A CASE OF ‘COALS TO NEWCASTLE’
Written by Mike Riley, Riley’s Cycles
A few years ago I was invited to sell two small-wheeled bicycles for a lady in Nether
Compton. Her late husband had been an artist who was commissioned to paint each new ocean
liner when they were launched and his paintings hung in the offices of Cunard, P&O and Union Castle. The lady kindly gave me a memento: a ships crest from the Canberra, on which I had served as an officer.
The preferred steed of the artist was a Moulton F-type, suitable for attaching his easel to and carrying his paints. This load-carrying ability was a feature of the Moulton which had fixed racks front and rear. Due to the wheel size the weight was low and easier to balance: in one road test a journalist carried a crate of oranges across London. The suspension was also a benefit as the artist often rode along rough tracks to the location of his subjects. The Moulton bicycle was a revolutionary concept as it combined small wheels and suspension, making the ride more comfortable: it is considered a design icon.
Designer Dr Alex Moulton was an engineer specialising in suspension systems who also had
experience during the war in aircraft manufacture. When you learn he designed the suspension of
another ‘swinging sixties’ design classic, the Mini car, you can see the influences on his thinking.
The artist’s Moulton was in good condition, having been kept in the dry, and had none of the rot and cracks which some frames suffered with. A customer with a modern, small-wheeled bike we had repaired was browsing in our storage barn and said that he knew someone who would be interested in the Moulton bike. Sure enough, a few days later, I had a call. ‘Hello Mike, this is Shaun. I understand you have a nice Moulton F-type.’ We arranged a visit and it turned out it was Shaun Moulton, great nephew of Alex, who was sales manager of the Moulton bicycle company. Moulton were successfully exporting the new space frame designed models to Chinese entrepreneurs and supplying discerning customers. So, the F-type was duly sent off to be refurbished by the Moulton Preservation Society and was to be displayed in the reception of the Moulton production facility. Shaun told me a bit about the history of Moulton Bicycles and I have used the sources listed to add more detail. Dr Moulton offered his design to Raleigh bicycles who dismissed it. Undeterred, he conducted market research in Scotland and then took his prototype to the 1962 Cycle Show and was inundated with orders. He phoned HQ to say they should double the size of the production facility at the Hall. A few years later Raleigh acquired the Moulton business; more of that later.
In modern parlance, Dr Alex Moulton would be considered a disruptor as he challenged and shook up conventional thinking about bicycle design and manufacture. As well as innovation in appearance, the construction was novel; it used aircraft manufacturing techniques to make the frame from pressed steel, joined by riveting and brazing. Although traditionalists tried to fault the design, it was hard to dispute that it worked well, giving a comfortable ride, and it was demonstrated to be more efficient in some conditions. This was evidenced by Time Trial champion and record breaker John Woodburn breaking the Cardiff-London record on a Moulton Speed model in 1962. Moultons have also competed in the Race Across America where, it is reported, Moulton riders were the only ones who could write their names at the checkpoints due to the front suspension reducing the vibration transmitted to their hands.
The Moulton was a boost for a flagging cycle industry in 1963 when scooters and cars were replacing bicycles. There were 5 models including a folder and they received a great deal of free publicity from reviews in both the cycling and mainstream press. Demand exceeded production capacity at the Hall (estimated at between 1000 to 1500 per week from different sources) and the British Motor Corporation assisted with production in 1966 using a production facility in Kirkby, Liverpool, at which point 100,000 had been made. By then the bikes were exported internationally and built under licence in several countries. Quality problems at the Kirkby factory included forks, front suspension and rear forks. Eventually Raleigh acknowledged they were wrong to dismiss the Moulton design and bought the company and produced Moulton Mk III models for 3 years. In 1990 Pashley bought Moulton and it is under the Pashley umbrella that Moulton bicycles continue to be made in the old stable buildings at The Hall.
A side point about the stable is that it was built in 1900, designed by Sir Harold Brakspear. Edwin Lutyens selected The Hall to represent Britain as the British Pavilion in the Paris Exposition.
Usually I ponder how to close, but this article almost wrote itself and there is a sense of continuity about the events. First a friend gave me a Moulton book today and another about the Brompton. Then I had a call this morning from a lady in Nether Compton asking if I would like to collect a couple of old, small-wheel bikes, giving me feeling of déjà vu. In this case it was a Raleigh 20 and an RSW 16. The RSW 16 was Raleigh’s attempt at a cheaper answer to the Moulton; it was a poor design as the balloon tyres made the bike feel ‘like waltzing in Wellington boots’ and the steering was ponderous as well as having more drag from the soft tyres. This competitor was launched with a massive marketing budget and many other small wheel designs were also being produced. This intense competition when added to the quality problems at the Kirkby producer were factors in the demise of popularity of Moulton, and small wheel bikes in general, and in 1974 production ceased.
I now have an early example of the Moulton space frame style called an APB made by Pashley which can be split for storage or transporting. And whom did I buy it from but the brother of the author of the book I was given about the Brompton. So, I conclude, in small-wheel circles there is no escaping small circles!
The book used as a reference source for this article is “The F-Frame Moultons” by Tony Hadland.
The Brompton Bicycle book referred to is written by David Henshaw.
Thanks to my friend Bob for the white and blue Moulton photographs and encouragement to write the article.
The published Sherborne Times article can be found on pages 98-99 here Sherborne Times November 2019 Apologies that I miss-spelt Shaun as Sean in the printed article. Please note there are errors in the printed article which have been corrected in this post with the help of Jamie Hartnoll, one of Dr Moulton’s great nephews. I have made corrections about continuity of manufacturing at The Hall, BMC production, what relative Shaun is to Dr Moulton (great nephew, not son) . Most importantly I repaired the APB front suspension and enjoy riding it!