Obituary: Ben Bowden

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The Independent Online
Ben Bowden was an ambitious and talented industrial designer. In 1946, he was the proud father of two of Britain's most talked-about new vehicles. Ironically, one was the fastest on the streets, the other so slow it barely made it off the drawing board.

During the Second World War Bowden met Donald Healey when they worked together at Humber, designing armoured vehicles. Healey, an extrovert racing driver and sports car guru, forecast massive post-war demand for fast cars. So, with their colleague Achille Sampietro engineering the chassis, and Bowden's excellent design eye, he created the Healey 2.4 - so-called because of its 2.4-litre Riley engine.

Bowden initially drew the sweeping, aerodynamic lines of the 2.4 on the wall of his Coventry house before turning them into full-scale plans and, with government permission, the car went into production in an old aircraft hangar at Warwick. Its advanced features included lightweight aluminium bodywork, plastic windows and headlamps concealed behind streamlined flaps.

Healey hit the headlines in 1947 by winding a 2.4 up to 111mph on the Jabbeke Highway in Belgium, and winning the Alpine Rally. It was something Britain could be proud of in a gloomy post-war world - its first post- war 100mph production car - even if the pounds 2,723 price for the saloon made it strictly a rich man's pleasure.

Yet Bowden's driving passion lay in his attempts to revolutionise the proletarian push bike, and at the flag-waving 1946 "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the public were amazed at his "Bicycle of the Future".

Although Bowden claimed in his patent that his main intention was to "provide improvement of aesthetic and practical character" in pedal cycles, it was a radical departure in construction terms. Instead of a framework of welded tubes, it consisted of two, mirror-image pressed-steel halves joined together to form a hollow "body", with a fully enclosed front mudguard. Its sculpted curves recalled the 1930s American streamlining craze, but the bike contained innovations like drive from pedals to rear wheel by steel shaft instead of chain; this meant the rear wheel could be removed simply by pulling out its spindle.

There was suspension for the front fork, and batteries hidden inside the bike's frame powered lights, a horn, even a built-in radio. A locker under the seat concealed a pump and tools.

British bike manufacturers proved too set in their tyre tracks to put Bowden's revolutionary bike into production, however. A plan to manufacture it in South Africa came to nought and, in frustration, he left for the United States in 1949.

It wasn't until 1960 that Bowden's bicycle went into production there, christened the Spacelander and built in glass fibre by his own company. There was a choice of seven colours including pink, but the shaft drive was replaced by a conventional chain.

Advertised as a plaything for "youthful persons of all ages", the Bowden now looked somewhat dated, and only 522 had been made when the parent company went bust.

Now highly prized and worth over pounds 6,000 each, they are also rare: when one was selected for the Royal College of Art's "Make or Break" show in 1986, Paul Clark of Brighton University had to make a replica guided only by photos.

Pressed-steel frames were later adopted by Italy's Vespa for scooters and Japan's Honda for mopeds, contributing to the huge world-wide boom in cheap, mass-produced motorcycles throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Bowden was born in North Kensington in 1906 and, despite music training as a violinist at the Guildhall, graduated in engineering from the Regent Street Polytechnic and worked as a designer in car bodybuilding.

By the end of the 1930s he was chief body engineer at the Rootes Group's Humber factory in Coventry. The London studios of the industrial designer Raymond Loewy were often consulted when Humber cars were restyled, and this relationship inspired Bowden, with a partner, John Allen, to establish his own industrial design company in Leamington Spa, a picturesque stone's throw from the car industry's West Midlands heartland. It was one of the first companies of its type in Britain.

Allen-Bowden designed everything from forklift trucks to Avery scales. In 1948 Bowden became a member of the Society of Industrial Artists.

After emigrating to the US, Ben Bowden enjoyed a wide-ranging career as a freelance product designer, at one time developing an ingenious modular construction method for the Willys Jeep. Somehow, though, he never got over the commercial failure of his bicycle. He spent his final years in retirement in Florida.

Benjamin George Bowden, industrial designer: born London 3 June 1906; married (four children); died Lake Worth, Florida 6 March 1998.