Engineer who created Reyner Banham and Norman Foster’s favourite bike, has died. Foster described the Moulton bicycle as the ‘greatest work of 20th century British design’.
Alex Moulton has died, the 92-year old British mechanical engineer who invented the small-wheel, full-suspension Moulton bicycle in 1962 as a challenge to the conventional diamond frame.
Alex Moulton spent a lifetime refining his revolutionary bicycle design, which, in 1986, broke the world speed record for the fastest bicycle of conventional riding position.
Born into engineering and invention, his great-grandfather, Stephen Moulton, acquired the rights to the process for the vulcanisation of rubber from American Charles Goodyear, and made his fortune developing new uses for this new material, such as rain capes for British soldiers fighting the Crimean War. Stephen bought The Hall in Bradford-on-Avon in 1848, converting the adjacent cloth mill to rubber production, later sold to the Avon Rubber Company in 1956.
His great-grandson would also turn to rubber for his innovative designs. After studying aeroengines at the University of Cambridge, Alex founded Moulton Developments Limited, focusing on the design and development of rubber suspension for vehicles such as cars and trailers research which culminated in the development of his acclaimed suspension systems for the Mini, as well as the Austin Allegro, Princess, Metro and Ambassador.
Foster described the Moulton bicycle as ‘the greatest work of 20th-century British design’
In the aftermath of the Suez crisis in 1956, the ensuing oil shortages encouraged Moulton to examine the bicycle. Moulton noticed that as vehicles evolved, their wheels continually became smaller, with the exception of the classic bicycle, which had stalled at 26 or 28in. His calculations showed that a smaller wheel would go faster with less effort due to lower rolling resistance, lower aerodynamic drag and faster acceleration.
With support from Dunlop, Moulton began testing small wheels. The design of the original Moulton featured a unisex, Lazy-F step-through frame, 16in high-pressure tyres, front and rear rubber suspension, and increased luggage capacity with front and rear racks. After a sensational launch in 1962 at the Earls Court Cycle and Motor Cycle Show, Moulton went on to become the second-largest frame maker in the UK, at its peak manufacturing more than 1,000 bikes a week.
The company declined after being purchased by Raleigh, but became an independent company once again in 1983, and operated under the name Alex Moulton Bicycles until June 2008, when it announced a merger with Stratford-upon-Avon-based Pashley to form The Moulton Bicycle Company.
New bicycles, aside from their full suspension and (slightly larger) 17in high-pressure tyres, bear little resemblance to early Moultons. In the 1980s, Moulton began experimenting with space frames to build a stiffer, lighter bicycle. His newest pylon models feature a steel cage formed by triangulated smaller units for a structurally-rigid, lightweight construction.
With its engineering-led precision design and constantly improving form, Moulton has long inspired a fervent following among architects. Architectural critic Rayner Banham famously rode a 1960s Moulton, and was often pictured astride it. Moulton’s New Series, which starts at £2,200, has inspired equally devout disciples, including James Dyson and Norman Foster, both owners of the New Series Speed. Foster famously visited Moulton’s estate in his helicopter, and has described the Moulton bicycle as ‘the greatest work of 20th-century British design’.