Doctor Alexander Eric Moulton CBE, passed away at his home in Bradford-on-Avon on Sunday, 9 December 2012. The engineer, who came to prominence in the car industry, thanks to his innovative rubber suspension system, introduced on the BMC Mini in 1959.
Although the use of rubber in car suspension wasn’t a new idea, the Mini’s was the first widespread application. The compact rubber suspension units were developed as a stop gap by Alex Moulton (he wanted to use his interconnected Hydrolastic set-up, but it wasn’t ready for launch), making great use of the variable rate properties of rubber as a springing medium.
But rubber was in Moulton’s blood – his family’s wealth was founded on the stuff having acquired the rights to manufacture from Charles Goodyear – and the home in which he lived all his life, was located within walking distance of the factory his grandfather Stephen founded in 1848.
Alex Moulton was deeply interested in engineering from an early age, and ended up studying at Marlborough College. It was here that his creativity found a release, building a steam car of his own design during his studies. From there, he went on to King’s College, Cambridge, where he read Mechanical Sciences – and during the world war two, Moulton worked as an apprentice at the Bristol Aeroplane Co. It was while working for Bristol that his creativity and engineering prowess was combined with the ability to manufacture within tight tolerances.
After the war, Moulton began work in the technical department of his family’s firm, and began to develop his ideas for using rubber as a vehicle suspension medium. This work led him to find contact with car designer Alec Issigonis – and in 1952, Moulton devised a suspension set-up for the stillborn Alvis TA175/350. And when Issigonis left Alvis in 1955 to join the British Motor Corporation, he retained the services of Moulton for future projects. The following year, the family business was sold, and Moulton set-up his own engineering company, which was based in the grounds of the family home.
That work was hastened with the development of the Mini, and then gained maturity in 1962, with the launch of the BMC 1100, which featured an all-new interconnected rubber-over-fluid system, called Hydrolastic. Moulton had been convinced of the benefits of interconnected suspension, ever since trying his first Citroen 2CV during the 1950s.
Hydrolastic would then find its way into the larger 1800 and Maxi, as well as the Mini. It was then developed further into the Hydragas system, which debuted in the Austin Allegro in 1973, and was used in many of the group’s products through to the MGF. When the final MGF rolled off the line in 2002, MG Rover’s engineering director Rob Oldaker wrote to Moulton thanking him for the huge part he played in the company’s history.
But Moulton was a keen cyclist, too – and in the late 1950s, he worked to develop a new and efficient small-wheeled bicycle. He believed that an F-framed cycle with high pressure tyres – and consequently lower rolling resistance – was the way to go, and in 1959 he approached Raleigh with his prototype, offering to build it under licence for the then world’s largest cycle manufacturer.
But the company turned him down, and so, he took the step of forming his own company, the Moulton Bicycle Company, in 1962. The Alex Moulton Bicycle was launched, and quickly proved a hit. So much so, that Raleigh acquired the rights to manufacture in 1967, and built it until 1974.
Moulton continued to build his cycles after long Raleigh ceased production, generally working with specialist manufacturers. He continued to constantly develop his products, too – and in 1998, he introduced a new suspension system for his bicycles that bore more than a passing relationship to what he’d done before in work with BMC, British Leyland and Rover. His work on the cars continued, too – his work with BMC won him a Queen’s Award for Industry in 1967, and in 1976, he was awarded the CBE.
Throughout the 1980s he refined Hydragas in his own workshop when it seemed that Rover had lost interest. Moulton even developed a new ‘Smooth-a-ride’ kit that improved the handling of classic Minis.
Moulton continued to act as a consultant to various vehicle manufacturers well into the 2000s, and enthusiastically – and selflessly – took out considerable time to meet and assist enthusiasts, who drove cars and rode bicycles that he was responsible for. In 2012, he celebrated the 50th birthday of both the Morris 1100 and the creation of the Moulton Bicycle Company in the grounds of his impressive Jacobean home.