Alex Moulton: Designer whose eponymous lightweight bicycle became a symbol of the Sixties

 

The name Moulton is synonymous with the upright bicycle launched by Dr Alex Moulton in the early 1960s and known for its innovative design and ride comfort. The bike became as much a symbol of that era as the miniskirt and the Mini – which Moulton was also involved. His expertise was engaged in creating a number of less visible, but no less significant, inventions which have eased the journeys of millions of car drivers. These include the Hydrolastic and Hydragas suspension systems, used for four decades on British Motor Corporation (BMC), Leyland and MG vehicles.

Alex Moulton was born in 1920 and educated at Marlborough College and Kings College, Cambridge, where he studied Mechanical Engineering. He was the great grandson of Stephen Moulton, who began making vulcanised rubber in Britain in 1848, based on pioneering work by the American inventor Charles Goodyear.

During the Second World War Moulton worked at the Bristol Aeroplane Company as a test engineer and went on to become personal assistant to the company's chief engineer, Sir Roy Fedden. In the late 1950s, following the acquisition of the family firm by Avon Rubber, Moulton established a new enterprise, Moulton Developments.

One of the company's first projects was work on new suspension systems for cars. Moulton had studied the mechanics of Citroen's 2CV – whose suspension was famously intended to allow carrying a basket of eggs across a ploughed field – and DS models. While these worked well, Moulton devised a combination of rubber springs and fluid – a mixture of water and alcohol – to provide improved damping. He termed this the "Hydrolastic" system.

The year 1962 was an important one for Moulton. In August the BMC Morris 1100 was launched, based on design work by Sergio Pininfarina (Independent obituary 10 July 2012) and featuring Moulton's Hydrolastic suspension system. Writing in 2003 about the driving experience in the Morris 1100, the motoring journalist Keith Adams observed: "Back in 1962, family cars were expected to wallow, crash and bang – they were simply not interested in going around corners, and suffered A-roads because they had to. The 1100 changed all that. Venture on to a typical English B-road in it, and the first thing that strikes the driver when he hits a corner is the fact that there is almost no body roll."

In November 1962 he showed his newly designed bicycle at the Earl's Court Cycle Show. Having sought for several years to market an innovative design, he had discussed with Raleigh the possibility of collaborating with the company. When the negotiations did not work out, he decided to go it alone and set up Moulton Bicycles Ltd. The bicycle historian Tony Hadland told The Independent: "In the bicycle world this was the equivalent of Decca turning down the Beatles."

The basic concept of the bicycle had remained pretty much unchanged since Victorian times. With its small wheels, high saddle and rubber suspension, Moulton's design was a radical departure from this traditional shape. He explained in a later interview that the Moulton F-frame cycle design 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."

A month after the launch, the cyclist John Woodburn broke the Cardiff-to-London record on the company's "Speed" model, averaging 24 miles per hour over a distance of 162 miles and keeping the Moulton name firmly in the public imagination.

Within a year Moulton had become the second largest builder of bicycles in the country, manufacturing at its own site and at Fisher & Ludlow, part of BMC. Other manufacturers tried to copy elements of the design. Raleigh, for example, launched its RSW16, with a similar open-styled frame, but was unable to emulate the success of the original. Five years later Raleigh responded by acquiring the rights, and began manufacture based on Moulton's own designs, retaining him for the next 15 years as consultant.

In 1964, following collaboration between Moulton and the car designer Alec Issigonis, the Hydrolastic system was first fitted to the Mini and went on to be used in millions of vehicles over the next four decades. Moulton continued to develop and improve the suspension system. In 1973, when the Austin Allegro was launched, it implemented his new Hydragas concept, using nitrogen to provide the "spring" mechanism.

Moulton was awarded the Royal Designer for Industry award in 1968 for achieving "sustained excellence in aesthetic and efficient design for industry", and the CBE in 1976 for services to industry. In 2007 the book A Lifetime in Engineering, in the form of an interview with the cycling historian John Pinkerton, appeared, followed two years later by the autobiography Alex Moulton: from Bristol to Bradford-on-Avon.

Last month, guests, including the designer Sir James Dyson and the architect Lord Norman Foster, were invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moulton bicycle at the inventor's home, The Hall, in Bradford on Avon. Foster said at the event: "The 50th anniversary of the Moulton bike – what an occasion, what an anniversary, what an icon. Synonymous with the Mini, the mini-skirt – the mini bike. So, heartiest congratulations – great occasion, great bike. And also great to ride, I have to add."

Dr Alexander Eric Moulton, engineer and designer: born Stratford upon Avon 9 April 1920; CBE 1976; died Bradford on Avon 9 December 2012.

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