Born: April 9,1920; Died: December 9, 2012.
Alex Moulton, who has died aged 92, was the innovating engineer whose ability to seize the day was encapsulated in his invention of suspension for the Austin Mini and his launch of the small-wheeled bike bearing his name.
Clever though his Mini suspension was (his Hydrolastic idea incorporated the output of coil springs through use of compressing vulcanised rubber), it was his revolutionary small-wheeled bike of 1964 which made him a household name. His ideas shocked the conventional cycling world, but his product was quickly taken up both for practicality of front suspension (based on the Mini) and a rear spring of compacted rubber – and also because the bike exuded the stylish raciness of the 1960s. Both cycle pundits and bike manufacturer Raleigh scorned the ungainly-looking machine with long tubes holding handlebars and saddle rising giraffe-like from tiny 16-inch wheels, so the entrepreneurial Mr Moulton launched his own company.
His inventiveness went beyond the engineering, and his marketing cleverly targeted both the powerful (with Lord Hailsham riding a Moulton to and from Westminster), to the racing fraternity.
The latter required particular wooing, given that serious cyclists assumed both that the small wheels increased rolling resistance, and that the suspension soaked up kinetic energy. Unabashed, Mr Moulton introduced specialist racing versions for a track meeting at Herne Hill, London, and a sponsored attempt on the London-Bath road record.
The same year, 1964, I road-tested a standard Moulton for David Rattray & Company, the Glasgow cycle retailer and builder of the famous Flying Scot, cycling from its Murray Street headquarters in Townhead to Kilsyth and back. For someone raised on conventional road machines, I found the Moulton an oddity, and I marked it down, never really trusting the small wheels when cornering at speed – though the low-slung fore-and-aft saddlebags produced a centre of gravity never normally attainable.
While that early Moulton proved a successful town bike, Alex Moulton wanted more, and from his drawing board emerged the classic Moulton lightweight tourer of today. Fashioned around a series of triangles, the machine, employing carbon steel and upgraded to 20-inch wheels, enjoys a cult following among serious cycle tourists worldwide.
Alexander Eric Moulton did not lack for a silver spoon in his mouth. Born of an engineering lineage, he grew up in the large Jacobean house that was the family seat in Wiltshire, graduating from Cambridge in mechanical sciences. The ability of geometric shapes to supersede linear steel as weight-bearing structures fascinated him, and while he was still a schoolboy, he built a dodecahedron, a 12-planed structure now used for greenhouses everywhere.
For his Moulton bike, the centrepiece was a right-angled triangle, the hypotenuse extending to form a rear carrier and the short side stretched into a saddle pillar. For his memorable tourer, five triangles form the frame, with Hydrolastic suspension adapted for the front, and trusty compressed rubber providing springing at the rear.
For all his outstanding ability, he never achieved the greatness due to him. Appointed CBE in 1976, and with many honours given him by the engineering industry, he missed out on the recognition accorded to his one-time colleague Sir Alec Issigonis, or the status accorded to the Watts and Brunels.