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Inside Moulton: A bike maker like no other

James Spender
5 Mar 2017

Cyclist visits Moulton’s ancestral home to understand the method behind this esoteric British cycling marvel

It’s a wet day in Bradford on Avon, the town’s ubiquitous Bath stone stained a deeper shade of yellow.

The town is as quintessentially English as it gets, based around a forgotten heavy industry that made it hum to the sound of mills for nearly 200 years.

To the uninitiated that hum has subsided, but to the trained ear it’s still there. Only now it has swapped cotton and rubber for bicycles. Just not as you might know them.

Curiosity and the cat

‘That was for Toby,’ says Dan Farrell, gesturing up the driveway towards a peeling picket sign with the inscription ‘Please take care! Toby the Cat may be crossing’. 

‘I remember Alex once telling me that he and Toby had a bet going as to who would live the longest. “I think Toby will win,” he confided, and it turned out he was right.’

Dressed in a waistcoat, brogues and tweed sports jacket, there are few signs that Farrell is technical director for one of Britain’s foremost bike manufacturers, but there are some clues: on his car keys is a pocket spoke wrench; on his lapel is a curious badge.

Most cyclists would probably identify it as a folding bike, but closer inspection reveals an odd-looking machine with small wheels, road handlebars and an ornate, low-slung frame. On the wall is a similar representation chiselled in stone, only in this case with a determined looking rider astride it.

‘That up there is Tom Simpson,’ says Farrell. ‘The story goes that he rode one of our bikes and said afterwards that if he wasn’t contracted to Peugeot, he’d take up our bike next week.’

The bike was a Moulton ‘S’ Speed, designed by Alex Moulton and test ridden by Simpson at Herne Hill in 1963. Farrell’s badge is a nod to the evolution of that bicycle, developed in the early 1980s, and the ground we’re on is the seven-acre estate that’s been in the Moulton family since 1848, but which Alex left to a charitable trust upon his death in December 2012, aged 92.

All Moultons are still made here, and it seems the spirit of their creator is still very much present.

Necessity the mother of invention

The best way to understand a Moulton is to see one. The frames are step-through, the wheels are small, there are suspension systems front and rear, and while many of the frames are separable – coming apart in the middle – they are not ‘folding’ in the commuting sense.

‘We always say if you want a folding bike, buy a Brompton. They’re really rather good. But if you want to ride a bike, buy a Moulton,’ says Farrell.

‘It started during the Suez Crisis in 1956, when fuel was rationed. Alex needed a mode of transport that wasn’t a car so he bought a “Curly” Hetchins bike. He was fascinated by it. He’d never ridden anything that light.

‘Yet he couldn’t carry anything, couldn’t lend it to anyone who wasn’t his size, and didn’t like the top tube – he thought it was unwieldy. He also thought it ludicrous to make a wheeled vehicle without suspension.

‘So he set himself an engineering challenge: “to take the evolution of that most remarkable device a stage beyond its classical form”.’

Moulton created his first prototype in 1959, and in 1962 he debuted his first production bike at the Earl’s Court Cycle Show. That bike came in one size, had luggage racks and suspension fore and aft yet rode like a big-wheeled bike.

Demand was huge and production soared to the point where Moulton was soon the second-biggest bike producer in Britain after Raleigh. Still, he might not have gotten there if he wasn’t from such means, or blessed with such genes.

Men of industry

While the bike company started life in 1962, the stage was set years, if not generations, before. Alex’s great-grandfather, Stephen Moulton, brought US chemist Charles Goodyear’s rubber vulcanisation process to Britain in the 1840s.

He shared those first vulcanised rubber samples with a chap called Thomas Hancock, who reverse-engineered the process and got in first to file a UK patent by a matter of weeks.

Undeterred, Stephen set up his own rubber factory on Moulton Bicycles’ current Bradford on Avon site in 1848.

‘I’m told it’s a very West Country mill owner approach to have your house overlooking your mill,’ says Farrell as he leads the way into the great Jacobean manor house that presides over the Moulton estate.

‘Perhaps less so is having a nine-foot tunnel chiselled out of the wall so that your cat can arrive right next the Aga, but there you go. Toby did well.’

Amid the dusky oil portraits of the Moulton family that adorn the walls is a framed letter from Isambard Kingdom Brunel asking Stephen for rubber mounts for his Great Eastern steamship.

‘There is none other than Moulton that can provide this,’ says Farrell, reading aloud. ‘Later that year Stephen was elected to the Institution of Civil Engineers and Brunel was his proposer.’

The Moulton family was now entrenched in, and very much enriched by, British heavy industry, and this paved the way – via a circuitous route – for Alex’s segue into bicycles. 

Mini things, grand ideas

As a young man Alex studied engineering at Cambridge, but when war broke out he put his efforts into working for the Bristol Aeroplane Company, which made engines for RAF planes.

‘Alex’s boss was Sir Roy Fedden, a strong man, much like the character of the great Victorian engineer. Alex learned a lot from him: how to stick by your engineering convictions and how to monetise them.

Fedden designed the radial engine and struck a deal in 1919 – when Britain didn’t make a lot of aircraft – that he would be paid a percentage of every radial engine sold.

By the Second World War Bristol was supplying half the power for the RAF, so Fedden was making an absolute fortune, around £80,000 a year. Astronomical.

Eventually it was challenged and he agreed it was obscene and paid a lot of it back, but when Alex did his deal with BMC [British Motor Corporation] in the 1950s it was on percentage, and I think he’d picked that up from Fedden.’

By 1955 the family rubber business had been bought out by Avon Rubber, leaving Moulton to start up Moulton Developments a year later, primarily concerned with developing ways to use rubber in automotive suspension.

He’d gotten to know car designer Alec Issigonis, and when the latter was tasked with designing new cars for BMC, such as the Mini, he brought Moulton in to design the Double Pylon suspension. 


‘Given the Mini’s stature everything about it had to maximise space, so the wheels were 10-inch and the installation envelope for the suspension was tiny,’ says Farrell.

‘Coil springs were cumbersome and heavy, so Moulton’s solution was to use rubber springs. Small wheels and rubber springs is now a familiar story.’

Those first Minis rolled off the production line in 1959, and by 1962 Moulton had developed the ‘hydrolastic’ system using rubber springs and interconnected fluid damping, which debuted on the Morris 1100, then on the Mini in 1964.

‘The system featured on 13 million cars from 1959 to 2002, and Alex got a percentage for every unit sold,’ adds Farrell. ‘A version of it is used for the rear suspension on Moulton bikes today, along with rubber Flexitor springs on the front that Alex originally developed for road trailers.’

Safe to say, then, that Alex could lend some well-heeled clout to his bicycle design. Yet the Moulton Bicycle is no rich man’s folly. 

Fans and fanfares

The Moulton bicycle can lay claim to a number of accolades. Jim Glover set the (still unbroken) conventional riding position, unpaced land-speed record at 82.52kmh aboard a Moulton AM Speed in 1986.

In 2015 a titanium Moulton AM Speed made in collaboration with US-based framebuilders, One Off Titanium, sold at auction for £26,000.

And revered British architect Norman Foster (he of Wembley Stadium and The Gherkin) has cited the Moulton bicycle as ‘the greatest work of 20th century British design’.

‘There’s even a fan club, the Moultoneers,’ says Farrell, as he flicks on the light to the store room where all Moultons begin life. ‘They come here twice a year from all over the world and camp on the lawn. They go riding, swap parts and talk about technical stuff.

‘We have to warn the houses along the back of the estate – not everyone wants to know the gear ratio of everybody’s AM7 at two in the morning.’

The store room used to be where Moulton garaged his cars. Today it’s stacked with steel tubing, but a few signs of a past life remain.
A kayak hangs outside.

On the wall is a memo dated from 1980 together with a blackboard that lists the tyre pressures for an ‘R. Royce’.

‘This was where Alex kept his Rolls, and in later years his Bentley. He was probably the only person in the world that would go around with kayaks on the roof of a Bentley Series 3. He was still kayaking on the Avon on his 90th birthday,’ chuckles Farrell.

‘Now it’s where we keep the steel tubing. It comes from places like Reynolds and Columbus, but also a lot of it is actually aircraft hydraulic line. We get it from the same manufacturer that used to supply Concorde.’

Where steel in ‘diamond frame’ mode is getting fatter, with down tubes up to 44mm wide, most of the tubes here are less than 10mm in diameter. Hardly the stuff of serious bicycles, you might think, but across the courtyard in the ‘cycle factory’, things start to make more sense.

How many, how much

Inside a one-time stable block converted into a workshop, three men in blue overalls are carefully working their brazing torches over dozens of tiny tubes, each delicately positioned in a lattice structure that would look more at home on an aeroplane than a bicycle.

‘How many tubes are in a Moulton? Well it’s a bit like the steps to St Govan’s Chapel – every time you count them you get a different number,’ says Farrell. ‘It varies depending on the model and your definition of a tube, but a New Series Double Pylon has around 85.’

That’s a staggering amount when you consider a traditional frame has just eight, but what’s even more staggering is that given the complexities of design and number of models, Moulton will use any one of 385 different jigs to make a frame, and that a Double Pylon in full Super Record guise will set you back a whopping £16,250. So who’s buying the things?

‘We sell a huge amount in Asia. They’re really keen on European stuff. One of our Chinese distributors said his customers wanted Super Record components, so I asked what sort of gear ratios.

‘He said it didn’t matter, so long as it was Campag. It’s like an Italian going to a restaurant in his Lamborghini – if he can’t park it outside so he can look at it, he’ll go to another restaurant.’

For a company so rooted in engineering that attitude might seem a tad disrespectful, but Farrell insists it’s not incongruous with the Alex Moulton he knew.

‘People say Alex was a great engineer, but I see him more as a great designer. He liked this idea the Japanese had, that the spirit of the maker is in the artefact. For him form didn’t follow function, but was an absolute part of what function is, and he would design things in an emotionally engaging way.

‘And he’d do it how he thought best. We all fell out with him because of that, but usually he was right. If you didn’t stand up to him he’d destroy you, and if you did you’d better be certain of your ground. 

‘I remember being summoned to his study once. Toby walked in and Alex said, “Ah, I see you have arrived at the same time! I shall see to Toby first because he’s more important than you.”

‘No trace of humour, it was merely a fact. He’d do things without a concern for how you felt, so long as he felt they were right.’

Fifty-five years in business and it seems Alex Moulton’s judgement has been, and continues to be, impeccable.

 

Tubular belles

Each frame is different, yet each recognisably Moulton

Moulton Bicycle (latterly the ‘F frame’), 1962

This is the original bike that debuted at the Earl’s Court Cycle Show in 1962.

In a video made for the Open University in 1971, Alex Moulton describes how he quickly realised the traditional riding position was the most comfortable, and then after a ‘groping period for a definitive form’ decided that small-sized, high pressure wheels with suspension, luggage racks and a unisex, unisize frame would be crucial design drivers.

However, he was still invested in form, so went to great lengths to ensure the seat tube didn’t look too tall by tapering it and painting it in billiard-cue check.

The lines of the bike were also crucial – the top of the chain needed to run parallel to the chainstays, while the bottom had to be parallel to the floor, and a low horizontal crossbar was important ‘so that the boys wouldn’t feel emasculated riding an open frame’.

 

Moulton AM Speed prototype, 1988

Dave Bogdan completed the Race Across America on this prototype AM Speed.

He’d competed in the 1987 edition on a pre-production AM Jubilee, finishing the 4,944km route in 11 days, eight hours and two minutes, but returned the following year to hammer out the course in 10 days, 15 hours and one minute, averaging 465km per day, finishing 8th.

This bike differed from similar versions in that Bogdan had Moulton do away with the separable frame linkage. ‘Losing the separable joint doesn’t add anything to stiffness, but it does save weight,’ says Farrell. ‘It also ended up making the bike more marketable as a serious race machine.’

 

Moulton AM ATB, 1988

The world’s first mass-produced full-suspension mountain bike, the ATB featured 20-inch wheels, although Moulton the stickler engineer would refer to them as the size they really measured: 18.3 inches.

The frame’s front suspension unit bears a striking resemblance to the Cannondale Headshok, and in fact Cannondale’s patent includes reference to the Moulton design.

The tyres, now discontinued, were made by Wolber. As Moulton technical director Dan Farrell recalls, ‘A guy bought an ATB recently and phoned up looking for tyres.

‘I said we didn’t have any but he said he knew where we did, because he used to work for us and nearly got sacked on account of ordering too many tyres – and blow me he was right.’

Moulton New Series 2015

The stainless steel New Series models sit at the top of the Moulton tree, exemplifying one of Moulton’s primary design features.

‘Historically we are a suspension company, so we bring the idea that you make the chassis as stiff as possible, then you articulate it to a known degree with suspension,’ says Farrell.

As such, the space frame is a highly complex girder-like structure reckoned to be 2.5 times stiffer than most traditional steel frames, and the front fork has a set of rubber-in-torsion ‘Flexitor’ springs, while the rear features a hydrolastic unit not dissimilar to the one Moulton designed for the Mini car in the early 1960s.

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