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Ride of a lifetime.

Along a meandering driveway smattered with fallen leaves is a hand painted sign warning those approaching to do so with caution pending the appearance of a cat called Toby. That he should warrant more of an introduction than his esteemed custodian is an example of Dr Alex Moulton's modest take on his considerable lifetime's achievements, as well documented in his memoir.

I am entering the estate containing Moulton's workshops and the adjacent Hall, itself dating back to the early 17th century and home to the family since the 1840s. Around this time, one Stephen Moulton had moved to Bradford on Avon, bringing samples of vulcanised rubber to Europe on behalf of Charles Goodyear, before establishing the Moulton Rubber Company. It was Stephen's great grandson, Alex, who then founded the Moulton Bicycle Company which remains in rude health today, with Shaun Moulton, great nephew to the founder himself, now 'at the wheel'.

During a previous visit here I was kindly welcomed by Dan Farrell CEng FIED, Group technical director, who is also with me on this trip. He remains instrumental in the company's ongoing innovations. Following an extensive tour of Moulton's facilities, Dan had allowed me a quick test-ride around the grounds on an 'AM series'. Only after I had dismounted had he explained that this bike boasted a price tag worth more than my car. This was confirmed by my witnessing a similar model on display in the shop of the 'British Design' exhibition currently running at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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On this occasion though, I am honoured to be able to visit Dr Moulton in his home. Until then, the splendour of the building had only been witnessed from afar, surprisingly inconspicuous yet central to Bradford-on-Avon and the rubber industry which once thrived there.

Dr Moulton (to which I must refer to him as he very courteously addressed me as Mr Hutton throughout our time together) welcomed Dan and I into the Hall. More precisely, into an ornately panelled room, decorated with friezes beautifully depicting various evolutions of bicycle geometry and suspension spring systems over Moulton's Long and prolific career, as well as showing the Hall itself.

Here, over tea, Dr Moulton made clear his hopes for the future of British engineering, centred necessarily around the need to export again at a rate comparable to earlier in his lifetime. His company happily bucks a recent downward trend, continuing to export 82% of its product overseas.

Dan was able to elaborate that much of this can be accounted for by a massive uptake in China and Japan where urban commuting, a chronic shortage of space and an increasing appreciation for what could be deemed iconic 'Western' design can all be thought of as factors.

Dan is held in high regard by the founder who refers to him as "one of the best engineering designers you will find". High praise indeed, coming from a man who, at 92 has had plenty of time to search hard enough. He maintains a vital contribution to Moulton's mantra of sticking to one's ideas and not being afraid to try things.

In pursuing this, Dr Moulton disapproves of an increasing reliance on computers within our industry, causing the mind of the engineer to 'switch off'. He does acknowledge though, the worth they bring to certain phases in the design process when used as no more than a tool. As if in testament, elsewhere in the building ties dormant a first generation Commodore desktop model. Whether this had fortuitously eschewed years of potential upgrade or was deliberately retained as an illustrative 'exhibit' wasn't clear.

Another substantial souvenir is a cutaway railway buffer showing Moulton's rubber spring system in all its glory. It is adorned by a brass plaque, lamenting its having been 'banished to Alex Moulton's study floor', in view of more appealing scenarios cited, at the end of an arduous shift.

More recent artefacts include suspension spring units from the Mini's original rubber cones through 'hydrolastic' and finally 'hydragas' systems featured as recently as on the MGF. Not to mention, of course, a few bikes!

Again, cutaways sections show the ingenious suspension systems and it is possible to peruse examples of most of Moulton's evolution throughout the many years' variants. One model stands out as that used by Reg Randall in his record-breaking cycle 'end-to end' (of England and Scotland) in 1958. The ergonomically bespoke lowered headset betrayed the short frame of Randall himself.

Dr Moulton was also keen to attribute some of his own principles to the wisdom of Sir Henry Royce whose quote is framed on the mantelpiece behind us. At the same time, Dan's eye is caught by an adjacent black and white photo displayed alongside and quizzes his boss on the technicalities of carrying three considerable kayaks atop a Bentley Series III. And why not?

At this, Dr Moulton is keen to recount more anecdotes and happily talks us through a copy of his publications From Bristol to Bradfordon-Avon and his oft-referred Formulae and Methods which have taken up invaluable residence on the desks of students and professional engineers alike.

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Less impressed is Toby, briefly deprived of his master's attentions, who brings his own tail to the table. This he flicks impatiently across the pages to remind us of his presence (or less likely to correct some error contained within!) With this not having the fully desired effect, a kitchen roll is then knocked unfurling to the floor to eventually provoke a playful reaction: "You could have some fun with that!"

At the same table, a couple of years ago, Dr Moulton enjoyed the more numerous, and no less distinguished, company of various Fellows of the IED and reminisces fondly over the occasion while speaking highly of the work we do. He recognises the challenges faced by the Institution in modern industry and so briefly indulges me in an amusing spot of hypothetical role play, taking on the part of the worst case of uncooperative client when faced with what he refers to as my 'Ambassadorial duties'. Quite accurately, I might say!

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A thoroughly enjoyable visit to the hall almost ends though on an unfortunate incident. On my departure, I am delighted when Dr Moulton agrees to us having our photo taken together. For this moment he briefly dispenses with his walking frame, disappointingly devoid of suspension, in favour of a couple of traditional walking sticks. I sidle humbly up to Dr Moulton, but clumsily manage to kick away one of his sticks. As I turn around to offer a supportive arm and my utmost apologies, he has shifted his balance sufficiently, as if to demonstrate the dynamic handling in which he made his name, and is grinning mischievously from ear to ear. Still a twinkle in his eye, as much a spring in his step.

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Blair Hutton MEng CEng MIED, 2011/12 Design Ambassador to the IED, visits Dr Alex Moulton CBE RDI FREng HonFIED, who discusses his hopes for the future of engineering design in Great Britain.
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Author:Hutton, Blair
Publication:Engineering Designer
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2012
Words:1178
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