Blog : The class of ‘gas
It’s not every day you get to met one of your all-time heroes but, occasionally, life allows it to happen. Whether by cunning or co-incidence, these meetings are always something to be treasured. When that meeting happens through a prior arrangement with said ‘hero’ and you’re in the company of like minded friends, the meeting is always going to be extra special. The word ‘special,’ though, simply cannot convey the day I visited Dr. Alex Moulton OBE at his stately home in early spring this year.
We were blessed by the weather on the day, arguably the nicest day of the year to date, in which to understand the man and his inventions.
I believe Moulton’s splendid 17th Century Hall, its sandstone out-buildings and its mature grounds is at the very core of the man and all of his various and successful inventions: elegant, robust and a worthy cut above the rest. As we stood leaning on newly erected railings atop of a recently unearthed River Avon tributary, Moulton surveyed his vast and wonderful estate. Below were the workshops in which Hydrolastic suspension was created and where the manufacture of his world class bike continues. Behind was a greenhouse over a century old and now converted into museum dedicated to these inventions. Up to the hill was the splendid Hall behind which were the perfectly manicured gardens leading onto his rolling hills with the mature woodland spread out as far as you could see.
Fifteen of us drove to the good Doctor’s home for a viewing of his private museum, an inspection of his personal cars and an informal Q&A session is his exquisitely and uniquely decorated dining room over cups of Earl Grey and biscuits. Dr Moulton, now in his late 80s, was cycling around his grounds when we arrived earlier than arranged. Some 9 cars in our convoy were swiftly redirected from cluttering the entrance to The Hall to the more spacious yard where our visit would start next to his own cars. I was driven down to the yard by Moulton in his late-model Rover Mini Cooper fitted with – what I feel is an essential mod – a Moulton ‘Smootha Ride’ kit.
Moulton wasted no time in giving an insight into each vehicle and its unique properties and the inspiration behind them. Mixed in with the formal was the informal, stories of Issigonis which are now folklore, retold by the man who was there, priceless in itself. In learning the history of interconnected fluid suspension, we also learned of some of the key players and the associated politics which dominated the companies which produced and sold the cars. Domineering figures, talented back room engineers, tales of delight and, of course, wasted opportunities.
Moulton, sharp green eyes glistening, seemed to enthuse in recounting his time as an engineer, a motoring enthusiast and a pioneer in rubber springing. Dare I add Monaco playboy to that list? Whatever, every word uttered from Moulton’s mouth was carefully considered and yet enthralling at the same time. The man is factual, concise and amusing all at once – you literally hang onto his every word. Sadly, I missed opportune questions for fear of distracting Moulton from some revelation, trailing on answers to previous questions. An awkward silence wouldn’t get a look in!
I bought a 2CV van to carry my canoes and it was marvellous, I wanted to emulate it.” Dr. Alex Moulton OBE
For those who believe Moulton Developments died with the MGF, you’d be wrong. Moulton has worked with many manufacturers over the years as well as BL. Volvo concept cars, VW, Honda, Porsche and, latterly, Toyota have all engaged the suspension guru for advice and possibilities. Even the Mini’s rubber cone is now manufactured in house and still receiving developments – just last year, a patent was applied for a more refined cone. Yet Moulton doesn’t act like a Lord of The Manor but he certainly carries an authoritative persona.
You get the impression he could have made millions upon millions of pounds, yet hasn’t, not through laziness or failure, rather that he enjoyed what he did and was comfortable in doing so. Not driven on by the need for success and wealth, for his family had already achieved that, he himself just appears inspired and industrious. You see, having this wonderful estate must have been a double edged sword, too good to let go, too expensive to maintain without an income. Moulton has managed the upkeep and modernization better than anything the National Trust or a ghastly hotel could have ever achieved. Like seemingly everything about the man, he adds this touch of refined, effortless, elegance which graces all before it. It will be left to his trust in a wonderful condition and will also reflect the family and the industry which allowed it to remain in such tip-top condition.
His personal cars are nothing spectacular in themselves but are special by stealth. A base model Rover 100, a heavily modified MK2 Mini, a Moke (also a suspension test bed), a XM V6, a Bentley Turbo (naturally, with bespoke, factory-approved suspension settings) and a Toyota Prius. The bikes too, are magic. Anti-dive suspension will never wow a crowd for physical or visual appeal, but get someone to cycle towards you at speed and then demand them to pull on the front brake as violently as possible and the magic appears like a genie from a bottle. Moulton gave a mischievous grin with that display of confidence and engineering talent!
Over the course of 4 hours, we questioned, listened and watched as a post war to present account came from a linchpin of British Motor Manufacturing and educated us all in the warm spring sunshine or in the oak panel splendour of The Hall. There is not enough space to list all we learned but, when asked, ‘where was the inspiration for the interconnect suspension from?’ Moulton replied, ‘I bought a 2CV van to carry my canoes and it was marvellous, I wanted to emulate it’. A picture surfaces with van and canoe as if to prove the answer. If that was the inspiration, then Moulton credits Issigonis as being the catalyst to pioneer…and we’ve all benefited in one way or another.
Incidentally, Moulton has an autobiography out this year. We’ve been lucky enough to see a draft copy – place your order sooner rather later. It is wholly excellent and, unusually, mixes personal emotions with technical details of secret, projects. Unusually intriguing you might say.
As a postscript to this tale, upon returning home, Moulton had emailed me to see if the day had been as informative and enjoyable as we had anticipated!