Obituary : Dr Alex Moulton 1920-2012

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Creative engineer, designer of world-renowned bicycles and innovative suspension systems used widely in BMC’s front-wheel drive cars, has died aged 92.
Dr. Alex Moulton, August 2012 at "The Hall", Bradford on Avon

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.

Alexander Boucke

Based in Aachen, Germany, Alexander has had BMC>ARG cars around him since birth - in fact his earliest childhood memories are from buying a new Landcrab with his family at the age of two. The new cars have aged to classic cars and a few more have joined the family fleet - most of them by now proper classics and many with Hydrolastic or Hydragas suspension. Alexander joined the AROnline team back in 2002 when helping out to get some facts right on the Austin 3 Litre.

42 Comments

  1. He will be sadly missed.
    It’s a shame we seem to have lost the ability to produce such innovative engineers as him.
    Condolescences to his family

  2. A humble genius and welcoming host – the motoring world loses another innovator. Dr Moulton you will be missed.

  3. He will be missed, but he had a good, long life and contributed a great deal to industry and the profile of Britain’s engineering innovation.

    However… “It’s a shame we seem to have lost the ability to produce such innovative engineers as him.”

    I suspect that is not as true as you think. Perhaps not as highly visible, perhaps the public don’t value such innovation in the same way – but from mechanical engineering to software, Britain still has many talented innovators – and it’s a little unfair to them to suggest that they couldn’t compete in a similarly youthful market.

    So I’d suggest, in honour of one great engineer, we recognise ALL engineers that make a difference, seen or unseen.

  4. I am sure there are plenty talented and innovative engineers around. But for us petrolheads, the loss of one of those who helped designing (and defining) the modern motorcar is a very visible one.

    Having been a guest to Dr. Moulton a few times I will not forget the lively debates we had about engineering and university, mathematicians and engineers. I will try to do my part in keeping his inheritance alive – at least regarding Hydragas and Hydrolastic.

  5. @ Richard Kilpatrick

    I agree with you re visibility of engineers, I didn’t mean to decry British engineering talent. It’s a shame the X Factor winner gets more media time than people who generate real pounds for our economy

  6. Very sad news. A life very well worth having lived though, and he and Dr Issigonis have given all of us plenty to talk about. Condolences.

  7. Dr Moulton was a real inspiration to British engineering. Several months ago I was enquiring about buying a bicycle and was surprised to learn that Moulton’s Cycles is one of only three manufacturers of bicycles that manufacture the all-important frame in this country. Other ‘British’ names such as Raleigh and Land Rover definitely do not.

    Dr Moulton really has left us with an amazing legacy in terms of his achievements in engineering and commitment to British manufacturing. I really hope this will inspire a new generation of British engineers with the same commitment to Britain as displayed by Dr Moulton. In the meantime, I certainly won’t forget his amazing contributions.

  8. Some years ago, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Moulton lecturing on suspension design at an I.Mech.E. meeting in Birmingham. Somebody asked him what he thought of the Mercedes A-class failing the “elk test”.
    He gave a perfectly timed pause and a rather comic cough.
    I seem to remember his reply being along the lines of, “you can’t alter the laws of physics”; though as we have subsequently seen, ESP systems rather take the sting out of instability.

  9. To be fair Ken, all ESP does is stop you driving a car beyond its limits, and rather conveniently for manufacturers that does mean you can choose just how limited your design actually is these days – the A-Class was a fine example of that, basically it was a potential deathtrap clad out with so many gizmos it became pretty safe – though they probably could have saved a few kg by simply making it more inherently stable rather than adding a load of kit. ESP is just another example of passive safety which bestowes a feeling of invincibility even in the poorest of drivers.

  10. Only came to know of the great Alex Moulton just in the past 3 yrs. He will be greatly missed in Bradford on Avon and all over the world where Moulton Bicycles wheel around. I am fortunate to have 2 of them. He was a true genius of the engineering arts.

  11. Very sad news indeed. I used to pass the Moulton residence in Bradford-on-Avon regularly. As a 1960’s child I have fond memories of my Dad’s Mini, replaced by a 1300 Countryman, and the Moulton Mini Bicycle.

    We shall not see his like again, but 92 years dedicated to something you are passionate about makes him a very fortunate man and one we should all celebrate.

  12. @20 Even more ironic is that the death of Sir Patrick made the “Today” programme this morning and Sir Alex was not even mentioned.

  13. #20 and #22 well observed. Sad to hear of the passing of both of these veterans. Will we see their like again? Somehow I doubt it.

  14. This is a real shame, one of the last of the truly innovative engineers as opposed to the “computer it up” brigades we seem to be lumbered with now. Still 92 isn’t bad going. Can’t say I’d put the “national treasure”(tm) in the same league and the less said about the racist misogynist that was Moore the better (although to be fair seeing your gf lose an argument with an SC250 could easily put you off Germans for life). Depressing when you think that we are knighting people like Ive for the technical tour de force that is a slab with a screen. I wonder what Dr Moultons opinion of present day engineering was, I hope it didn’t depress him too much…

  15. RIP Dr Alex

    Motoring File:
    http://www.motoringfile.com/2012/12/10/original-mini-suspension-designer-alex-moulton-dies-at-92/

    I had a ‘Mini’ Moulton bicycle when I was a kid in the 1960’s, they are now quite sought after on ebay for restoration and the Japanese love buying the old Moulton bikes too so the prices are rising for original 1960’s examples.

    “Minis are first-class Moultons, made to a good standard and they deserve to be cherished. They are smaller but fully formed. If you dismantle a Mini you will find that the bike is a perfect reproduction of the full-size F frame Moulton. All parts are identical in the front suspension but in 7/8ths scale. The rear forks do not have the curved rubber “sandwich”, but a simpler “clapperbox” suspension which was also used on the top-of-the-range Moulton Speed ‘S’ models. And of course Minis have the distinctive 14 inch wheels rather than the 16 inch on the full sized model.”
    http://www.moultonbuzz.com/models/mini/

    History of the Moulton Bicycle:
    http://www.moultonbicycles.co.uk/heritage.html

  16. Interesting that the death of Sir Patrick Moore acheived widespread coverage on the news programmes, but Dr Moulton didn’t get a mention.

    He would it seems to me, have been as great an achiever in engineering, as Moore was in his, but he wasn’t in the public eye I suppose.

  17. I have owned Moulton bicycles for over 40 years including the latest hand-built Bradford on Avon products, and also drove an early Metro with the non-interconnected Hydragas units for around 80, 000 miles.

    Whatever is said against the Metro you could not criticise the tenacious grip of the Moulton double-wishbone front setup and the trailing arm rear, it is surely a backward step that the cheap and cheerful Macpherson strut has become universal in all affordable cars.

    Dr Moulton had an impressive fleet of cars at his home, many with advanced suspension systems.

    In his later years he became an advocate for the Prius with its near 60mpg fuel returns

  18. I first discovered Dr. Moulton’s wonderful bicycle in a Collins Dictionary and Encyclopedia my mother gave me for my ninth birthday. A few years later, while waiting for the 210 bus on Highgate Hill, I saw a bloke riding a Moulton and was most impressed by the movement of the suspension as he rode over some bumps in the road. It was a while after that when I finally bought my first Mouton (a battered old Kirby-made ‘Standard’).
    Over a quarter of a century later, I still ride a Moulton (a 1964 ‘Deluxe’ named ‘Red Nev’) which never fails to start conversations with total strangers when I’m out and about (my other Moulton’s a 1970 MkIII named ‘Young Shorty’, which needs a little maintenance to be back on the road).
    I’m eternally grateful to Alex Moulton for the many years (and miles) of pleasurable cycling on his remarkable bikes and that, for me and other Moultoneers around the globe, is his lasting legacy (not forgetting of course, the work he did on the original PROPER Mini – not them fake imitator Beemer ones!). He’ll be most sorely missed.

  19. RIP

    Sadly there doesn’t seem to be a lot of innovation in suspension these days, everyone going for the germanic “scaffolding pole” approach.

    Innovators like Dr Moulton should be celebrated.

  20. He was backing the wrong horse with the Prius, a car with not so much of a carbon footprint, more a carbon crater. It was a shame that his suspension was fitted to such terrible cars. Just think if it had been Ford that he’d worked for instead of BL. The Fiesta with hydragas????

  21. I was very lucky to have had the pleasure to listen to a very interesting Engineering presentation by Dr Alex in Bristol during the late 90s. He was very keen to encourage and support young Engineers. Very sad to see that he has gone. However on a more positive note: it must be noted that he has had an extremely long, interesting and productive life and has probably acheived more in 10 of his 92 years than most of us acheive in a liftime. RIP Dr Moulton

  22. Dr Alex Moulton – Bugatti Design Lecture
    (Coventry University)

    Video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9GEDnDVpag

    Quote:-
    “Apologies about the sound, but we simply had to show you this lecture given by Dr Alex Moulton.
    Dr. Moulton’s professional life has been devoted to the research and development of innovative designs.
    He developed The Moulton Bicycle, introduced in 1962, and pioneered small-wheeled, full-suspension thinking which was acknowledged as the most radical change in bicycle design for over 60 years. Over 150,000 were made and they still hold world and national speed records, testimony to their fundamentally advanced design.
    He is also responsible for car suspensions from the rubber cone spring on the BMC Mini, to the Hydrolastic Austin 1100 and its successor, the Allegro (in collaboration with Sir Alec Issigonis) and the Hydragas on the Austin Metro, Rover 100 and MGF.
    Between them, these systems have been fitted to some 8 million cars.
    This lecture covers how his innovations in engineering have gained him a Queens Award, the CBE, 3 honorary doctorates, and have made him an icon for budding engineers.”

  23. Dr Moulton was one engineering pioneer that I wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting. Like others, I am dismayed that his death was not reported more widely, as Patrick Moore’s was. Although I guess Moore was more of household name.

    RIP.

  24. Yes, RIP Dr Moulton and Sir Patrick Moore – both inspirational gentleman from a generation many younger folk have much to learn from.

    I imagine both had better manners than to publish rude and malicious comments about a deceased person against an obituary celebrating another.

    I’ve had the misfortune to pilot several current offerings from Citroen, VW and others over the past few weeks and every rickety journey in these budget nasties has reminded me what a wonderful machine the Rover Metro was – a joy to drive swiftly over a typically rotten British A or B road.

  25. A slight error in the introduction, Dr Moulton was not an apprentice at Bristol, he was in fact a high level assistant reporting to Sir Roy Fedden, Moulton was at work on the Bristol Centaurus 2000HP sleeve valve radial aircraft engines.

    He served an apprenticeship ” a pupillage” with Sentinel in Shrewsbury, makers of the famous advanced shaft drive steam lorries of the 1930’s, another of Moultons great passions, there he met the American steam expert Abner Doble, Doble was working on advancing the Sentinel S idea, his two prototytpes were running from Shrewsbury to Scotland and back, on half the fuel and water of the S4

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