back to article Dr Alex Moulton: 'An inspiration for generations of engineers'

Dr Alex Moulton, the engineer and inventor famous for designing small-wheeled bicycles and car suspension gear, has died at the age of 92. Moulton pioneered full-suspension small-wheel bikes, which were super popular in the 1960s and are still being built by hand in Bradford on Avon by The Moulton Bicycle Company. He also …

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Bronze badge

I used to feel sick in our Morris (1300 or possibly an 1800 "Landcrab") with its hydroelastic suspension. And once or twice I was sick.

Though perhaps other factors were at play.

1) being the seventies, all cars were poorly ventilated and stuffy while also bringing in fumes from the car in front

2) a tendency to try and read comics while on the move.

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If you have any tendency to motion sickness, reading while travelling by car is almost guaranteed to have unpleasant consequences!

It's a shame Dunlop hiked the price of the spheres up so far that the MGTF had to use ordinary springs and shocks as the Moulton system works well and is very elegant in its simplicity... self levelling suspension without pumps or vulnerable electronic control systems to go wrong, can be refilled with a simple antifreeze mix if necessary.

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Unfortunately the MGF, which did use Hydragas, compromised by having the units isolated and adding conventional dampers.

One of the big problems with both Hydralastic and Hydragas systems is development time. Altering the spring, rebound and damp rates requires depressurisation, the changing of the valves and then repressurisation. Tuning conventional suspension involves swapping parts that can be changed in moments.

The Metro also used isolated units, but without additional dampers. Moulton had a Metro he'd reworked to reinstate the fore / after interlinking that the system was designed for and then tuned the setup himself. Everyone who tried it said that it was far better than the vanilla product.

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Slight correction: Early metros had the front units individualised and the rear units connected accross the car. Later metros and 100s had the proper setup (connected front to back) with extra dampers only fitted to GTis.

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Ah damn...

First Patrick, now Alex...not a good week.

Moulton bikes are deceptively awesome - the old ones look like the small wheeled Raleighs, but had incredible geometries and suspension which made them lovely to ride.

The later ones looked odd, but you wouldn't really give them a second glance, appearing to be made out of space frame, but again, stunning geometries and balance mean these small wheeled bikes dismantle for travelling, and when you got there they could carry you and your luggage in comfort. You soon got over the shock of a 1200 pound starting price (and the AM7 - if you gotta ask, you can't afford...).

It's almost impossible to build a better bike, but Alex certainly came the closest. I do wish I could afford one :(

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Re: Ah damn...

Quite so.

I rode a Moulton mini for years until some scrote jumped on the pedal and tore the thread from the stem the pedal attached to. It was never the same.

Great bike

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Unhappy

Re: Ah damn...

Took years after first test riding a Moulton AM at York Rally in '85, to finding a 60's Moulton for riding in '98 and then a further 3 years until I could afford to buy a Moulton APB.

The best and most versatile bike I have ever owned, and out of a shedful the only one I ever ride. Love them to bits. Utterly utterly brilliant bikes.

Dr Moulton was a genius. Simple as.

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Unhappy

"First Patrick, now Alex...not a good week."

And to round it off the trilogy of 1960s icons, we just lost Ravi Shankar as well.

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Its a shame to hear this news. Bicycles have been a passion of mine, that brought balance to my teenage years that else would have been spent indoors trying to get PCs to play games (whilst my peers had Amigas and Megadrives).

Small wheels make a suspension system essential almost essential, unless you have the toughened skeleton of a twenty year-old. Larger wheels offer inherently lower rolling resistance, but efficiency is far from the only consideration- you only have to see the hallway of a city flat blocked by 26"-wheeled bicycles to realise that the traditional design is not convenient for city living. For small trips, a BMX is the better urban machine than bigger bikes- there are no gears to got wrong, it takes up less space in the hallway, and the wheels are damned near indestructible and won't end up pringled like those on the poor machines one sees chained to railings after pissheads have decided to kick them in.

It's a shame that Moulton have never managed to get the price down to become more mainstream. My heart sinks when I see the hideous 'full suspension' bikes that are sold for children these days, the suspension on them is worse than useless and just makes the whole machine so heavy that it is likely to kill any enthusiasm for cycling the child might have possessed. If you can't afford the better materials and parts required to make suspension worthwhile, it is best to Keep It Simple.

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Sad news. Don't forget that Dr Moulton invented the dry cone Mini suspension which predated Hydrolastic, and after a period with Hydrolastic Minis went back to dry suspension because it was better suited to the short wheelbase. I had a Mk.3 Cooper S on Hydrolastic and it gave you two bounces for the price of one! More recently he designed a progressive rubber cone spring which is meant to give you a better ride.

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Anonymous Coward

Hopefully he never set eyes on the abomination that is the current Mini Countryman, that mocks every original concept of the Issigonis & Moulton original.

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How Much?

Moulton bicycles range in price from £950 to £16,500 depending on the model and specification. The price icon gives a relative scale for the price of each model in the range. For current pricing information please contact the Moulton Bicycle Company or find your local dealer via our Contact page.

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Pint

I took the opportunity

to drive my '64 mini to work today - was converted to coilovers by the previous owner (horrendous, the whole car jumped over cats eyes, let alone any real bumps), converted back to "dry" rubber cones by me. Nothing comes close to the feeling of driving the mini - thanks to Alex Moulton. Without the slightly stiff, slightly bouncy cones, I doubt the mini would be anywhere near as characterful - either to look at, or to drive. And in what other car can you get height adjustable suspension for less than 100 pounds?* It's the sort of thing the yoof of today would die for...

Whilst hydrolastic gives a better ride, the simplicity of the dry rubber cones is unparallelled- and I've yet to see a more compact suspension system developed that provided both the ride and load carrying ability of the progressive Moulton rubber cone.

I'm now saving up for a Moulton bike - one of the few bikes I can actually get in the mini :)

RIP Alex Moulton; the world has one less genius in its ranks.

*referring to hi-lo's, of course - not only a way to make the car sit nice and low (or high for some off-road) but a great solution to possibly the only shortcoming of rubber cones - sag. And you gain/lose height *without* affecting spring rate - brilliant.

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Re: I took the opportunity

Much less than £100 - all you need to lower a Mini is a hacksaw, and some big washers when you overdo it.

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Re: I took the opportunity

Don't lower it too much by cutting down the trumpet or the trumpet can come disengaged from the rubber-cone at full suspension-droop.

(Yes, it happened to me - on a blue Mini pick-up I'd retrofitted with a 1380cc dual-SU engine and a Jack Knight straight-cut gearbox. Would easily beat an E-type Jag on any roads with bends in them. Ah, happy days!)

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Re: I took the opportunity

Sounds like a beast! We've an engine builder here in Sydney who built a Clubby with a 1401 and a single SU* - built the engine about 20 years ago, only starts it up to drive it to dyno pulls and car shows - a few months ago managed 87 hp at the wheels... amazing what people can pull out of these engines.

Sadly Jack Knight gearboxes are horrendously pricey to get out to Australia, let alone the initial outlay...I think I've been born in the wrong country.

*Modified of course - but won't tell anyone what he's done ;)

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Hydrolastic/Hydragas

Not being from The Old Country I've never encountered a car with hydrolastic or hydragas suspension. It sounds like it's great for small cars, so can anyone tell me why it's not found on modern cars? Made obsolete by advances in "conventional" suspension design? Too expensive? Hilariously unreliable and/or a nightmare to maintain?

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Re: Hydrolastic/Hydragas

Rephrase that to "not often found on modern cars"

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Re: Hydrolastic/Hydragas

I don't really know why; the last "modern" car to use it as far as I know was the MGF; as I mentioned above the "facelift" MGTF went to a conventional system as apparently the price per unit for keeping the suspension spheres in production was going to be just too high as they weren't in use on any other new cars. They were only available from one manufacturer (Dunlop if I recall correctly) - I suppose there were licensing restrictions involved.

The system is quite reliable, there's little to go wrong really; the spheres themselves or the front-to-rear interconnecting pipes on the MGF might eventually succumb to rust but they're just steel pipes, nothing fancy. The nitrogen used to provide most of the spring does eventually leak from the spheres over a very long period of time as the internal diaphragms perish - though they probably last as long as many plain steel coil springs do these days! The MGF used conventional dampers, unlike some(most?) other Moulton-based designs.

For routine maintenance all that's needed is (ideally) the occasional evacuation of the system and refilling with the correct fluid (or antifreeze mix) at a suitable pressure to set the ride height. Not a job frequently required though, or a complex / time consuming one...

In large luxury cars electronically controlled air suspension systems are more common nowadays, no idea why nobody has picked the idea up again for smaller cars other than perhaps cost?

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Happy

Re: Hydrolastic/Hydragas

I have already outlined above one of the main issues with these systems from a vehicle development perspective.

The flip side of that is that the systems are nigh-on bulletproof, often providing two decades or more service with no maintenance at all. The bearings on the suspension arms ususally give up before anything else and the units are good for at least two bearing sets, which last about 15 years...

The only vulnerability is the interlinking pipes beneath the car. Corrosion here will cause the system to lose fluid and the suspension to drop. An obvious improvement, but one never made, would be to use stainless steel pipes.

In my opinion, the earlier Hydralastic system was better than Hydragas. The "float and sit" ride produced by the former is unequalled in mass production vehicles and offers Rolls-Royce ride quality coupled with zero body roll on cornering[1]. Hydragas does have the advantage that it removes the choppyness encountered if Hydralastic is used on smaller, lighter cars.

The achilles' heel of both systems is dive on braking and squat on acceleration, which is a product of the interlinking front / rear. It's something you get used to and nowhere near as puke-inducing as Citroen's Hydropneumatic system though.....

[1] Suspension is almost always a compromise. Softer suspension improves ride, but at the expense of roll and poorer handling. Moulton's systems provide the ride quality without the handling compromises.

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Happy

Re: Hydrolastic/Hydragas

> so can anyone tell me why it's not found on modern cars?

Isn't that the same kind of system still found on the more expensive Citroën cars? (starting with Citroën DS in 1955).

I have a Citroën Xantia (1995 model) that has this kind of suspension. Very smooth ride. Every few years something does go wrong with it (last year it was a slow leak in the system making it slurp hydraulic fluid), but ordinary suspension needs occasional maintenance too, I guess. Hard to compare since I have never owned any other kind of car.

The only disadvantage I know of is that after starting, the car needs about half a minute to crank up pressure in the system before driving. It literally lifts up the body while doing this. Being too impatient may damage the suspension. So it is not suitable for bank robbers or anyone else who wants to jump into the car and drive off immediately.

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Re: Hydrolastic/Hydragas

>It's something you get used to and nowhere near as puke-inducing as Citroen's Hydropneumatic system though.....

I don't find the Xantia (the one I mentioned in another reply) puke-inducing at all. The ride is quite level, whether braking or accelerating. Oh, you can turn it into quite a rocking-chair by using a higher than normal setting in the lever that controls ground clearance, but there is seldom any reason to do so.

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Re: Hydrolastic/Hydragas

It's different in that there is no need for the pumps and control systems with a Hydragas setup, it's much simpler (more elegant, I'd say.) The only advantage I can see with the Citroën setup is the possibility of ride height control from within the car; with Hydragas you use an external pump to set that. Not that most people fiddle with the ride height of their cars on a regular basis, but I concede that it'd occasionally be useful...

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Happy

So it is not suitable for...anyone else who wants to jump into the car and drive off immediately.

Perfect for the French then...

Although hydralastic had no body roll (due to the bags being linked front-to-rear), there was still a bit of dive and squat under acceleration and braking (due to the bags *not* being linked left-to-right) - Although obviously this wasn't too much of an issue in a standard, drum-braked, 998cc mini...

On the other hand, as already mentioned, this did mean that bumps were absorbed beautifully (compression at the front over a bump resulted in expansion at the rear, keeping the car level and not bouncing all over the place).

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Bronze badge

Citroen...

Practically perfect suspension, particularly when loaded - no need to adjust the headlights (yes, that's what he adjustment is for - not blinding everyone else)

It's overly complex, yes - but it does the job, makes fording streams trivial, and provides amusement at a drive through.

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Pint

I raised a glass to his memory

Anyone wanting a introduction to why the bikes are so special should listen to the Bike Show podcast: http://t.co/i1bdpB9f

You can still buy an F-Frame bike for circa £100, the space frames are a lot pricier though my TSR9 cost me less than a zone 1-4 travel card in 2009 and is a lot more fun than the Central Line.

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Anonymous Coward

Dyson is not an Engineer!

Sir James Dyson is an Industrial Designer. That does not make him an Engineer!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Dyson is not an Engineer!

In the popular mind, anybody associated with vacuum cleaners or washing machines is an engineer.

One guy I worked with (M.Eng) had a wife who was a local politician. When he had to meet other politicians and they asked him what he did, he would reply "I am an engineer, and no, I do not know anything about washing machines".

I also happen to know a retired mechanical engineer who was once approached by the agent of a celebrity designer - not Dyson, I hasten to add - who explained that his client was looking for an engineer to, in effect, work with him to ensure that his designs were workable. Negotiations came to a sudden halt when the engineer mentioned that he expected equal billing.

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Awwwww!

Think I'll go for a drive in my classic mini tonight in his honor, find some rutted roads (won't be difficult) to bounce along.

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