Design: A bicycle made for 2000

What did Sir Norman Foster choose as his object for a new Millennium? The Moulton New Series bike.
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When it comes to objects of desire, mine is a pounds 4,500 bicycle made of silver-brazed, stainless-steel aerospace tubing and engineered to give the most shock- free, efficient ride that has ever been available on a bicycle.

The designer (and manufacturer) of this bike is Alex Moulton, a West Country-based engineer, now 78 years old, who has dedicated his working career to creating, in his words, a bicycle that is "more pleasurable to have and more effective to use" than any other. (He has also spent a good deal of time creating suspension systems for the car industry, but that is another story.)

A bicycle is such a practical, and familiar, machine that one does not usually think of it as having been designed at all. And in fact, the evolution of the "safety bicycle", from the late 19th century to the present day, has mainly been one of "suck it and see" engineering. Even the recent development of suspended mountain bikes and the use of carbon- fibre composites and other exotic materials has mainly involved the application of incremental, pragmatic solutions to immediate problems, rather than any fundamental rethinking.

This intuitive procedure has been possible, according to Dr Moulton, because the original design, which was produced in nearly all its essentials by John Kemp Starley in 1886, was so sound that relatively slight changes in dimensions and materials could not undermine its essential character. Moulton's life- work, however, has been dedicated to rethinking all the basic principles of the bicycle to see if they could be improved. To do that, he has combined his training and experience as a mechanical engineer with his extensive knowledge of the properties of rubber. His family, in fact, has been designing and manufacturing things out of rubber since the 1840s, when his great-grandfather, Stephen Moulton, returned to England with a licence from his American friend, Charles Goodyear, to employ his discovery that rubber could be made pliable and durable by "vulcanisation" (the application of sulphur and heat).

This new bicycle, called in fact the New Series, is the end-product of a process of evolution reminiscent of the gradual improvements in the classic bicycle, with the difference that every detail of the development of the Moulton bicycle has been due to the deliberate engineering and aesthetic choices of one man. It all began in 1956, when the Suez Crisis resulted in a petrol shortage which drove Alex Moulton back to his bike. Cycling on country lanes in Wiltshire on a high-quality Hetchins bicycle made him wonder how bicycles could be made even better.

At the time, Dr Moulton had been collaborating with the car designer and engineer, Alec Issigonis, on the creation of the Morris Mini. This had involved the insight that the employment of small wheels would permit the whole vehicle to be reduced in scale and improved in efficiency. In fact, the wheels of all vehicles other than the bicycle (and earth- moving machines) had been reduced in diameter as roads had improved. It was not long before Moulton had launched his new small-wheeled bicycle which, along with the miniskirt and the Mini, became an icon of the Swinging Sixties.

The original Moultons included several innovations: small wheels with high-pressure (to lower rolling- resistance) tyres; unisex, single-size frames with no top tubes; frame separability (soon added as a permanent feature of Moulton bikes), and, of course, suspension, front and rear. The result was a performance characterised by quick acceleration, responsive handling, superior stability (which allowed the carrying of large loads over the centre-line of the bicycle), and greater comfort. Variations of the bicycle were made for commuting, touring and even racing.

In 1983, the AM (Advanced Moulton) was launched. This bike, still available today in several variants, incorporated a light, space-frame construction, upgraded suspension and improved geometry. This produced a bike of great stiffness (which means pedalling energy is not wasted in frame-flex) yet great comfort, due to the suspension. One of these cycles holds the world speed record for an upright bicycle (51.29mph, set in 1986).

As it happens, I rode one of these bicycles in 1984 as part of a comparison I was making of commuting bikes for a magazine article, and I liked it so much I bought one. Last year, I upgraded to a newer version of the AM, but I should probably have waited. For this year, Alex Moulton unveiled the crowning achievement of his years of persistent development: the New Series (he is open to suggestions for a better name).

I borrowed one of the New Series bikes for three weeks and ran it over my usual commuting and recreational terrain. I can report that it was superior in nearly every respect to its AM predecessor, a bicycle that, to my mind, is already one of the best on the market. Summed up, the New Series bike is more stable, quicker, better balanced, more aerodynamic (the innovative aircraft-style handlebars put the rider in a position to cut through the wind) and lighter (23lb as opposed to 26lb). The components - brakes, gears, etc - are top-of-the-line Shimano stuff of the sort used in the Tour de France.

But most noticeable is the suspension. Dr Moulton has used variants of his own automotive inventions (Flexitor and Hydrolastic are the registered tradenames) for the front and rear suspensions, respectively. Both devices are highly sensitive and very well damped: they soak up the tiniest vibrations, transmitting only the slightest awareness of them to the rider.

Moultons have always been popular with design professionals. So it is not surprising that Sir Norman Foster, one of the most highly sought- after architects in the world, when asked by the Design Council to nominate what object he would like to take with him into the new Millennium, chose a New Series bicycle. "This is a classic," he said, "a re-invention of the bicycle - light, separable, high-performance - and it looks good." Perhaps Sir Norman saw in the Moulton that combination of artistry and functionalism which characterises great architecture.

Alex Moulton's newest creation is not cheap, but you only need to look at it to appreciate its hand-crafted, jewel-like perfection. And it does not appeal only to the wealthy. There is a waiting-list to buy them which, to its inventor's delight, is comprised mainly of ordinary people who love cycling: "What has pleased me is the retired schoolmaster and his wife coming here, trying the things, grinning, and saying, `We'll buy two and pass them on to our children'".

The New Series costs from pounds 3,700 to pounds 4,900, from Alex Moulton Bicycles, Holt Road, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire BA15 1AH (01225 865895)