When Josh Poertner bought the Silca brand in 2013 there was little of the once iconic Italian pump manufacturer left.
The company, four years shy of its centenary, was in government receivership and had been reduced to a small garage in the town of Cesenatico with a laptop, a desk, and barely enough components to make more than a handful of pumps.
Theirs was a story of economic decline and financial mismanagement; a brand that had dominated the market and supplied pumps to the cream of cycle sport had been dealt a killer blow by cheap imports and the economic crash of 2008.
The tragedy continued when its former owner and grandson of the founder, Claudio Sacchi, died from cancer a week after the sale to the former Zipp technical director.
As Poertner continues to rebuild the brand – focussing on making the very finest items, bringing back high quality pumps and expanding into other cycling tools – his handful of traditional Silca items from the company’s past remain rare gems.
“I really view the historic Silca parts as having a real artistic component, there’s a real element of passion in the details,” Poertner says. “There’s no technical need for there to be ridiculously intricate crests and flowing shapes and details in the handles of those old Impero pumps, for example.”
A recent trip to Cesenatico returned precious few additions to his collection, but those he acquired from the Sacchi family are cherished, handcrafted reminders of the heyday of Silca version 1.0.
“The oldest pump we found is from the 1920s; it’s a design that they had abandoned by the 30s but would show up again in the late 40s into the mid 60s,” Poertner explains. “We don’t know anything about it other than its very similar to the colour of the Legnano team, and so it may have been for that.
“I look it that and think, ‘1924, but that’s a miniature version of the brass gauge mount piece that they were making in the 50s and 60s on the floor pumps’. I love little design elements like that; we always try to find little design cues in the old Silca stuff and then find ways to integrate them into the new Silca product, for those little bits of joy.”
It goes without saying that today’s industrial processes and materials are far removed from 100 years ago when plastic was in its very infancy. When Silca, founded in 1917, decided to make pumps out of celluloid and Bakelite they were at the cutting edge of the existing technology.
“The handles up to and through the WWII era are intricately moulded with these crests and designs and logos, and they’re done in Bakelite,” Poertner adds. “It really is a beautiful combination of this brass head and a Legnano green, celluloid tube. It’s beautiful.”
I love those little nuances that really show that human hands were here
While the ripples of Fordism and the assembly line radiated out across the Atlantic in the inter-war years, products from the Silca factory remained reassuringly handmade. Craftsmen would make template parts from wood, using wax moulds and tracer lathes to make subsequent items. When one mould wore out, an entirely new (and subtly different) replacement would have to be made afresh.
The company portfolio once included tools and components for scooters and motorbikes but damage to the premises sustained during WWII saw them restart from scratch and concentrate their efforts solely on pumps.
“It’s kind of fun to see the handmade-ness of it all,” Poertner says. “Handmade in the true proper meaning. That’s what I really love about the history of the brand. Those little nuances, that really show that human hands were here.”
Poertner insists that these items are far from being amusing relics from a bygone era. Today they contain lessons and a philosophy that he says is integral to Silca in the 21st Century: their makers cared enough about them to invest the time and effort to go beyond the bare necessities of a bicycle pump.
“When you make art, there’s some element of you that is on the line. There is something emotional, something from your soul or your brain, and you’re opening yourself up to criticism.
“I look at those three crests and know that someone took the time and effort to do that, they knew it wasn’t perfect and they probably, when they were done, were proud of it, and they probably had to endure some grief from some people about it. But they did it, and when they did the next model they did it again.
“We don’t have to make those decisions today, whether we don’t have to or we don’t get to, but there’s a beautiful human experience in that.”