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e Economic cycles The Moulton bicycle, says Sir Norman Foster, is “the greatest work of 20th-century British design”. But although they retail at up to £7,200, their inventor, Alex Moulton, never made a fortune. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has little time for the short-term strategies of contemporary management By Neil Lyndon Photographs by Charlie Bibby LEX MOULTON’S DAILY LIFE MAY LACK THE LOVE AND CARE OF IMMEDIATE FAMILY, BUT OTHERWISE IT IS AS PACKED WITH INTEREST AND ACTIVITY AS ANY 88-YEAR-OLD'S IN BRITAIN. Moulton, a tall, trim man with the ice-green eyes of a hawk and the nose of a Roman emperor, rises each morning in the third-floor bedroom of his 20-room mansion - a 17th-century house in Bradford- on-Avon that looks like a mini-Longleat and has been described by Country Life as one of the most exquisite in Britain. He enters his adjoining workroom, where he pores over papers, manuals and books piled on long tables, For the next few hours, or “as long as I feel inspired and interested”, he works on the designs for his latest engineering creation, a machine “more radical than anything I have ever done”. In the middle of the morning, with steady steps, Moulton descends the broad oak- panelled staircase - hung with scores of pictures and photographs of his life and achievements — and starts to take an interest in his business affairs, He sits down in _ another big room filled with old furniture and jammed with books and papers (his bach- elor’s palace contains several rooms in this identical pattern on all its floors) and gets to work with his secretary Gillian, who has been with him for, she says, “more years than ] care to remember”. There will be correspondence to answer and telephone messages from all over the world, invitations to speak at learned gatherings of engineers, offers o! consultancies with major companies. Moulton is also entering the final stages of pro- ducing an autobiography, due out by Christmas. This means proofs to correct, artworl to approve. Meanwhile, reverential deputations, especially from Japan, regularly arrive 22 at the house to pay homage and seek counsel. They often include the most senior management of global manufacturing corporations, including chief executives and the directors of engineering and production. What has drawn such high-flying visitors? And what is this radical new invention Moulton is working on? The answer to the first, is Moulton’s engineering genius. To the second, a bicycle. In converted stables near the house, four or five men in blue factory coats are assembling the bikes that Moulton has been designing and refining for 50 years. All of these crafts- men have been working for Moulton for decades. They make about seven bicycles a week, many of which are exported to Japan. The cheapest Moulton bike costs £2,200. The top price is £7,200. Potential customers must take their place at the back of an 18-month waiting-list - longer than it would take to get certain models of Porsche - because among cycling enthusiasts, Moulton’s small-wheeled spaceframe bicycles are the ne plus ultra of two-wheelers. For designers and engineers, the Moulton bicycle is also an object of wonder. Sir Norman Foster, citing its “sparse beauty’, nominated a Moulton as “the greatest work of 20th-century British design”. The Moulton also beat the iPod into second place as “an icon of our time” in a recent poll of industrial designers. The old man does little more than potter with the business these days, leaving its management largely in the hands of his middle-aged great- nephew Shaun. They recently concluded an amalgamation deal (a partner- ship rather than a full merger) with Pashley - a maker of similar bicycles based in Stratford-upon-Avon - which relieves the tiny Moulton firm from much of the burden of marketing and distribution, thereby allowing its founder to concentrate on the work of design and innovation. When Moulton is ready to eat, his cook lays out his lunch in the great, shabby dining room. Around the 17ft-high walls runs a tableau of contem- porary paintings including scenes from the history of the house and portraits of leading figures from his own life. After lunch, he takes a nap in an armchair in his study. Then he is ready for his daily constitutional, riding a bicycle of his own design. “The spur He cycles round the many acres of mani- of profit cured gardens that surround the house. Then v the track leads out, beside the river Avon, into was simply farmland, ancient woods and the shoots inet dental which his family has owned and cultivated for more than 150 years but which he has now to much of abandoned (“you become more reluctant to my work” inflict pain as you get old”). If the weather is y good, he might stop at his lake to take out his kayak and paddle for an hour or two, remem- bering the steam boats he himself designed, built and sailed on these waters. In the evening, friends might visit. If he is alone, he reads or watches DVDs and videos. The racks beside his television are packed with tapes about cars, speedboats and war- planes ~ many of which he had a hand in devising. “I keep my friends close and keep myself busy because I don’t want to get senile” he says. “I don't want to die like Issigonis, who had a dreadful end, alone and without friends. All his own fault, really, because he had cut himself off” ALEC ISSIGONIS DESIGNED THE MORRIS MINOR, THE MINI, THEBMC 1100, THE 1800 AND THE AUSTIN MAXI. The Morris aside, Moulton designed the sus- pension systems for all those cars - suspension systems as revolutionary as the cars themselves, More than 12 million cars were produced with Moulton suspensions. Few creative engineers of the 20th century have affected the = lives of more Britons - except, perhaps, Alec Issigonis. The partnership between these two proud and self-confident men was 3 always brittle. They didn’t speak to each other for more than a decade £ before Issigonis died - but you won't hear a mean word about Issigonis from Moulton, “In no way would I want anything said against Issigonis,” he i says. “I owe him a tremendous amount. Everything I learnt about innova- g tive design came from him.” However, at various times during two half-days 3 of conversation, Moulton described Issigonis as “supercilious’, “arrogant”, “dismissive’, “self-righteous” and “self-centred”. He also made it clear that 2 after he (Moulton) agreed to do some work for the British Motor Corpora- E tion (BMC), Issigonis cut him off as a friend and colleague. But, at all QA: | EEE coe times, Moulton’s judgments on his former mentor emerged as the respect- ful views of one who considered himself uniquely favoured to have worked beside a genuine genius. He even indirectly credits Issigonis with the intellectual impetus that led to the creation of the Moulton bicycle - the first completely new approach to the design of a bike in the 20th century and arguably Moulton’s most enduring invention. “I never had any intention of making a bicycle,” he says. “But I was so swept up in the mood of fundamentalism of the postwar period - a mood which Issigonis personified - that it emerged naturally from the unorthodox thinking of that time” During the fuel shortages of the Suez crisis and its aftermath, Moulton started riding a “lovely, handmade Hetchins bicycle” of conventional design. “My interest in cycling was reawakened,” he recalls, “and I started thinking of ways to improve upon that machine.” His first revolutionary discovery, following a spell of intensive research with Dunlop, was that small wheels with high-pressure tyres allowed a bicycle to go faster with less effort than the 26in-28in wheels on a conventional bicycle. From this insight came many other key Moulton features - their rubber suspension systems, their immensely strong construction and their space-saving adaptability, Often mistaken for the urban bicycles subsequently made by Brompton and others, Moultons have never been folding or collapsible. Some models do, however, come apart for stowing in the boot of a car or other small spaces. Moulton has always been obsessed with structural rigidity and per- formance - with the result that his bicycles have set a clutch of perform- ance records, including a world speed record and a record time for a bicy- cle ride from Cardiff to London. Moulton has never yet designed a bicycle made from carbon fibre - immensely strong but expensive, and impossible to repair when damaged - but he dropped a few hints in our interviews that carbon composite materials might be included in the new, radical bicycle he is presently designing. “Watch this space,” he twinkled. “Too many of MOULTON'S IS AN UNLIKELY BACKGROUND , . FOR A RADICAL. IN MANY WAYS, HE IS A SCION today 5 SCNLOT oroLD ENGLAND RATHER THAN A FLOWER OF executives are — tueswinama srxties. In the middle of the ;. 19th century, when the industrial revolution trained as ‘was running at full steam, Stephen Moulton, accountants Alex's great grandfather, set up a rubber fac- tory beside the river Avon in the grounds of , rather than the house where Moulton still lives. Licensed engineers by Charles Goodyear himself, this factory - which employed as many as 1,000 people during the second world war - was one of the most important developments in the British rubber industry. The works was still in full production when the eight-year-old Moulton and his parents moved into the house in 1928. After school at Marlborough, Moulton underwent a pupil- lage at Central Works in Shrewsbury and then studied mechanical sciences at Cambridge for a year before war broke out in 1939. “I wanted to fly with the RAF, as so many of my generation did,” he remembered ~ but instead he was sent to work at Bristol Engines, where he contributed to the development of the mighty 18-cylinder Centaurus engine. It was intended for bombers but barely entered service before the war ended. Working under wartime conditions gave Moulton misleading expecta- tions for later life. “Everything we did in that period had to be perfect,” he explains, “My experiences in commercial life have not always equalled that standard.” At Bristol Engines, he worked under Roy Fedden, the company’s chief engineer with whom he helped to develop a rear-engined car (designed by the renowned motoring journalist Gordon Wilkins) - the Fedden. It was, he says, “a chastening experience. We were tormented by the Volkswagen, and were inspired to have a go at emulating it. Soon, it became apparent that the Fedden was a disaster. It demonstrated itself to be crazily wrong when it had a most appalling accident [during early testing]. From that day onwards, I felt rather reluctant to design cars.” Instead, he returned, after the war and without very great enthusiasm, to the family firm. “In a way, it wouldn’t have mattered who was running 26 | Seplonber 6/7 2008