Blog : Moulton memories

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Benjamin Adams

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Well, it’s been a sad few days here in Blighty for the ‘geeks’ – first losing Sir Patrick Moore and then Alex Moulton CBE. I daresay the mean IQ for the UK has dropped a few points now from which it may never recover. As a Metro fan and the son of a bicycle enthusiast, I have known about Alex Moulton for a long time. But it wasn’t until I tried to explain to my work colleagues who he was that it dawned upon me how much of a recluse the man was when it came to self promotion, the polar opposite to the ‘celebrity’ of today one might say.

I still remember with great pride hearing the news from Steven Ward (pictured below with Alex Moulton) that we were going to be granted an audience with Dr. Moulton at his home in February 2009. The Macdroitwich forum had been planning a visit just to the Atwell-Wilson Museum in nearby Calne originally but several ‘phone calls from Steven and later a flurry of emails between himself and Dr. Moulton confirmed he would be delighted to meet us – not only that but he would give us a tour and discussion in his Museum, a viewing of his private fleet of cars with suspension modified to his standards (including a Bentley Mulsanne) and we would be given a Q&A session in the Great Hall with tea and cake. (Earl Grey naturally!).

It really was The Class of Gas –  Dr. Moulton spoke for over two hours, answering question after question and sometimes even answering it with a question! The table (20ft by 6ft approx) was covered in books and publications about his works. He even handed around a draft copy of his memoirs – I’m not sure what the publishers would have made of that!

Some may have thought that, at 88, he should be well into his retirement and, while he had earned a rest, it just didn’t seem to be in his DNA to stop. He told us of visits he’d had from Toyota (a Prius was parked outside the front door) and of the consultation work he had been undertaking with Audi on a way of combining his suspension system with its quattro four-wheel drive system. He was also very intrigued in the engineering of the ‘airbag’ system in Steven’s late Discovery II.

One of the things I found immensely charming was the way Dr. Moulton relayed facts and information so that not only could a lay person understand but it was actually interesting to listen to. He spoke with passion about how he had driven a Citroen 2CV during the 1950s and was immediately impressed with the suspension system and wanted to develop something similar, if not better, back here in the UK.

But he did not rest on his laurels, he constantly wanted to make things better, hence why there is a Moulton bicycle company now. The sheer number of projects and proposals he has worked on is simply staggering: coaches, boats, bicycles and motor cars, the man was passionate and keen about them all. He even owned a Ferrari Daytona at one point!

As someone who worked with BMC and latter companies he was naturally privy to a lot of what was going on, what cars were being made, yet would not be disparaging, about anyone or anything. He held a dislike for the Morris Marina but, unlike others, he based that on purely engineering reasons. It is well known that, as time went on Sir Alec Issigonis and he drifted apart, and, while he regretted that, he still deeply respected Alec.

Such was Dr Moulton’s wont to make a car the best it possibly can be, he bought his own Austin Metro and interconnected the front and rear suspension himself after failing to convince Spen King at BL to do it when designing the car – again, he bore no malice towards King for this as he understood the cost constraints they were all under at the time.

However, technology won over economy a few years later when Michael Edwardes drove the Moulton Metro and informed new AR Chief Graham Day about it. Moulton himself had the last laugh when, some years later, Spen King visited him and was driven home by a member of Moulton’s staff in none other than the modified Austin Metro!

Sadly and all too soon, the visit was over and it was time for us to leave. I made a promise to myself to buy his book, which I did, directly from the Moulton Book Company itself. My only regret is that I never had the opportunity to go back and have it signed by the great man himself.

Rest in Peace, Dr. Moulton.

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(Picture: Andrew Elphick)
Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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17 Comments

  1. Forgot to add I believe it was the Toyota iQ suspension system he was consulted on but I can’t recall if they used any of his ideas

  2. Thanks for that info Barry about Toyota. The F came in for some particular criticism, sadly the owner was too much in awe of the critic to explain properly at the time but actually it was running at the correct height but other parts had been changed for lower sitting items, I can’t remember exactly but Knuckle Joints spring to mind.

  3. Yes I was the awe-struck owner of that MGF and it was lowered by the expedient of fitting these jobs: http://www.mgfcentre.com/store/performance-and-handling/suspension/320/mgf-lowering-pins.html

    The Hydragas units themselves were untouched.

    Enjoyed that car immensely, and I also had the Dr’s Smootharide rubber cones fitted to my Mini, a car I had sold only a few weeks prior to the visit. Wish I had sold the F and gone in the Mini. You live and learn.

    Knowing of the Dr’s Hydragas Mini I had half a mind to somehow concoct one of my own. (This was a year or two before the visit to Bradford-on-Avon) You can imagine my surprise, then, when Dr Moulton phoned me at home to discuss the pitfalls of such a conversion. He persuaded me that it wasn’t really worth the bother; better to simply acquire a Hydrolastic Mini and refine the system by the old method used by BMC Comps, by which I mean the fitment of auxiliary front dampers. A remarkably kind gesture on the Dr’s part to spare the time to contact some half-wit with a half-baked idea.

    However, I do wish I had turned up to The Hall in something other than my old F.

  4. I too with a friend David Whitehouse saught an audience with Dr Alec Moulton in 1997 and his kindness prevailed as we were invited to lunch beautifully presented in The Hall at Bradford on Avon.
    The conversation was a practical fusion of art and science as for him it seemed the work of suspension dynamics drew on both diciplines. He showed us work he was doing on the new MINI and when he heard that David had brought a friend’s Austin Allegro he became most enthusiastic to drive it on his test track illustrating to us the finer points of the Hydrogas suspension. This was a revelation to appreciative students of BMC’s transverse engine vehicles and their story.
    Happy to hear I had owned a Moulton bicycle in 1963, we went on our way quite amazed at his deep knowledge and illustrative ability which included us and our observations in his thoughts, interesting to see that he really brought out the good points of the Allegro looking at the vehicle and its ride with new eyes!
    My friend and I were deeply grateful for this experience and the memory of this visit is treasured to this day.
    Vivian Griffiths

  5. “it dawned upon me how much of a recluse the man was when it came to self promotion” – you mean unlike Mr ‘I’ll never manufacture outside the UK’ Dyson? Thing is, much like Spen King, Dr Moulton’s passion was for innovation and engineering, not the plaudits. It’s lovely to read about him ‘phoning fans, to advise them on engineering, and I’m still in awe of the Moulton bicycle range – even more so now I know they use my beloved Campagnolo components! Has anyone on here ever ridden one?

  6. Steven Wright (aka Blueduck) was allowed to ride Dr Moulton’s on the day.

    Thanks J H Gillson for admitting to it, I could remember your nom de gare but not your real name!!

  7. Alex Moulton was a remarkable man. Way back in 1962, as a sprog who was heaviliy into pushbikes, I was intrigued to read in ‘Cycling’ and ‘Coureur Sporting Cyclist’ magazines all about the Moulton small-wheeled bike. The idea of having suspension on a pushbike was then quite radical. I wrote letters to Dr Moulton asking lots of questions about the design, and he answered them all in detail. As a result of my enthusiasm, my mother bought one of the first Moultons to be sold in the West Midlands. We had one or two teething problems with it, so when I wrote to Dr Moulton about these, he invited us to bring the machine down to Bradford on Avon. We managed to squeeze it into the back of Dad’s A35, and duly presented ourselves at The Hall. Dr Moulton looked at the bike, and asked us if we would leave it with him for attention, and he would return it by carrier. We had a tour of his Museum and his small factory/development shop. This was in November 1963, and it was pretty chilly, when we walked down from The Hall towards the factory, we came across one of his workers washing Dr Moulton’s Bentley S3. The Doctor put his had into the water bucket, and threw a bit of a wobbly because he considered the water too warm, and told the chap in no uncertain terms that thermal shock could damage the paint!

    Later on, I asked Dr Moulton if I could purchase one of his ‘Speed’ bicycle frames in order to build up my own competition machine. (No cyclist worth his salt in those days bought a complete ‘ready-to ride’ bike – you always started with a frame and built it up with carefully selected components to suit your own preferences and whims). He was quite adamant that this wasn’t a good idea, no deal. So I eventually did a deal with a local cycle shop to buy a complete ‘Speed’ bike and sell the unwanted parts back to the dealer. It wasn’t quite as economic as buying a frame would normally be, but it did at least provide a few extra quid towards my fancy components, which included a very special order TA chainwheel with 68 teeth. (You needed a big chainwheel to compensate for the small road wheels!). In all honesty, the project wasn’t a great success – even with lightweight componentry, the bike still weighed quite a lot more than a conventional Lightweight racer, and the rear suspension tended to absorb quite a lot of energy when you really stamped on the pedals. But an interesting exercise, nonetheless. Of course, the later, and much more expensive ‘spaceframe’ Moulton bikes are much lighter and have a superior rear suspension layout with better torsional location. I still have two early Moulton bikes stowed in the garage roof to remind me of those days.
    I didn’t meet Dr Moulton again until the celebrations for Mini 35 in 1994, but it was good to see him again and remind him of my schoolboy presumptiousness!

  8. There’s a tribute to him on Radio 4’s “Last Word” which I think is repeated on Sunday night and is also on the BBC website. (Try and avoid the ridiculous rap poem about Patrick Moore in the same programme)

  9. Other factors to the Moulton F Frame
    1) launched in 1962 at Earls Court, turned down by Raleigh (big mistake),yet inundated with orders he began manufacture under his own resources.
    2) BMC Chairman stepped in volunteering their services and a manufacturing plant at Kirby Merseyside set up, Kirby Moultons have a K in the prefix.

    3)At Kirby build quality suffered, sloppy welding techniques led to weakness deformation and cracking of the rear suspension forks.

    4)back to motor industry roots, bike making lead to car making, 150,000 F frames were made, 1000 a week. so for a period BMC were largest bike maker in UK.

    5)Raleigh hit back with the inferior RSW16 mimicking the Moulton, financial fallout leading to Moulton selling rights to Raleigh.

    6)Raleigh continued with the F Frame until mid 70s

    7)Mini team of Alec Issigonis and Jack Daniels took a interest in the F Frame during development.

    8)The ground breaking Mini, reduced wheel size freeing up restraints in the vehicle, inspired Moulton to challenge the conventional bicycle wheel size

  10. Yes, the (Fort) Dunlop bicycle tyres were top quality and they developed the low rolling resistance tyre for the Moulton F frame. I think it was a price dispute with Raleigh, there main customer, which lead Dunlop to withdraw from the scene.

    Dunlop were very keen to work with Dr Moulton and colleagues, all those hydragas/hydrolastic units etc good for the bottom line

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