A leading engineer and inventor who pioneered the small-wheeled bicycle in the 1960s has died at the age of 92.
Dr Alex Moulton CBE specialised in suspension design and his bicycle is recognised as a “design classic” by industrial designer Sir James Dyson.
He is also known for revolutionising the suspension system of British cars most notably the Mini on which he worked with Sir Alec Issigonis.
Described as an inspiration, he died at home near Bradford-on-Avon on Sunday.
The great-grandson of rubber pioneer Stephen Moulton, Dr Moulton was educated at Marlborough and later at King’s College, Cambridge where he graduated in engineering.
In the late 1950s, he worked with Sir Alec Issigonis – the man who designed the Mini – to create a suspension system which allowed the car’s overall small size.
And in 1962, at the Earls Court Cycle Show, Dr Moulton launched his “iconic” bicycle.
The Moulton bicycle, according to Dr Moulton, was “born out of my resolve to challenge and improve upon the classic bicycle, with its diamond frame and large wheels, which has locked bicycle design into that form since the pioneering work in England of Starley and others at the end of the 19th Century.”
At the 50th anniversary of the Moulton Bicycle, celebrated last month, it was described by Lord Norman Foster as an icon “synonymous with the Mini, the mini-skirt – the mini bike”.
And Sir James Dyson paid tribute to Dr Moulton for setting a “good example to our [Dyson] engineers”.
Dr Moulton passed away at his home in Bradford-on-Avon on Sunday evening.
Alex Moulton, who has died aged 92, was one of the leading lights of the great days when the British motor industry nurtured revolutionary innovations and changed the popular car forever. As a creative engineer and thinker, Moulton was intimately involved through his work on the new rubber suspension systems for the Mini and the Austin 1100 – and he went on to arrive at another radical redesign of a familiar object with the Moulton bicycle, cited for its “sparse beauty” by the architect Norman Foster, as representing “the greatest work of 20th-century British design”.
Moulton’s bike, launched to enormous interest in 1962, was a reinvention of the classical bicycle. He used small wheels, which he argued gave better acceleration and faster overall speeds; springs, again of rubber, and a new feature on bicycles; and a new design of the step-through frame – he considered the top tube of the traditional bike dangerous and an obstacle to dismounting in emergency. The Moulton went through many evolutions from his original “F” frame to later exotic handbuilt stainless steel space-frame machines. However, the success of his design showed their practicality and pointed the way for other small-wheeled and stowable bikes.
Moulton grew up in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, in a kind of industrial aristocracy. The family had established a factory in the 1840s making rubber products, mainly buffer springs for railways. They lived close by in the Hall, a remarkable 16th-century house that was to exercise a lifelong hold over Moulton. His father, a naturalist, had been recruit ed by Charles Brooke, the “white Rajah of Sarawak”, to start a museum in Borneo. He died in 1926 and Alex was brought up by his mother and a strict “Victorian” grandmother.
With the mighty steam locomotives of the Great Western Railway hauling trains past the bottom of the garden and the rubber factory close by, he grew up with a deep interest in engineering, converting a GN light car to steam power in his teens. On leaving Marlborough college, he joined the Sentinel truck company for experience, and in 1938 went to King’s College, Cambridge, to study engineering.
The second world war took him to the Bristol Aeroplane engine company, led by the great engineer-autocrat Roy Fedden. Aero engines were the most sophisticated devices made, and Moulton had a “most enormously interesting time” as a fitter in the test shop until he became Fedden’s personal assistant. At the war’s end he also helped with Fedden’s failed project to build a “British Volkswagen”, with the journalist and stylist Gordon Wilkins.
After completing his Cambridge course, Moulton started a research department at the family firm into the engineering uses of rubber. An early success was the Flexitor spring, used for caravan and boat trailers, which illustrated Moulton’s contention that “a new thing needs a new name”. At the time, there were concerns about the durability of the bond between the rubber and the metal parts, but these proved unfounded. Decades later, Moulton would come across rusted trailers on sea fronts: “I jump up and down on them; the Flexitors always still work.”
In 1949, through a mutual friend, Jeremy Fry, he met Alec Issigonis, like Fry, a keen builder and driver of hill-climb racing cars. Issigonis had just achieved great success with his design of the Morris Minor, and this was the start of a close personal and professional friendship. At this time, the Austin and Morris companies were merging, and Issigonis left to design a luxury car for Alvis. Moulton became a consultant for BMC – British Motor Corporation, the new Austin-Morris conglomerate – working with Jack Daniels, Issigonis’s righthand man on the Morris Minor, and fitting one with his Flexitor rubber springs. The car survived 1,000 miles running on the pavé – cobblestone – test track at the Motor Industry Research Association’s proving ground. This was double the mileage that steel suspensions could endure, and proved definitively that the rubber suspension was practical.
Moulton also collaborated with Issigonis at Alvis, devising new cone-shaped rubber road springs that offered the possibility of great space saving, a degree of self-damping and the possibility of interlinking the suspension front to back on each side to smooth the ride.
This idea was already in use by Citroën in the notable DS, using pumps and complex high-pressure hydraulic units. Moulton’s system was elegant and simpler. His hollow rubber springs were filled with fluid and joined front to back by pipes. When a bump moved a front wheel upwards, fluid was displaced to the back spring, extending it and raising the rear suspension in sympathy. This minimised body pitching over bumps, giving a smoother ride, but without the usual penalty of soft suspension – body roll and a deterioration of control and handling.
Alvis eventually shelved the car, but the BMC supremo Leonard Lord saw Issigonis as the outstanding design talent he needed for a new mid-sized car and brought him back to BMC. However, the project took a new turn following the 1956 Suez invasion and the ensuing oil embargo imposed on Britain by Arab states.
Moulton recalled driving to meet Issigonis during the petrol rationing winter in a three-wheeler single-cylinder Heinkel bubble car (“simply a device for getting 60 miles to the gallon”). Issigonis sniffed, quipping that Lord wanted him to design a really small economy car, but “whatever it is, it will have four wheels and four cylinders”.
The result was the Mini, revealed at the 1959 London Motor Show. From the outset it used Moulton’s rubber springs, though initially without the fluid interconnection, adopted in 1964. This Hydrolastic system became a feature of the Mini and its larger successor, the Austin/Morris 1100 – for several years Britain’s bestselling car. In 1969, Moulton launched Hydragas suspension, which added some gas to the system to soften the springing. All these Moulton systems gave the little vehicles outstanding comfort and road holding, and also contributed to their roominess.
Though Moulton’s specialism was rubber springing, he was central to the atmosphere of inquiry and adventure in which these new cars were conceived. Colleagues dubbed Issigonis, with Moulton and John Morris, the chief engineer of SU carburettors, the “three musketeers” as they ceaselessly discussed the future evolution of automobiles at work and socially. Sadly, however, the commercial success of BMC began to falter. Later Issigonis cars did not quite hit the mark with buyers, and in 1968 BMC was taken over by Leyland Motors, headed by Donald Stokes, who brought Harry Webster from Triumph as chief engineer. Issigonis, recalled Moulton, “retired to his cell and would have nothing to do with the new incumbents”. Moulton, however, collaborated with the new designers of what was now British Leyland, who adopted his suspension on the Allegro, Metro and MGF cars. Issigonis took this as unforgivable disloyalty, creating a sad rift, which was never repaired.
The petrol rationing after Suez was also responsible for the other great strand in Moulton’s career. When borrowing a handmade lightweight Hetchins bicycle, he found it “a revelation of joy” and began to consider how he could improve on it. Buoyed up by the success of the Mini and 1100 cars, he redesigned it “in an analogous way to the Mini, starting with fundamentals: what struck me immediately was ‘Why are the wheels so big?’” Prototypes were a success, and he began talks with Raleigh, the UK’s largest cycle maker. But though senior figures were enthusiastic, Moulton believed that the “not invented here” syndrome killed the project, so he set about producing the Moulton bicycle himself in a relatively small way at Bradford on Avon, launching at the 1962 Earls Court Cycle and Motorcycle Show. Such was Moulton’s prestige within the car industry that Lord sent the message: “Alex, don’t hesitate in taking orders, because we will make the thing for you.”
Though he sold all he could make, Moulton found that he could not build it economically, while Raleigh countered with the launch of a copycat design, which, though heavy and unsprung, attacked Moulton sales. In 1967, Moulton was forced to sell to Raleigh, which made Moulton designs until 1974.
Eventually, Moulton was able to buy back his own patents. He continued to develop the cycle, designing the elegant and light “space frame” machines as special handmade versions created in the former stables at the Hall. It was an achievement in itself to cultivate a market of connoisseurs for a necessarily expensive bespoke product and this fostered a specialised workforce displaying superb workmanship and pride in craft production. In 1992, he licensed the Pashley company, in Stratford-upon-Avon, to produce a more affordable version of the “space frame” machine (initially the Moulton All Purpose bicycle and later the TSR series). In 2000 he also licensed Bridgestone, in Japan, to make an aluminium Moulton derived from his original “F frame” design.
Moulton was not a technocrat. Though adept at mathematics and engineering science, his inventions were all human-centred and focused on the experience and enjoyment of the user. He abandoned his design of a steam motorboat engine, for example, because once he had developed it to rival diesel power it lost its suppleness and “was not a nice thing any more”. His car suspensions and the cycle developments were entirely aimed at providing a superior experience for the user. He was very taken, through his association with Bridgestone, with the Japanese sense of the “spirit” of an artefact, reflecting its origins and the care with which it was made. He liked the idea that by seeing and using something one can detect this “spirit”, which fitted his own conviction that manufacture and industry are morally rewarding. “Man should make things … Make a profit, of course, but don’t take the money gain as the prime judgment.”
Moulton was appointed CBE in 1976. He was active in the promotion of engineering design and education, set’ting up a foundation in his name in 1997. He produced a series of pocket engineering guides, was co-editor of a mechanical engineering handbook, The Moulton Formulae and Methods (2005), and wrote a memoir, Bristol to Bradford-on-Avon: A Lifetime in Engineering (2010).
The work of the Moulton Bicycle Company is being continued by his great-nephew Shaun.
• Alexander Eric Moulton, engineer and inventor, born 9 April 1920; died 9 December 2012
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
It is with great sorrow that Shaun Moulton and The Moulton Bicycle Company announce the news that Dr. Alexander Eric Moulton CBE, distinguished engineer and inventor, passed away peacefully in the company of his family and staff on Sunday evening, 9th December 2012, at the age of 92.
Dr. Moulton was an inspiration for generations of engineers, designers and inventors.
Educated at Marlborough and Cambridge, Alex Moulton worked at Bristol Aeroplanes as assistant to Sir Roy Fedden during WW2. He joined Bradford on Avon rubber manufacturers Spencer Moulton in 1945, leading a new research team. His collaboration with Sir Alec Issigonis resulted in Moulton suspension, including ‘Hydrolastic’ and ‘Hydragas’ systems, being employed in over twelve million British cars from the original Mini to the MGF.
Dr. Moulton was also famous for his revolutionary small-wheeled, full-suspension Moulton bicycle – very popular in the 1960s and still built by hand in Bradford on Avon by a loyal team of engineers, technicians and craftsmen.
50th Anniversary of the Moulton Bicycle
Friday 7th Sept:
The grounds of The Hall will be open from 17.30pm on Friday for the campers (please do not arrive
before this time unless you are a nominated helper). Please remember that The Hall and its grounds are
home to Dr. Moulton and that we are there at his invitation. Anthony Best Dynamics and The Moulton
Bicycle Co. also have their businesses there. Please respect this!
This year there will be a wristband entry system. Members wishing to attend on Saturday only will have
to apply in advance to Arthur Smith* sending a stamped, self- addressed envelope (SAE) and a cheque
for £5 payable to the Moulton Bicycle Club. This will entitle you to entry to the Bring and Buy sale and
all other events on Saturday. If you wish to bring any family members please state their names on the
form provided, there will be no extra cost. Please note you do not need to pay £5 if you are camping or
attending the evening meal. Members who are camping or attending the Dinner will be issued with a
wristband. This will also entitle them to free entry at the Bring and Buy sale.
There will be a security company on duty at the main gate. Anyone without a wristband will not be
allowed entry. These measures have proved to be necessary because of security problems in past years.
Parking permits will be issued to campers and sellers only and will be sent out when Arthur has received
the completed forms.
Camping is priced at £15 per tent with the use of shower and toilet facilities. Bring and Buy tables will
be £5 per table, £10 for larger tables e.g Trade. Remember please bring suitable covering for tables as
the tables this year are hired.
Overseas visitors can book through Tim Evans, Membership Secretary, using Pay Pal.
*Arthur Smith, 22b Westhampnett Road, Chichester, W. Sussex, PO19 7HW
Please note that you attend this weekend event at your own risk.
Timetable of Events
Friday evening 7th Sept:
Members are invited to meet at the Riverside Inn in B.o.A for drinks and something to eat.
Saturday morning 8th Sept:
Bring and Buy sale in the marquee at 9.30am for sellers and opens at 10am for buyers. This year, tables
will be provided, closes at 12 noon.
Saturday afternoon 2pm
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, two record-breaking, Moulton-riding cyclists will be our guests;
John Woodburn and Vic Nicholson along with David Duffield who organized John Woodburn’s record-
breaking Cardiff to London ride. Also in attendance will be Mick Ives who rode a track version of the F
frame to victory in the 4 man Pursuit at the Coventry Stadium in 1963. The Master of Ceremonies will be
Tony Hadland, the well known author and cycling historian. Alex Moulton will also attend.
Saturday afternoon 3pm:
Dress to Impress: Last year this was a very successful event. Members are invited to come along with
their favourite Moulton and dress in clothing to match the era of the bike, colour co-ordinated or fancy
dress, you will be interviewed by Tony Hadland and a prize will be awarded to the best bike/outfit.
If any members have good examples of very early narrow bellows Moultons please could they bring
them along to display in the courtyard and discuss with Tony if the time permits. A greater selection of
catering will be provided this year including bacon rolls at the Bring and Buy sale and further lunchtime
teas/catering organised by Zoe Martin’s family
Once the afternoon talks are over, the Test Track will be available for approximately an hour and a half
for members to test out factory demonstrators and each others’ machines. The use of the Test Track will
be restricted to this time only as last year it was becoming too crowded and dangerous at times. Please
ride safely around the track as there may be damp moss in places and there is a steep climb to master.
We may have marshals in place if the track becomes busy to space out the riders and point out hazards.
Please wear a helmet for your safety and remember that you attend the event at your own risk.
Saturday evening 7.30pm for 8pm:
For the evening the Club offer a choice. The Annual Dinner will be in a Marquee on the main lawn. This
will be a self-service buffet with a vegetarian option.
Please state your choices on the form i.e. Beef/salmon/chicken so that Arthur can let the caterers know.
Send an SAE with your cheque payable to the Moulton Bicycle Club. No SAE no tickets!
Alternatively if you wish you can bring your own food and use the BBQ facilities on the lawn. Please be
careful around the BBQ. There will probably be small children running around. You attend at your own
MENU FOR BoA 2012
Self service hot buffet: With a choice of pasta, rice, potatoes and a selection of fresh vegetables.
The main menu will be:
Carbonnade of Beef
or Chicken Supreme
or Fresh Scottish Salmon
Tomato & Mozzarela Tartlets
or Pasta Bake
Summer fruits with vanilla ice-cream
or filo parcels with lemon souffle
plus tea or coffee with mints
Please use the downloadable form on the website.
There will be three rides, all starting at the main gates.
Ride One: Start 9.30am A longer ride option, led by Dan Farrell of the Moulton Bicycle Company, is
approx. 40 miles. Return to the Riverside Inn for lunch.
Ride Two: Start 10am A medium ride of approx: 25 miles led by Arthur Smith taking in local country
lanes, with a coffee stop at Laycock and return to BoA for lunch at the Riverside Inn.
Ride Three: Start 10.30am A short family ride along the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath to the Angel
Fish Cafe for refreshments and then return to the Riverside Inn at BOA approx: 10 miles.
Please note that the Weekend finishes at 5 p.m. on Sunday, by which time the Club marquee must taken
down and the site cleared and left tidy.