England in the Swinging Sixties was an exciting place to be. The Rolling Stones were revolutionizing rock music; Carnaby Street was shaking up the fashion world with mini skirts and hot pants; Mods were wearing long sideburns, drape jackets and drainpipe jeans; the first James Bond films were adding a new dimension to the big screen; and the BMC Mini, Vespa scooter and small-wheeled Moulton bicycle had brought “cool” to the streets.
A half-century later, the Stones this week completed their 50th anniversary tour with a concert in Newark, New Jersey; ’60s fashion is returning to the mainstream; Tour de France winner Brad Wiggins, voted 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year last Saturday, has re-popularized Mod style and the motor scooter; the latest Bond movie has attracted a new generation of filmgoers; and the rejuvenated Mini, now made by BMW, is ubiquitous in cities everywhere.
As for the iconic Moulton bicycle, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and last week mourned the death, at 92, of its founder and inventor, Dr. Alex Moulton. His bike with its F-shaped frame and 16-inch wheels became a true symbol of British engineering. Renowned architect Norman Foster described it as “the greatest work of 20th-century British design.”
Discussing the virtues of the bicycle vis-à-vis the automobile in one of his publications, Dr. Moulton wrote that the motorist “is isolated from the surroundings, whereas the cyclist…is physically involved and proceeds in the miraculous way entirely by his or her own effort of health-giving exercise, with nervous relaxation and spiritual uplift…”
His bike caused a sensation when it was launched at London’s Earls Court Cycle Show in 1962, and fast became the country’s second-biggest-selling bicycle. Its rubber suspension (invented 30 years before mountain-bike suspension forks were introduced) was adapted from the inventor’s famous “hydrolastic suspension” system that was used on the BMC Mini and 1100—popular, small cars that were sold to millions of British motorists over four decades.
The Moulton bike is a fringe design in North America, but it remains popular across the Atlantic. Other bike manufacturers, including Raleigh, tried to mimic the Moulton, but they couldn’t match its light weight, smooth ride, portability, convenience and separable construction.
Much of the Moulton bicycle’s success was due to its cool, unisex look; but marketing also played a part, especially when a competition version was built. The “race” model was first used to establish a number of British road records, including a number of attempts by one of the country’s top time trial riders, John Woodburn. Only a month after the 1962 show, he gained great publicity for the Moulton by smashing the 162-mile place-to-place record from Cardiff, the capital of Wales, to London, England’s capital in 6 hours, 42 minutes.
I didn’t race on a Moulton, but I did compete in a number of road races and criteriums where others were riding on of those small-wheel bikes. It was a strange experience working a paceline when you couldn’t see the rear wheel of the rider in front because it was a foot lower than you expected. That small-wheel effect enabled riders in a four-man track team pursuit to get 2 feet closer to each other and helped a British club team break their own 4,000-meter record set on regular bikes.
The Moulton became ineligible for most competitions when UCI rules were modified in the late-1990s whereby a bicycle was defined as a machine having a triangular frame design with traditional dimensions. Despite that setback, the Moulton is still used today by competitive cyclists in British time trials, in long-distance events such as the Race Across America, and cyclo-sportive and randonneur events, including such famous ones as Paris-Brest-Paris in France.
Still active with his engineering designs, Dr. Moulton hosted a golden-jubilee celebration of his eponymous bicycle only last month. Among the guests were record-breaking cyclist Woodburn and the company’s first marketing manager, David Duffield, the onetime Eurosport television commentator. One of Dr. Moulton’s colleagues at the University of Bath, Dr. Geraint Owen, said, “Alex devoted his life to innovating engineering projects. It is unlikely that the Mini would ever have been the success it was without his suspension design. He had a strong belief in the importance of engineering to the success of the UK economy and society, and was very keen that the next generation were inspired.”
Alex Moulton never married, and lived virtually the whole of his life in the family’s elegant Jacobean mansion in the picturesque town of Bradford-on-Avon in southwest England. His design office was in his home and the bikes were (and still are) hand-built by craftsman in the estate’s former stables. He died in his sleep on December 9. His great-nephew, Shaun Moulton, now runs the bicycle company.
The lightest and fastest Moulton bike, the New Series Speed, weighs in at less than 20 pounds. The stainless steel spaceframe is claimed to be stiffer than a traditional diamond frame, with the joints silver brazed and the final frameset polished to a mirror finish. Its retail price of £11,000 (almost $18,000) is near the top end of Moulton’s 13 models that start at £950 (about $1,500) for the separable, belt-driven TSR 2 commuter bike.
The bikes—and the Mini—remain as the lasting legacy of a brilliant British engineer, and a constant reminder of the Swinging Sixties.
You can follow John at: twitter.com/johnwilcockson