Conception of the Moulton bicycle

Dan Farrell from Moulton talks about the conception of the Moulton bicycle. 

 Alex Moulton unveils the first new bicycle for 70 years.

Alex Moulton unveils the first new bicycle for 70 years.

It may seem a little odd that a man from a great industrial dynasty – and who owned a string of exotic cars, motorcycles and boats - should be so fascinated by the ‘humble’ bicycle and to have contributed so much to its development and advancement.  Necessity is, as we all know, the mother of invention – when petrol was rationed in World War Two, Alex Moulton modified a Ford Popular to run on gas produced by the burning of anthracite.  When the first Suez crisis struck and rationing returned in 1957, Alex’s active mind took another direction.

Determined not to be restricted by his petrol ration, Moulton bought himself a ‘Curly’ Hetchins bicycle as, in his words, “a serious alternative means of locomotion”. Immediately he was both delighted and intrigued by the efficiency and liveliness of this lightweight steed, but he was also struck by the inconvenience of (and danger posed by) the horizontal top tube and the lack of facility for carrying luggage.  Having resolved to improve upon this, the classic bicycle, he began to research into bicycle history.  This first file is rather enigmatically titled “Muscle Powered Vehicle”.  Having looked at and tested the recumbent bicycles of the 1930s, he questioned the validity of the ‘conventional’ riding position – eventually accepting that the ‘upright’ position was more natural and convenient .  Inspired by the space liberated by the reduction of wheel size on the Mini, confirmed by comprehensive testing, Moulton conceived the idea of a small-wheeled bicycle – with an open frame for convenience, front and rear suspension to improve rider comfort and allow the use of high-pressure tyres, and large luggage carriers.  Following some analysis of riding positions and efficiencies, he approached Dunlop for help in the design, testing and manufacture of suitable tyres and rims; those currently available being for juvenile bicycles and in no way performance orientated.  Dunlop, at that time employing over 1,000 staff in the manufacture of Moulton rubber springs and flexible couplings for BMC, acquiesced to put their technical weight behind the bicycle project.  With the fundamentals in place, he embarked on another challenge, one that he had not faced in aeronautical or automotive fields – the search for form.  To this end, a charming set of wooden scale models were produced.  These still exist and have recently been exhibited at the Design Museum in London.

 The search for form - a set of scale wooden models were produced.

The search for form - a set of scale wooden models were produced.

Whilst clearly having difficulty in resolving the appearance of his new bicycle, Moulton was sensitive to public reaction and sought to avoid shocking potential buyers.  Given that bicycle design had stood still for seventy years, one can appreciate why he took so much care over seemingly minor details.  For example, the alignment of the chain was constrained by the requirement to keep the ‘top run’ parallel to the main tube, and the ‘lower run’ parallel to the ground; and the unnerving ‘tallness’ of the head and seat tubes was disguised by ‘billiard cue’ paintwork.  Having progressed from models to prototypes, he eventually approached Raleigh with a view to offering them a licence to manufacture. Hugely dominant in the industry, Raleigh were initially keen but soon dithered.  Moulton, with characteristic conviction, built a bicycle factory in the grounds of The Hall and launched the Moulton bicycle in November 1962.