Blog : Deserting Doctor Moulton

Here, at AROnline, it’s no secret that we are fans of the late Dr Alex Moulton’s suspension systems, whether it be the Hydrolastic installation on the BMC ADO16 1100/1300 series or the later Hydragas system used on the R6 Rover Metro of the 1990s.

However, perhaps the least successful use of Dr Moulton’s suspension systems was on the original Mini. According to all the histories, Hydrolastic suspension was intended for the original ADO15, but because of the tight schedule stipulated by BMC Chairman Sir Leonard Lord, a system of rubber cones was substituted instead. It did give the Mini the cachet of having independent suspension at a time when such a thing was a novelty confined to upmarket cars, but it was far from satisfactory.

The rubber cones made by Dunlop gave a bumpy ride over uneven surfaces, but also endowed the Mini with excellent roadholding so beloved of the teenage boy racers who had their first motoring experiences in the BMC baby. Hydrolastic made its debut in the Morris 1100 of August 1962 and it impressed all and sundry. It eventually appeared as standard on the Mini in October 1964 with a £20 price increase. Did it work on the Mini?

Impressed with Hydrolastic? Nah…

My first car was a 1968 Morris Mini 1000 Mk2, and that had Hydrolastic, but I can’t say I was that impressed with it, but then that was three decades ago.

When British Leyland was formed, Ford imports like Finance Director John Barber were convinced the Mini had been a loss-maker for BMC, and so the Mk3 Mini was stripped of various fittings including Hydrolastic, while maintaining the relatively same retail price. By 1971 the Mini in all forms was back on rubber cones.

Over the years, various schemes were investigated such as softer rubber cones, but no radical changes were made to the Mini’s suspension system.

Fixing its ills…

After the Mini had ceased production, Dr Moulton got together with Minisport of Padiham to market his Smootha Ride kit, basically an adjustable suspension system with softer rubber cones. I had it fitted to my Mini Cooper and was impressed.

But there is an alternative, that of coil springs.

And this leads me to Boris the Morris.

My perfect Mini…

Boris started life in 1990, leaving Longbridge as a Mini Racing Flame Checkmate. In the next 19 years he had 18 owners!

I suspect that most of these 18 owners were trying to embrace the culture of 1990s Cool Britannia, when the Mini went from being an embarrassing relic of Britain’s failed motor industry to a national icon. Each owner of H549 SUM, no doubt when faced with a large bill to maintain the car on the road baulked at the prospect, and sold the car on. They wanted to look cool, but not if it costthem serious amounts of cash.

And so H549 SUM gradually decayed as it was passed from owner to owner. The same scenario is currently being played out with cheap convertible cars such as the Mazda MX-5 and MGF. They are bought cheap and then sold on when the maintenance bills become too much. Looking cool shouldn’t cost money!

The best modifications

Eventually I came across H549 SUM in Lowestoft in April 2009. By this stage it had been Cooper-rised, red with a white roof, white bonnet stripes and the interior from a 1989 Mini 30. It had been fitted very badly with a low-compression Metro 1275cc engine which had piston slap and rocked more than Status Quo!

It was a rust bucket, totally awful! I negotiated the right price and came away with a Mini that I soon christened the ‘Red Shed’, because it was a shed, the kind of neglected Mini that had bolstered the booming Mini scene in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Now that boom had gone bust and there were lots of rust ridden cars looking for new owners with deep pockets or the skills to save them from the scrapman.

The Red Shed was pressed into service as a temporary replacement for my Mini Cooper, which I had been stupid enough to crash and was having rebuilt. It dawned on me that, for all its many faults, I quite liked the Red Shed.

The Mini was reborn

So when the Mini Cooper was reborn, I then had the same restorer take on the Red Shed. The aim was to turn the Red Shed into a replica of my first Mini, the aforementioned Morris Mini 1000 Mk2. I managed to get hold of the long out of production badges, a Mk1/2 bootlid, big steering wheel, centre binnacle and the ultra rare Mk2 Morris grille. I decided to retain the 8.4 inch disc brakes, so needed 12 inch wheels. The wheels came from the late model Mini Seven.

Wheel arches were out of the question, the intention was to emulate the purity of the original Mini design.

The restorer, Robert Kitchen, now of Norfolk Classic and Sportscars at Fakenham, told me that the Red Shed lived up to its name, with layers of sills and botched repairs.

Finally, the Red Shed was returned to me in 2011 and I entrusted the maintenance to the capable hands of G&M Motors of Stalham. They sorted out the badly-fitted engine for me.

A new name…

With its transformed appearance I decided to re-christen the Red Shed as Boris the Morris.

In 2016 I decided to treat Boris to an engine rebuild at local firm TMW Engineering, because Trevor who runs it really knows his stuff. Once that was done Boris had a free-revving, torquey engine.

Then the Huddersfield Mini Spares coil spring kit was recommended to me and I decided to give it a go. In the summer of 2017 G&M Motors fitted the kit to Boris. There are three versions of the kit, soft, standard and hard, I opted for the standard.

Once fitted, I waited for the suspension to settle and then had it adjusted accordingly. So perhaps rather sacrilegiously I have deserted the Alex Moulton-designed suspension which was such an intrinsic part of the Issigonis front-wheel-drive range.

And the score is?

The verdict: I am very impressed. The ride is much better, the car absorbs bumps gently instead of a violent thud that permeates the bodyshell. Boris drives like a dream. So, should BMC have fitted coil springs in the first place?

Did BMC deceive itself and the media that rubber cones were superior? Certainly the rubber cones might have been cheaper, and maybe that was the factor, but were they better? Well, in fact, Boris is now the ultimate town car. The big steering wheel, narrow wheels, quick gearchange, free revving engine and compact dimensions all combine to make city driving easy.

You can stick your Renault Twingo, Smart Car and all that modern rubbish, the best car for urban driving is the BMC Mini – always has been and always will be and I’m not budging on that!

Ian Nicholls
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  1. I’ve heard the rubber cones age so that when new they were adequate but became hard with time and the ride that was once good soon was a reflection of the rubber condition. Certainly rubber could not have been that bad when new. I drove a friend’s mini with rubber suspension and nearly lost control when the car hit a bump. I prefer the hydrolastic suspension but will face a major issue such as there are no new replacement displacers. One has to deal with second hand displacers which are condition unknown.

    • I have just replaced all 4 cones on my 1965 mark 1 1275 S ( probably originally hydrolastic but converted to dry suspension ? ) , because the ride had reached such a pitch ( pun intended) that it was wrecking my back. The old cones were quite literally like iron, and rang if hit with a hammer. 4 new standard cones, and the ride is a revelation. I suppose the cones were at least 40 years old , and quite possibly nearer 50

      • Is someone still producing – currently – new, replacement rubber cones for the original Mini?

        QUESTION: If your sourced and fitted new (unused) rubber cones, that had been produced some years ago (“new – old stock”), would not the composition of the rubber have still deteriorated in the same way, whether they were on a shelf in a store-room, or fitted to a vehicle?

        • Newly manufactured cones are available in different grades from the specialists such as Mini Spares . As far as shelf life is concerned, the major degrader of rubber is ultraviolet, so if kept away from light, it will probably stay unchanged for years . The other factor which affects matter is compression, the effect of which was clearly visible on mine , with the new cones being about 15% deeper than the removed cones, which as I said were hard as cast iron, unlike the new ones which were relatively flexible

  2. Coil Springs were looked for the Mini via an informal Clubman bodied prototype along with other updates that all came to naught. Cannot really say whether Coil Springs would have been better for the Mini, it might possibly have been better suited for any hypothetical non-Western built Minis over the Rubber Cones.

    Yet have always liked the idea of an updated Mini from the 70s onwards featuring Hydragas suspension along the lines of the R6 Metro / 100 as well as Mini-I/II prototype, especially considering how well the R6 Metro / 100 performed with Hydragas suspension.

    Would the Mini have had the same success with Coil Springs both on the road and in motorsport compared to Rubber Cones / Hydrolastic or could it be argued in spite of the Mini’s success that the latter two suspension suspensions were actually a limiting factor that should have really been ditched at the first opportunity?

    Pity there is not a way to make a proper comparison test between original Minis with different suspension systems.

    • The great LJK Setright once stated in a CAR article that the rubber suspension was actually developed for the Hillclimb Special that Dr.Moulton and Mr. Issigonis had campaigned together.
      Having rubber as a springing medium for the Mini was logical because such a tiny car with such tiny wheels could offer only very little suspension travel and therefore needed a medium with highly progressive spring characteristics. the high internal damping of rubber was a welcome benefit, too.

      • Agree though would the Rubber suspension have worked had a locally built version of the Mini been produced non-Western countries such as India like the Beetle in much of South America and Brazil in particular?

        On the one hand India for example is one of the top Rubber producing countries in the world, yet given the Rubber suspension was known to give a bouncy ride on Minis sold in Western markets would it have coped with the poor roads outside of the West compared to Coil Spring suspension?

        By the early/mid-70s though was when both Rubber and Hydrolastic suspension system of the original Mark I/II Minis should have been discontinued in favor of Hydragas on an updated Mini from the Mark III/IV onwards.

        • The question is whether a car with such tiny wheels and so little suspension travel was suitable at all for developing countries and their roads at that time. It’s difficult to imagine a Mini even on Greek roads of today, if you take the right island. At least, I wouldn’t want to drive around on Greek mountain roads in a rubber suspended Mini. (By the way, how did Minis do or were they ever used in rough road rallies like Akropolis or Portugal? Didn’t they use the Pig Healey in these events?)
          Part of the Beetle’s appeal was its ability to cover ground on unmade roads and even on reasonably rough ground (even without being a Kubelwagen).
          On the other hand, the main reason for Citroen’s development of the Hydropneumatic suspension was the condition of French roads at that time. But then, even a Hydragas suepended car can not hold a candle to the French cars when it comes to comfort.

          • Was envisioning a more spartan (possibly GRP bodied) 4-door version of the Mini derived from the Mark II with 12-inch wheels, akin to the minimalist 1958 Minivan-grilled prototype (crossed with the 4-door prototype) might have worked in developing countries such as India from the late-60s / early-70s if not earlier for markets such as Brazil and Mexico.

            Though otherwise unsure what suspension system would be more suited for a 12-inch Mini in developing countries (essentially same 12-inch wheels as the Maruti 800), am aware a 10-inch Mini would not really be suited for developing markets.

          • If I understood correctly the Mini was designed to replace Bubble cars ans provide simple and cheap motoring to the masses with a strong eye on use in defeloping countries.

            A particular favourite of countries in North Africa were French vehicles from the Fifties to the Seventies.
            These invariably had narrow, large diameter wheels and soft, long travel suspension. If you see the Tin Snail 2CV or the Renault 4 as the French Mini you get the difference.

          • Understand the Mini was conceived to replace Bubble Cars, just that an updated simplified version of the original could have been pensioned off and sold in developing markets by the late-60s / early-70s as was the case with the Morris Oxford Series III-based Hindustan Ambassador. On top of that Issigonis himself preferred a more minimalist version of the Mini compared to what entered production.

            Unfortunately BMC did not consider building factories in places such as Brazil, Mexico and India. The former two is based on the success of Volkswagen’s rear-engined models, the later as a potential market with all 3 noted for producing long-running models that only started to gradually cease production within the last 3 to 15 years or so.

  3. Absolute sacrilege.

    The essential quality that Mouton’s suspension systems offered the Mini was a variable rate spring. Stick 4 large humans and their chattels into a Mini and the poor things weight can increase by a huge proportion. Coils springs and oil dampers cannot sufficiently compensate for this wide range of load that a Mini has to cater for.

    Having read this blog, I need a can of Moulton Juice to calm my temper.

  4. For no apparent reason, people usually expect the Moulton designed suspension units to provide service in the eternity. Well yes, they are (mostly) sealed for life, but their life isn’t as long as we think it is. In reality, they are consumables. Rubber, as used in rubber cones and hydrolastic displacers does age, it becomes hard and it deformes permanently. Hydragas units loose their nitrogen, rubber flap valves in the hydrolastic displacers become detached. These units may well be able to bear the weight of the cars after 50 or more years, but this should fool us into thinking that they are immune from wear and tear. There is no excuse for dry suspended Mini owners to avoid changing the rubber cones every few years, since new parts are readily available and in a variety of flavours. I would really like to have a set of new hydrolastic displacers in my Austin, but instead i have had to build up a stock of used units, and be inventive with having the system at lower operating pressures in order to avoid frequent failures.
    On the other hand Citroen spheres were always treated as consumables, and in this way their systems avoided having the bad publicity that the Moulton systems have acquired over the years.

  5. Sorry, i miss some words when i type fast. The sentence above should obviously be:

    “These units may well be able to bear the weight of the cars after 50 or more years, but this should NOT fool us into thinking that they are immune from wear and tear.”

  6. If a suspension system needs replacing every few years, then it can be far from ideal. The rubber cones might be good when new, but replacing them every few years is not.
    No wonder other manufacturers did not adopt a similar rubber based system.
    Driving is believing.

  7. So far, i am not aware of a suspension system that does not need replacement every few years. Springs (coil or torsion or leaf ones) sag with age and use, dampers wear out and lose their effectiveness, air springs also need replacement, Citroen spheres too…
    We cannot really avoid this with the known technology.

    • To be fair to Citroen, replacing their spheres was a piece of p**s. I suspect many MGF owners with rock hard rides wish that Hydragas had a similar design, with easy to replace parts.

      • Replacing the Hydropneumatic spheres in most Citroens is a doddle and not overly expensive, at least not when parts are bought in France. Early spheres with the thick ring around their perimeter as used in early DSs and all SMs could be split and the membrane could be replaced separately.
        Citroens only got expensive when hydraulic cylinders had to be replaced as these were precision made to extremely tight tolerances. On old Citroens with double wishbone front suspension these cylinders lasted forever. Only on later vehicles like BX, XM and Xantia when used as a part of their McPherson struts and thereby exposed to all kinds of forces from the wheels did the cylinders wear out quickly, but in these cars the Hydropneumatic didn’t work too well anyway.
        If you think that a Xantia rides well you should try a properly set up SM or a GS. Any well maintained SM is like the proverbial magic carpet.

  8. Back in 1977 MOTOR magazine reviewed the Fiat 127 and compared it to its rivals.
    Of the Renault 5 it said,
    “Comfortable ride, probably best in its class.”
    Of the VW Pool it said,
    “Taut and responsive handling, yet resilient and comfortable ride.”
    And the magazine said of the rubber cone shod Mini Clubman,
    “It is noisy, unrefined and rides poorly, making it tiring on long journeys.”

    • “noisy unrefined and rides poorly” no mention of the tenacious sports car grip of the Mini.
      Renault 5 ride “probably best in its class”
      One cannot help but admire the French engineers for their understanding and efforts to engineer ride quality in a motor car, cars such as 2CV, DS, BX, and Renaults such as 5 and 16 with the nose-down tail-up stance which is said to reflect engineering decisions on spring rates, wheel travel and cyclic frequency of damping to satisfy comfort and road holding.
      At an early stage of his carrer, Alex Moulton carefully studied and listened to both French and American cars and their designers, the 2CV and the US “Land Yachts”.

      Here is a link to the Equinox documentary celebrating the 2CV, pay homage to the gathering of elderly gentlemen, as they recount the story of the 2Cv and its suspension:

      • Regarding the Mini’s sports car feeling: a friend of mine used a race prepared Innocenti Cooper for slalom and hill climb races in the Seventies. He always told how fast this car felt until one saw the timings. The car gave the impression of way faster speed than was actually the case. He then switched to an incredibly loud “Spiess” NSU TTS which in this particular kind of competition had the advantage of far better traction due to its rear mounted engine. The end was an Audi 50 (the luxury sibling of the Polo Mk 1) in race trim which didn’t feel nearly as fast (or as noisy) as either of the two but gave much better race times.

  9. The idea of different suspension in a mini is like fitting anything other than an A series engine, just not “right”. The mini is what it is because of all its little quirks, including its suspension.
    I had my Mk1 (1963, rubber cone) out last night for its MOT test, a 30 mile round trip on a sunny Saturday evening, just perfect (and it passed!)

  10. The Huddersfield coil kit price is £179 including adaptors , or £245 for adjustable ride height, a set of rubber cones £120, Was cost an issue to Issigonis when he accepted rubber cones over steel coil springs in 1959?

    • I think Lord Sward has the point in his comment above: rubber cones stiffened as load was applied so were suitable for the massive variations in load a Mini was likely to see. Normal coils at that time would just have had the car dragging its belly on the floor with a full load.

      Nowadays though, Minis are unlikely to be used too heavily, most of them being fun cars for tazzing about the countryside on a Sunday, so you can set coils up to cope with a narrower range of weights.

      Cost was always an issue too, so the inexpensive nature of the rubber cones must have found favour with Sir Alec.

  11. Citroen had the same problem, I use to own a Xantia and the ride was sublime. Superior to any other car I have been in. It did have boat like handling, if you weren’t use to the system, but in reality the grip was incredible. It just handled differently and that is the problem for gas and fluid suspensions.

    People have this idea about how a car should ride and alas they want firm suspensions. Hence the uncomfortable poor riding modern car. Combine that with the fear of the extra complexity of fluid based systems and the manufacturing expense; they were always destined to fail.

    Which is a shame, because such systems are ideal for our joke pot holed filled, half arsed maintain, useless road network.

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