Alex Moulton, who has died aged 92, was an entrepreneurial engineer best known for designing a revolutionary small-wheeled lightweight bicycle which achieved great popularity in the 1960s.
Alexander Eric Moulton was born on April 9 1920 into a family steeped in British engineering history. A mere stone’s throw from the family home where he was brought up stood the rubber factory founded in 1848 by his great-grandfather Stephen.
The family were originally law stationers in London, and Stephen Moulton became involved in the rubber business more by accident than design. He acquired a licence to manufacture vulcanised rubber from the American Charles Goodyear, with a view to selling it on and making a profit on the transaction. When he hawked round his licence, however, the British rubber industry was unmoved, so eventually he went into the business himself.
From an early age Alex Moulton was interested in picking things apart in order to see how they worked. He spent many hours as a child watching the carpenter and blacksmith at work on the family estate, and this interest blossomed into a considerable aptitude for engineering.
At Marlborough College he built a steam car of his own design, and constructed a steel dodecahedron in the metalwork shop — to the astonishment of his maths master. After King’s College, Cambridge, where he read Mechanical Sciences, he was apprenticed to the Bristol Aeroplane Co, where he spent most of the Second World War.
In 1945 Moulton joined the family firm, working in the technical department. It was there that he first became interested in the use of rubber springs in vehicle suspension, an interest which would lead to a highly fruitful partnership with Sir Alec Issigonis, notably on Hydrolastic suspension systems for, among others, the Austin Mini. Hydrolastic evolved into the so-called Hydrogas system which was used on many other cars, starting with the Austin Allegro in 1973. It was still a feature of the MG F, launched by the Rover Group in 1995.
The family business was sold in 1956, and Moulton set up his own company in the stable yard of his home at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire. The imposition of petrol rationing during the Suez Crisis had highlighted the precariousness of Britain’s oil supply, and Moulton set to work looking at the potential for efficient steam cars, ships and power plants — and for improving the humble bicycle.
During Suez he had bought a lightweight bicycle in order to eke out his petrol ration; now he turned his mind to the possibility of designing a still more efficient machine.
There then followed a series of events remarkable for their similarity to the origins of Stephen Moulton’s vulcanised rubber factory. In 1959, having designed and built the prototype, Moulton approached Raleigh, the world’s biggest bicycle manufacturer, and offered it to them to build under licence. Raleigh was unimpressed, and turned it down.
The most striking feature of Moulton’s revolutionary machine was its small wheels, Raleigh told Moulton that, in their view, they would never catch on.
So like his great-grandfather before him, Moulton went into business himself. In 1964 the Alex Moulton Bicycle was launched. It had three novel features: a small, lightweight frame; the 16-inch wheels which Raleigh had said would never sell (but which made the bicycle easy to propel); and, lastly, a rubber suspension system which gave a smooth and comfortable ride.
The bicycle enjoyed immediate success with the public and is credited with starting the 1960s craze for cycling, hitherto regarded as a somewhat spinsterish activity. It suddenly became fashionable to be seen riding to work on a bicycle, particularly if it was a Moulton. Lord Hailsham was photographed riding one; meanwhile, a book – Life And Other Punctures — was written by the actress Eleanor Bron in homage to her Moulton.
In 1966 Raleigh brought out its own lightweight, small-wheeled bicycle — a machine which the pundits declared to be vastly inferior to the Moulton. This failure forced Raleigh into the humiliating position of having to acquire the rights to the Moulton bicycle in 1967, eight years after they had originally been offered it. Raleigh manufactured it until 1974.
After commercial production ceased, Moulton continued to produce a limited number of bicycles, generally in partnership with specialist manufacturers. They became collectors’ items and there is still considerable interest in acquiring a “genuine” Moulton. Moulton himself liked to say that he had as many of his bicycles in service as Boeing had aircraft.
He continued with his design work, particularly for the motor industry. His work on rubberised suspension for the British Motor Corporation (BMC) won him a Queen’s Award for Industry in 1967. In 1969 he came up with a design for a revolutionary motor coach and invited Lord Stokes, then chairman of BMC, down to his home to examine the prototype. Moulton recalled: “He was supercilious: 'Oh, no, we couldn’t possibly do that.’”
To some, Moulton seemed an eccentric and anachronistic figure. At a Design Council exhibition of British inventions, the Duke of Edinburgh once warned him that he might end up under a glass case himself. But for others his life represented a last echo of the heroic era of British engineering — the age of Watt and Brunel. Moulton had the same qualities of independence and fierce self-belief, built on years of discipline and hard work mastering his science.
He was wont to explain that he had remained unmarried because of his fascination for engineering, which had seemed in his youth to be incompatible with the traditional duties of caring for a wife and children. His other love was his family seat, the Jacobean house in Wiltshire which he maintained both as a residence and an office.
Toward the end of his life Moulton became increasingly exasperated with the decline of British engineering – something he ascribed variously to television, the financial services industry and the failings of the educational system.
He was heaped with honours by the engineering world, and was appointed CBE for services to industry in 1976.
Alex Moulton, born April 9 1920, died December 9 2012