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Wheels in motion

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MetalWorks Transport

Architectural influence on personal transport is increasing, particularly the design of more sustainable vehicles

I suppose you could argue that it all began with the cart. The placing of an iron hoop around the wheel to tension everything up might be the first instance of metal being used directly to facilitate personal transport.

But then, where does that leave the horseshoe? In order to make things easier, let's assume that personal transport, particularly where the use of metals is concerned, is primarily a 20th-century phenomenon.

Architects and engineers have had influences on many areas of life, but some of the most immediate and direct concern transport - and not just the buildings in which we interchange, set down, pick up and lose our luggage, but also the artefacts which convey us to and from our destination. In order of provenance, these types of transport might be: ships, rail, airships, cars and aeroplanes.

The area of architectural endeavour has largely concerned the car. This is understandable since the car has altered the environment irrevocably and has created a new genre of architecture as its supporting infrastructure - that of the road, the garage, the parking lot and motorway service area.

The list of architect-designed automobiles is surprisingly long and involves the obvious, such as Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion car, and the esoteric, for instance Renzo Piano's work for Fiat which resulted in the Strada. However, I think architects might also be interested in the design of more sustainable forms of transport, so I've included a bicycle as well.

In the low-tech stakes, bicycles have an almost mythical status. Most of us as children had steeds fashioned from pig-iron ingots seemingly capable of terminal velocity on the mildest of slopes, and usually accompanied by brakes that served a more cosmetic than impeding function. What a shock the Moulton is when compared to a more utilitarian view of the bike.

Swinging '60s

Dr Alex Moulton was active in the field of suspension research, having invented the rubber suspension used on Alec Issigonis' Mini. Simultaneously, as a result of the Suez crisis and the subsequent scares about continued oil supply from the Middle East, he played a major part in reinventing the bike for a mass market. He used small wheels and suspension techniques borrowed from the automotive industry, together with an extremely rigid frame produced from highquality steel tubes such as Reynolds 531.

The bike proved extremely popular, not least because its smaller overall dimensions (think 'mini') and unisex design appealed to the ethos of the swinging 60s.

The central idea - small wheels, stepthrough frame - was much copied and resulted in Raleigh acquiring the company and producing what is widely regarded as 'the worst bike ever' the RSW-16 (later known as The Shopper). This prompted Dr Moulton to buy back the name from Raleigh, and to begin to produce hi-tech bikes in a manufacturing facility at Bradford-upon-Avon.

Versions available today have a spaceframe construction, increasing the rigidity of the frame while reducing overall weight.

Suspension has become more efficient, using a system of rubber in torsion for the front and 'borrowing' the hydrolastic system from MG for the rear wheel.

You could ride a Moulton while wearing a skirt and put a week's shopping in a basket, or you could put on racing tyres and drop handlebars and set the bicycle world speed record (51.26mph). This was truly an 'allpurpose bike', fashioned from steel. The very latest bicycles from Moulton are stainlesssteel racing machines. They use aeronautical (304) stainless-steel tube which is silverbrazed into the larger diameter frame, which is also stainless steel. Moultons can be made with a central separation joint for storage and transport, which may be omitted to save weight.

Currently, this machine will set you back about £5,000. But, in the strangely contradictory world that is British hi-tech manufacture, there are many hundreds of man-hours in this product.Weighed against the cost of sitting in a traffic jam for hours at an end in most of our towns and cities, perhaps that is value for money.

Hybrid cars

In London, assuming your reactions (and life insurance) are up to scratch, cycling makes sense, but for some longer trips an alternative will have to be sought. The car is the ubiquitous choice for many, despite the queues, the price of fuel and other drivers.

But cars need not be unsustainable.

New and more efficient power plants are slowly becoming available, and LPG is increasingly seen as an alternative fuel for public-service vehicles. Experiments with solar power continue as photovoltaic units become more efficient. Hybrid cars are marketed as part of the mainstream. Toyota's Prius uses a battery/petrol engine which flips to the most efficient power supply according to the type of driving being undertaken. Ford continues to tantalise us with visions of the fuel-cell car, and ultimately the hydrogen economy.

A quick way to make a vehicle more fuelefficient is to make it lighter. Aluminium and magnesium are common in cars but, until quite recently, could not be used structurally. New forming techniques have enabled this to change. Hydroforming, where water pressure is used to equalise the bending forces on a metal blank while it is being shaped, enables complex shapes to be made without stressing the material.

Water, to draw an analogy, replaces the spring a plumber might insert in a copper pipe to stop it collapsing while being bent.

Huge savings in the number of components and weight can be achieved. For instance, a radiator assembly, if formed from stamped pieces, has 17 components and weighs 16.5 kg. A similar hydroformed assembly uses 10 components and weighs 11.5 kg - an overall saving of 30 per cent.

It is possible to see uses for this technology in construction. Glazing bars, window and door assemblies and stair components are all candidates. Hydroforming plant can produce, from pre-prepared blanks, threedimensional components, with infinite variations of penetrations, fixing points and strength characteristics. It is possible to hydroform both steel and aluminium.

Piece of jewellery

Famously Audi has marketed its cars using the 'made from aluminium' tag as a unique selling point, but if we pursue the idea of 'craft', a similar company to Moulton in the automotive sector would be Morgan. Morgan recently developed an all-aluminium coach-built car - the Aero 8.

The objectives here are speed and desirability, not sustainability, but the key cues are the same as for the Moulton bike; quality, care and longevity. The artefact is seen as a piece of jewellery which is as much worn by the user as ridden or driven.

The key aspect to Morgan's work has been close cooperation with suppliers to arrive at a materials specification which is then combined with traditional construction methods to produce the car. Although seemingly contradictory, the 'hi-tech material, low-tech construction' has its parallels in building.

Think of the way in which highly serviced components and systems are incorporated into hand-built structures and the handbuilt ethic (for products) ceases to seem quaint but becomes more personal and exacting. Somehow this 'maker's mark' product ownership has been lost in construction.

Distinctively, this car maintains the unique aspect of the Morgan in that it is a composite construction of aluminium and timber (ash), offsetting the properties of timber (flex and shock absorption) with the high strength low-weight performance of the aluminium sheet, and in doing so again emulates the way in which materials are used, although seldom with as much sophistication, in building - the folded plate structure of the semi-monocoque chassis seeing expression in the Yokohama port terminal or (more organically expressed) the Lord's Media Stand, two examples of the purer form where metal-timber composites have obvious uses in short to medium-span structures.

Common thread

Architecturally this association between extremely high value, longevity and utility is accepted. These are precisely the criteria applied when selecting bronze as a cladding material for instance. It is less well understood in commodity terms where high value can also mean fashionable (and therefore soon passé) or technologically advanced, which also implies inbuilt obsolescence.

The common thread between expensive cars, bikes and buildings is that they are meant to be cherished over a number of years and, possibly, a number of owners. The expense is reflected in the thought, time and skill invested in designing and making these products, often repetitive but always, somehow, unique.

Thanks to Shaun Moulton at Alex Moulton Bicycles and Natasha Waddington at MPH Communications

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