Obituary: Alex Moulton / Automotive engineer created small-wheeled bicycle
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Alex Moulton, a British automotive engineer who created a small-wheeled bicycle that fired a trend in the 1960s and became the forerunner of the collapsible, portable bikes of today, died Dec. 9 in Bath, England. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by his grandnephew, Shaun Moulton, the chief executive of Moulton Bicycle Co., which Alex Moulton founded and which still makes by hand bicycles based on his original design in Bradford-on-Avon, where Mr. Moulton lived.
Mr. Moulton, who had made a number of innovations in automobile suspension systems, began toying with a small-wheel design for an adult bicycle in the late 1950s. His interest was partly spurred by gasoline rationing in Britain during the Suez crisis, which began when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, an act that threatened to halt oil shipments to western Europe from the Persian Gulf.
But the design was also fostered by his own engineer's determination to make things better: "The Moulton bicycle was born out of my resolve to challenge and improve upon the classic bicycle," he said.
His idea was to create a more efficient, all-purpose vehicle, suitable for errands and commuting at least as much as for recreation. He wanted it to have substantial carrying capacity, to be maneuverable in traffic, to roll smoothly and to be pedaled easily.
He came up with a bike with wheels 16 inches in diameter, high-pressure tires for minimum rolling resistance, front and rear rubber suspension systems for smooth riding on potholed or cobblestoned roads, and a step-through frame (that is, without the top tube of the traditional diamond-shaped frame) for easy dismounting (and more suitable for women wearing skirts). The small wheels left plenty of room for carrying briefcases, shopping bags or overnight luggage.
The early bikes could easily be taken apart for convenient stowing, though they were not really foldable; still, the small-wheel collapsible bikes of today owe a debt to the original Moulton. (Moulton Bicycle Co. now makes foldable bikes itself.)
Mr. Moulton completed the prototype in 1959 and offered to license it to the Raleigh bicycle company. When it turned him down, he began making them himself, introducing the bicycle at a London bicycle fair in 1962 and founding Moulton Bicycle Co. in Bradford-on-Avon in 1964.
The bicycles immediately took hold in 1960s Britain, where, because of their quirkiness and convenience, they became "seen as a fashionable minibike," as the company says on its website, "to go with miniskirts and mini cars."
They were less popular in the United States, where the Huffman Manufacturing Co. in Dayton, Ohio, began making them in 1965.
Life magazine referred to Mr. Moulton's invention as "the first basic advance in bicycle design in 70 years," and the Raleigh company, after creating a competing design of its own and then scrapping it, eventually approached Mr. Moulton to acquire the rights it had failed to secure years earlier. Raleigh manufactured the Moulton bicycle from 1967 to 1974.
Alexander Eric Moulton was born on April 9, 1920, in Stratford-on-Avon. His great-grandfather founded a rubber company. His father, John Coney Moulton, was a zoologist and British army officer who spent years in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, where he was curator of the Sarawak Museum and became chief secretary to the white rajah, Charles Brooke, Sarawak's head of state. John Moulton died when his son Alex was 5 or 6, leaving him to be raised by his mother, Beryl, and her family.
Alex Moulton graduated in engineering from Cambridge. During World War II he worked at Bristol Aeroplane Co. as the assistant to the company's chief engineer, a leading designer of aircraft engines. After the war he joined the family rubber business, Spencer Moulton and Co., and established a research department specializing in automobile suspension systems.
Spencer Moulton and Co. was sold in the late 1950s, and Mr. Moulton founded his own design firm, Moulton Developments Ltd.
First Published December 24, 2012 12:00 am