Alex Moulton’s memoirs

For many years, people have been saying that somebody should write a biography of Alex Moulton. For several reasons, I resisted the temptation. However, with the late John Pinkerton, I did produce a comprehensive video-recorded interview with Alex, about 12 years ago. This was highly structured and covered all aspects of his varied career. John and I felt that it was important that such a record existed in the archives. We were therefore delighted when, after seeing the finished programme, Alex described it as the best interview he had ever given. It even spawned a pocket-sized book, based on a transcript of the interview, which was published by Moulton enthusiast Dr Wilhelm Hopf, via his company Lit Verlag, in 2007.

(The video is available from the Veteran-Cycle Club and you can hear the 94 minute edited soundtrack by visiting http://idisk.mac.com/hadland1-Public/cycling_history_interviews.html For availability of the pocket-sized book, email lit@lit-verlag.de )

The interview was in no way intended as a substitute for a written biography. Oral histories can be very revealing and provide unique insights into a personality. They are not, however, a replacement for a carefully considered and researched biography. I was therefore pleased, some years ago, to discover that Alex Moulton was writing his memoirs. It has not been plain sailing and the book has been a long time coming. Alex is somebody who spends most of his time thinking about the future rather than dwelling on the past. For such people, writing memoirs can be difficult and a low priority. Jonathan Rishton assisted Alex in producing the initial manuscript. It is some years since Jonathan visited me to discuss aspects of the project.

Now, as we approach Alex Moulton’s 90th birthday on 9 April 2010, the book has finally been published by The Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust. It is a large format paperback of 320 pages, profusely illustrated, with considerable use of colour. The title is Alex Moulton – from Bristol to Bradford-on-Avon, with the strapline ‘a lifetime in engineering’.

In his introduction to the book, Alex points out that his intention is to be didactic as well as descriptive – notwithstanding the complaint of an old friend that he ‘pontificated too much’! To this end, the book contains many diagrams and sketches from Alex’s archives, to show the origins of concepts and consequent steps in the creative process. This adds a special value to the memoir.

The chapters cover: Alex’s family background; World War 2 (part of which he spent at Bristol aero engines); suspension research and development; Hydrolastic and Hydragas; the Moulton bicycles; steam power; and pastimes and the future.

There are also four appendices. These comprise: a very comprehensive section of 72 pages on the Bristol Centaurus aero engine; the Fedden car specification; a Moulton Bicycles Limited policy memorandum from the time when the firm was running at a loss in November 1965; and a concise and interesting section on a subject dear to Alex’s heart – education for engineering.

Alex Moulton is unique. No other living engineer has combined active involvement in the design of steam engines, aero engines, automotive suspension and bicycles. I can think of none who is still working at the age of 90 and whose products are being made in the grounds of his own house in England, by British craftsmen, with the majority being exported at premium prices to the Far East. His story is well worth reading, for a variety of reasons –  not least its frankness.

You can buy the book from Alex Moulton himself (email dr.alex.moulton@moultondevelopments.co.uk) for £25 plus postage. If you are interested in any of the fields in which he has worked – steam, aircraft, cars or bikes – you will certainly enjoy this memoir. In so doing, you will marvel at the way in which this inventive and determined man has bucked the mind-numbingly conformist trends of the modern corporate world – even though this has, at times, cost him dear.

Tony Hadland

‘Brompton Bicycle’ – new book by David Henshaw

On Saturday I received my hard copy of ‘Brompton Bicycle’, the new book by David Henshaw. David has edited and published A to B magazine since 1997 and before that its predecessor, The Folder, a magazine about portable cycles. He also helped Brompton establish its dealer network in the 1990s. More than that, he and his family live out an existence in which bicycles, and more than any other variety, the Brompton, play a key daily role in getting from A to B. Eschewing motor cars (about which he knows a lot) David and his family have done the cycling equivalent of  ‘walking the talk’.

Here’s my review of this excellent book, which I recommend to anybody interested in bicycle history or industrial design. It is published by Excellent Books (www.excellentbooks.co.uk) and sells for £11.95 in the UK. The ISBN is 978-1-901464-22-1. You can buy it for a slight discount via Amazon. If you use the Amazon links on my home page, it costs you nothing extra (not one penny more) but I get a small commission which helps keep this website going.

Brompton Bicycle’ by David Henshaw

‘The only folding bike that people fold when they don’t need to.’ This comment on the Brompton sums up the genius of the design. Created a third of a century ago, the Brompton still sets the bicycling benchmark for compact portability. Now, David Henshaw has produced the book that many have long awaited – a comprehensive, readable, informative and beautifully illustrated history entitled simply ‘Brompton Bicycle’.

The volume is attractively presented, with numerous illustrations, some very rare, and the majority in colour. The Foreword is by author and TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis, who took to the Brompton whilst filming his television series ‘Local Heroes, in the early 1990s. As Adam points out, ‘David writes clearly and amusingly … about the tortuous history of this superb bicycle.’

David briefly describes his own involvement with the Brompton – how he discovered it in 1991 and how it changed his life: ‘If it wasn’t for the Brompton, I might still be writing books about historic motor cars.’ A short history of folding bicycles then sets the scene. As early as 1878, Grout’s Portable ‘penny farthing’ highlighted the key factor of wheel size. In the post-Suez era, Alex Moulton’s development of 14, 16 and 17-inch rims and tyres for adult cycles established the practical limits for wheel size reduction. Moulton had no interest in folding bicycles as such but the fact that some of his bikes separated for easing stowing stimulated interest in folders. David Henshaw recounts the nest of curates’ eggs laid by imitators of the Moulton, including Raleigh’s ironically named RSW Compact, the Russian tank of the folding bicycle world.

A groundbreaking development was the Bickerton – lighter and more compact that any previous commercially produced folder but flimsy and wobbly to ride. For some years, the Bickerton represented the state of the art in compact folding bicycles. As David explains, it was also the catalyst that stimulated Andrew Ritchie to try and do better.

Andrew is a gifted but shy person, who has successfully side-stepped publicity for most of his career. This makes his surprisingly cosmopolitan background all the more interesting – his ancestors include a Prussian Count and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. (Read the book to find out more!) Like Alex Moulton, Andrew graduated in engineering from the University of Cambridge, albeit a generation later. David highlights the inventor’s initial restlessness: ‘Andrew Ritchie had shown a flair for engineering design, but chose to move into computers; he had a talent for computer programming, but moved into the world of commerce.’ For a while Andrew even ran a business selling house plants to housewives.

The story of how the Brompton evolved is a heroic one, full of fascination, both in the technical ingenuity displayed, and in the human drama involved. For a private individual successfully to design and market a new bicycle is a huge and daunting task. It has led to at least one tragic suicide among my own circle of friends. That Andrew Ritchie succeeded is truly remarkable and you will need to read this book to understand just how he did it. It was certainly not helped by the giants of the industry, such as Raleigh, who twice rejected the Brompton. Andrew Ritchie must surely be excused a little schadenfreude now that Raleigh no longer manufacture bicycles in the UK, whereas his output, made by British workers in a British factory, continues to climb, year on year, decade on decade.

As David Henshaw explains, by 1977 Andrew Ritchie had evolved the Brompton in a form we would still recognise today. From thereon, Andrew demonstrated a remarkable tenacity. The earlier restlessness was harnessed, tamed and directed. Where other designers might be tempted to make frequent major changes, a remarkable aspect of the Brompton story is the continuous incremental development and refinement of the design.

David Henshaw’s 152 page book contains chapters on each phase of the Brompton’s history. There is also a section on Brompton specials and a useful information on using and maintaining a Brompton. The appendices include a detailed chronology, a guide to serial numbers, and charts showing profit and sales figures. At the back of the book, there are short sections on Brompton people and making a Brompton. The book is comprehensively indexed.

‘Iconic’ is an overused and clichéd term, but it certainly applies to the Brompton. ‘Brompton Bicycle’ by David Henshaw is the definitive companion volume. Whether or not you own a Brompton, you will find this an interesting and inspiring read. I heartily commend it.

Tony Hadland