January 1976.”
Luckily for King, he was still working at the medical device company and, yes, that 55-gallon drum was still sitting there, full of discarded parts ripe for the picking.
“I was still working there part-time so I went in on a Saturday and turned this can over in the parking lot, which was mostly full of all these different parts, and salvaged all of the bearings. It turned out to be about a thousand of these one-inch bearings. They didn’t care what was in that scrap bin in the warranty department so they didn’t care about me salvaging the bearings. They had just gotten an ultrasonic degreaser so I took all these bearings and ran them through that. I probably netted about nine of out of ten bearings that were usable.”
King walked away that day with about 900 bearings — enough for 450 headsets, or what he estimated would be “a couple of years” worth of inventory. As compared to what was otherwise available at the time, King’s headset was truly revolutionary. Not only did its cartridge bearings and sealed design outlast the competition but since it used aluminium cups instead of steel ones, it was lighter, too.
“Nobody was doing anything with aluminum cups,” King said. “Campy did come out with their Super Record headset, which was aluminum cups with steel races in it, but it still had the same issues because they weren’t using good enough steel for the races themselves — and of course, they weren’t sealed.
“I started selling them in tuck-top sandwich baggies with instructions Xeroxed inside them. That’s essentially how I got started but people were a little apprehensive. It was very different from what people were used to. People would try it on their bike and it turned so easily, I had a few racer guys think that it turned too easily! I thought that was kind of funny.”
Supply and demand
King now knew how to make his headsets and was starting to sell them in small, but appreciable, volumes. “There were people that wanted it but it wasn’t a very good market,” he said. Even so, it didn’t take long before he recognised a looming problem with his supply chain: although he could make the cups himself, his inventory of bearings was limited. He couldn’t keep scavenging that old 55-gallon drum forever, after all.
“The first plan was to go to the factory and see if I could buy them from them. They said, ‘sure, if you want to order 10,000 at a time’. I certainly couldn’t afford to do that. The minimum purchase order was around US$50,000. I started calling all over the place. I lucked into a distributor that had something that was almost the same — not quite the same ABEC level but full-hard bearing races, plastic shields — and they were full complement, which meant they loaded up ball against ball around the race and would theoretically handle more thrust load and radial load. Technically, this is what they call an airframe bearing, or a torque-tube bearing. They were designed for suspending torque tubes on an airplane.
“The company was called General Bearing Company. I found another thousand or so bearings that I was able to buy for five or six bucks apiece but I didn’t have to buy them all at once. The supplier was willing to sell me these things in smaller lots.”
King thus managed to maintain production but bearing supply would prove to be a persistent issue. Those additional thousand bearings bought him some time but it was hardly a permanent solution.
“That lasted me another couple of years and then I was back in that same boat again because I had now exhausted the surplus market of these things,” King said. “There was a bearing manufacturer in Los Angeles [Marlin-Rockwell] that was actually still producing these bearings in a non-stainless version that had some pretty nice seals on it so I figured I’d give those a try.”
The upside to this third source of bearings was that they were still actively being manufactured, not a discrete surplus lot of leftovers. However, they nevertheless weren’t quite what he wanted — and King wasn’t one to settle — so this would only serve as a stopgap.
“The issue I had with these bearings was that they weren’t stainless steel so they were subject to rusting. Water would get into the frame somehow and that water would get into the head tube but it couldn’t get over the hump of the lug and get back into the down tube so it just sits on the headset. This is what typically would destroy most headsets for a long time. You didn’t have to seal the outside of the headset so much as you did the inside.
“I had kind of exhausted the country of usable surplus bearings and I knew the Marlin-Rockwell bearing thing was ultimately going to be a problem because of corrosion. There was a guy that came along somewhere around 1980 that tried to make a replacement bottom cup. It looked like mine but it had those Marlin-Rockwell bearings in it. He lasted about a year.”
King knew that he was going to have to have custom bearings made for his growing business and in 1979, he stumbled upon a small manufacturer who was not only willing to produce to his specifications but also at a reasonable cost. As it turned out, this newfound stability in bearing supply also coincided with a need to relocate into a bigger space. With more room to grow comes greater expense, however, and King and his business partner soon found themselves with a 20-fold increase in rent.
“In 1980, I had to move out of the bike shop and moved into the old roller rink in Santa Barbara, which a friend of mine and I leased. We split the place up and were able to rent one of the spaces out to the guy that owns Santa Barbara Sound Recording Studio and that paid for two-thirds of the rent so we only had to come up with the other third between the two of us. At the time, I had already started doing Cielo Cycles, in 1978. Cielo was now going to paint its own frames and I had bought a spray booth and put it into this space. The whole idea of building codes was there but a lot of people didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it. You could get away with a lot so we thought, well, we’ll just throw a few walls up and we’ll be in business.”
“I’d set up this deal with the owner of the bike shop who was one of the original partners in Cielo. He wanted to be able to offer an overhaul-and-paint job as one of his repair deals at the bike shop. We were proposing to do paint jobs for $50. His manager that he hired was this ex-Marine guy that kind of wanted to see everything done by the book. So he comes over in the process of us putting up this shop space and putting the booth in there, and he’s a little concerned that, ‘hey, if we’re going to be getting paint jobs from this guy, we don’t want any interruptions – I wonder if he’s doing this to code.’ So he drops a dime to the building department and the next thing you know, the head building official walks in as we’re constructing walls and says, ‘so what are you boys up to? You can’t do this!’ Oh, god.”
Things quickly went from bad to worse.
“So then it turned into, ‘we have to get a permit, and the building’s too big’. It turned into a six-month nightmare. In the meantime, we’re having to pay rent and I’m essentially living off these bearings that this guy sent me. I made a bunch of cups and stuff and I was selling headsets. That was the only thing that was paying our way. We couldn’t turn the power on because you had to have a final permit for the electric company to ‘energise your new meter’. It was a disaster. I wound up in a pretty good financial jam, which got me behind on paying for bearings, and the old man had no tolerance for that so he basically cut me off.”
In other words, King was — for a third time — once again lacking a source for the most critical component of his single source of income.
“Now I’m out of bearings again.”
Going it alone
King may not have had any formal training in how to operate a manufacturing-focused business but there was one key concept that he nonetheless figured out the hard way.
“In today’s world of lean manufacturing, there’s a concept that says that you should control the processes for the things that are most critical to your products. This is something they teach — now. I had inadvertently stumbled on to this idea. I needed to be able to control my bearing source. So now I set out to make bearings myself. I ran out of bearings at the end of 1981 and for the whole year of 1982, was going around trying to figure out how to do this.”
King eventually subcontracted bearing race production to a CNC machine shop in Los Angeles, which got him substantially closer to his goal. In 1983, though, he finally bought a CNC lathe of his own and that point, was finally able to bring bearing race production completely in-house. Save for some smaller processes like anodisation, laser etching, and the manufacturing of the ball bearings themselves — and, of course, the production of the aluminium raw materials — Chris King was finally the vertically integrated manufacturing operation that King had always hoped to create.
Still, it wasn’t until 1991 that Chris King was sufficiently busy to totally cast off contract work and dedicate the entire business to bicycle components. That year saw the introduction of its first hubs; bottom brackets eventually followed in 2008. And all of it revolves — literally — around the bearings that once gave King so much grief.
Forty years after that first prototype, King is reflective on what is now a stable and fruitful business.
“When I first got started, I was in this struggle of, ‘what do you want to do with your life? What do you want to dedicate to? What are you going to be involved in?’ Some of the initial contract work I got involved in was weapons stuff. That was the work that was available but I didn’t feel good about it. When I got involved in the bicycle stuff, that kind of answered the question. If you’re going to dedicate your life to some kind of vocation, the idea of doing something with bicycles seemed pretty good.
“It depends on whether your satisfaction in life comes with the simple thing of having money in your wallet or whether it comes from something bigger than that. Unfortunately, I was always troubled by wanting it to be something bigger than that. The wallet didn’t mean much, which is why I was able to live all those years on next to nothing while I built a brand that ultimately gave me a pretty good life. We occupy a niche that is only so big. Could we be three times the size we are and occupy the exact same niche? Probably not. Do I own half the state of Oregon? No. We’re pretty happy where we are. It’s a good size. It’s a good life.”