Suicide shifters is a term I never heard until I came to the US; it is a name given to the lever operated front derailleurs used in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
I came across this rare picture from 1952 of André Darrigade (with Lucien Lauk) reaching down to change chainrings on his Simplex-equipped La Perle bike. When I started racing that same year, I used this same equipment and I can assure you there was nothing “suicide” in their operation.
The most popular lever operated front changer was the French made Simplex, (Above.) which is the one being used by Darrigade in the top picture. It simply pivoted in the center and you pushed the knob on the lever inwards toward the frame to shift up to the big ring, and opposite to shift down. Simplex also made chainrings and bottle cages (both pictured here.) The chainrings were often used with different make cranks like the Italian Gnutti or Magistroni.
Huret, (Above.) another French make, was also popular; I used this one. It worked on a helical, or screw like cam. You pushed the lever forward to go to the small ring, and back to change up.
Huret also had an interesting rear derailleur, it used twin down tube levers and twin cables. (Note: Two cables on the chainstay that also needed a double cable stop.)
(The twin levers: Left.) The large lever shifted gears, while the short lever tensioned the chain. On a smooth road, you could run the chain slack for less friction.
Another front changer I had fist hand experience of was the British made Cyclo-Benilux. (Above.) This one had a twist rod held with two clamps on the seat tube. You twisted the rod to shift up and down. I liked this one because I found I could reach behind my right leg and the knob at the top of the rod would be right where my hand naturally fell. Unlike the other changers that you had to reach between your legs to operate the lever.
None of these changers had return springs, they were manually operated both ways. Most of them had a simple friction device to hold it where you put it. But on most of them if the chain rubbed it would automatically knock the changer yoke out of the way, and no further adjustment was needed.
This equipment was simple, to the point of being crude, but they got the job done. We became used to it, and skilled in its operation. There was nothing “suicide” about it.
There are probably few people in America with actual experience of using these. (I would be interested to hear comments from any.) The 1970s generation probably gave them the name. They look more awkward to use that the actually were.
I can imagine in years to come, the cyclists who grew up with down tube friction shifters will fade away, and the “Brifter”* generation will then dub these suicide shifters.
Top picture from The Wool Jersey.
Other pictures from Classic Lightweights, UK.
Brifters* Combination brake and gear shift levers.