Univega is a bicycle brand created during the bike boom of the 1970s by Ben Lawee (1926–2002), who founded Lawee Inc. to design, specify, and import bicycles initially manufactured in Italy by Italvega, and subsequently in Japan by Miyata.
Lawee marketed the Univega brand using the taglines "Discover the difference" and "Ride it your way" and began marketing their Alpina series of mountain bikes in the early 1980s. In 1985 Lawee moved Univega Headquarters to Signal Hill California in his new building designed by Randy Morris and Brian Corntassel of Phelps Morris Architects, Long Beach, CA. Univega now had a competitive look that would last another 11 years of success.
Univega competed in the U.S. with domestic and European bicycle manufacturers including Schwinn, Raleigh, Peugeot and Motobecane — as well as other Japanese manufacturers including Miyata, Fuji, Bridgestone, Panasonic, Nishiki, Lotus and Centurion. Bikes manufactured in Japan succeeded in the U.S. market until currency fluctuations in the late 1980s made them less competitive, which led companies to source bicycles from Taiwan.
Ben Lawee, who was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1926, emigrated to the United States on a freighter in his teens. While attending Columbia University in New York he worked at the bicycle shop of a Greek Cypriot, George Joannou, and subsequently moved to California as West Coast sales representative for Joannou Cycle Co. Lawee ventured out on his own when he purchased the venerable Jones Bicycle shop in Long Beach, CA in 1959; growing a single store into a multi-store chain. He sold the retail chain in 1965 and began importing Bianchi bicycles, as well as becoming the national distributor for Raleigh and Motobecane. Lawee Inc. created the Italvega brand in the early 1970s, followed by the commercially successful Univega brand, and then short-lived Bertoni brand. Ben Lawee sold the Univega brand to Raleigh in 1996 and retired from the bicycle industry.
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Bertoni was a brand created by Ben Lawee circa-1980. The frames were manufactured in Italy by Daccordi, sometimes mistakenly assigned to Bianchi, which had no connection to the Bertoni brand other than Ben Lawee's Bianchi imports during the 1960s. Earlier Bertonis have frame details that are similar to the Torresini-made Italvegas. The 1984 and later steel frames do not bear the typical Torresini details. These "second series" frames all utilized Columbus tubesets of Matrix, SL or SLX type tubing and featured Columbus "short point" lugs and Cinelli-type Columbus bottom brackets & semi-sloping fork crowns. Seat stay lugs were Gipiemme, brazed into the contour of the rear quarters of the seat tube lug. Other braze-ons were also Gipiemme, including the two styles of brake stay bridges used, depending on the model, and the induction-cast "box arch" chainstay bridge which was common to all steel Bertonis, with the exception of the TSX model - the frame of which was obviously the Daccordi Griffe, but with Bertoni inscriptions and decals. Dropouts were forged Columbus on the lower/mid range and Campagnolo for the upscale models. The line emphasized function over flash (except for the "flash" of the 'cromovelato' - thin paint over chrome - paint jobs) and received favorable press regarding overall functionality and quality, as well as the ride/handling of the steel-frame models. The line itself was fairly large, comprising nine bicycles in 1988. The range included a disc-wheeled TT bicycle and a Bador (Vitus) aluminum model.
"Second Series"(incomplete list):
- Nuovitalia - base model with Columbus Matrix double-butted tubesets and a mix of Ofmega and Shimano components.
- Corsa Mondiale - Mid-range steel-frame (Columbus SL; Matrix used on tall frames) model equipped with Shimano 600 crankset, hubs, derailleurs and brakes.
- Specialissima - uprange steel model with Columbus SLX tubing and Shimano Dura-Ace hubs, crank, derailleurs and brakes.
- Professionale - similar SLX frame with Campagnolo SR componentry.
- TSX - Columbus TSX tubing, Daccordi Griffe type "webbed" lugs and bottom bracket shell.
Italvega bikes were designed and hand-built within the noted Torresini workshop at the Torpado factory in Padua, Italy. They were built beginning in 1970 and continuing through the mid- to late-70s before manufacturing was moved to Japan under the name Univega. All Italvega bicycles were made in the Torpado factory, but not all were high-end bicycles. Torpado made a broad variety of bicycles for different uses (including worker, comfort, BMT, ATB, and even motorized)
Models manufactured under the Italvega marque include (in order of increasing quality):
- Viva Sport
- Nuovo Sport
- Nuovo Record
- Super Record
- Super Speciale
- Super Light
- Viva Touring
The top-end models were built with double-butted Columbus tubing and Campagnolo Record and Nuovo Record components. The low-mid level framesets have the inverted triangle Columbus foil decal, while the better models have the rectangle Columbus foil decal. The lowest models have no Columbus decal.
- "Cancer Takes Univega Founder Ben Lawee". Allbusiness.com, Bicycle Retailer, November 12, 2002.
- "Ben Lawee; dead at 76.(Obituary) | HighBeam Business: Arrive Prepared". Business.highbeam.com. 2002-12-01. Archived from the original on 2015-04-09. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
- "Our 100 Year History - Jones Bicycles & Skateboards - Long Beach, Ca". Jonesbicycles.com. 2010-01-20. Retrieved 2012-07-23.