On Your Bike! Franca Davenport talks to Dr Alex Moulton, a Wiltshire engineering legend .

PUBLISHED: 22:47 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

Dr Alex Moulton

Dr Alex Moulton

Franca Davenport talks to Dr Alex Moulton, a Wiltshire engineering legend whose legendary bicycle is not his only claim to fame.

Franca Davenport talks to Dr Alex Moulton, a Wiltshire engineering legend whose legendary bicycle is not his only claim to fame.



For someone so focused on speed and efficiency, Alex Moulton has a very easy-going driveway. Once through the gateway, it meanders past the Moulton Bicycle workshop, down a hill with a sign that requests drivers to slow down for Toby the cat and through an archway to the Hall. Indeed, considering the size of the 300-acre estate, the entrance is remarkably understated. Similarly, inside the house there is nothing ostentatious. Although there are many beautiful objects and features, none of them is flaunted. Even Dr Moulton's impressive array of certificates and achievements are calmly displayed in a side room where his secretary, Gillian, works.


Dr Alex Moulton is an engineer of great repute. He designed the suspension system for the original Mini and worked on various other acclaimed British motorcars such as the BMC 1100 and BMC 1800. However, it was with the modest bicycle that he really made his name and, to this day, Moulton bicycles are regarded as the epitome of efficient two-wheeled motion.



My interview with Dr Moulton takes place in the dining room. On the wall there is a Graham Rust Mural depicting the 17th-century house in all its glory. Afternoon sunlight shafts through the moderately stained-glass windows and somewhere in the background a clock ticks. Despite the industry and progress that has gone on within this house there is a timelessness to the place. The Hall has been in the family for 150 years, ever since Moulton's great-grandfather moved there and set up his rubber factory in the old wool mills. "The lucky thing was, my great-grandfather had very good taste," says Moulton. "He wasn't into all that Victorian vulgarity so when he renovated the house all those years ago it was done with taste and respect."


Moulton spent most of his life at the Hall except for the war. His father died when he was young so he was brought up by his grandparents. "I remember my father in this very room," he says. "I was aged six and he told me he'd brought a present for me. When I looked under the sideboard there was a lovely box of lead soldiers." After the war Moulton returned to the Hall to help run the family rubber business. He became interested in the use of rubber for the suspension of cars and when the company was sold he started 'Moulton Developments' for this purpose. He worked on a number of cars, the Mini being the best known because of the contribution of Moulton's rubber cone suspension to its superb handling.



It was after the fuel shortages of the Suez crisis that Moulton became interested in the bicycle. "I bought a very lovely lightweight Hetchins bicycle," he says, "and was amazed at how nice it was to ride, but being of a curious mind I was interested in the architecture of the thing, particularly why its wheels were so large." Inspired by his work on the Mini, he came up with the idea for the small-wheeled Moulton bicycle. It was the first of its kind and the concept was the largest change in bicycle design since the safety bicycle replaced the penny farthing. The design of the Moulton bicycle incorporated small wheels with tyres inflated at high pressure to reduce the rolling resistance, with front and rear suspension to compensate for the bumpier ride.


The Moulton bicycle became an icon of the '60s, alongside the Mini and the mini-skirt. It also performed well in the sporting field and broke a number of records. At its peak Moulton Bicycles was manufacturing about 300 bicycles a week at the factory in the grounds of the Hall before the company was bought by Raleigh. "It was a distress sale if you like," says Moulton, "and they behaved like the usual big corporation. I went out of bicycles and came back some years later in a high-end way with a small company." Today the company has an agreement with Pashley Cycles to manufacture some of the models, but the top-of-the-range Moulton bicycles are still hand-built in a workshop in the grounds by local craftsmen. Some of them have been working with the company for more than 30 years and some are related to those who worked in the original rubber factory started by Moulton's great-grandfather. Indeed the family connections do not end there as Dr Moulton's great-nephew Shaun, who lives in a cottage on the estate, now runs the company.



At the end of the interview Moulton takes one of his bicycles for a spin around the purpose-built bicycle track. It is a remarkable sight and, as the 89-year-old comes into view, he is smiling broadly. There may be a speed limit for cars on the estate, but there clearly isn't one for Moulton bicycles.



For more information on Moulton bicycles visit http://www.moultonbicycles.co.uk.

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