Aug 13, 2013
Pioneering Engineer of the Classic MINI.
‘We had no analogy to fall back on; indeed the devices were more akin to biological organs than engineering mechanisms’. – Dr Alex Moulton, pioneer in Classic MINI engineering.
The key to success doesn’t always lie in plain sight.
One of the most radical breakthroughs for MINI came to live in an otherwise unglamorous location, but sparked a revolution in automotive design. This is the story of how one man helped make sure the first Classic MINI were just that: MINI.
If asked to name Dr Alex Moulton’s greatest innovation, one could say the answer is ‘too close to call’. While making landmark accomplishments in bicycle, aeronautic, and auto engineering, one common thread stitches his winning designs together: size. Moulton, who passed away at the age of 92 last December, left behind a legacy of literally reinventing the wheel in ever-ingenious and impressively efficient varieties. Most legendary is his development of a groundbreaking conical rubber suspension system. Together with friend Sir Alec Issigonis’s condensed wheel design, this unprecedented use of materials allowed the then brand-new Austin MINI of 1959 to fit comfortably within its famously efficient dimensions.
Moulton cut his teeth as a master of mechanics at King’s College Cambridge and as an aeronautical engineer during WWII. There, he had a hand in the development of the Bristol Centaurus engine, used to power fighter planes like the Hawker Tempest of the Royal Air Force and the Hawker Sea Fury for the Royal Navy. Such rigorous training helped set the stage for Moulton’s innovations to come.
After the war and his studies, Moulton was keen to exploit his inventions in the rapidly burgeoning automotive sector and turned to a friend at Morris Motors by the name of Alec Issigonis.
Issigonis, a suspension expert himself, had a rapid shot to fame in 1948 with the instant success of the Morris Minor, something of a precursor to the Classic MINI. But Issigonis wasn’t easily won over by Moulton’s bold proposals. ‘Rubber’, he stated critically, ‘is not an engineering material’. It was not until 1953 that Moulton was able to equip a Minor with rubber suspension and put it through its paces at the historic MIRA engineering testing site in Nuneaton. There, the car became the first vehicle ever to cover 1,000 miles on the pave without fault, due to Moulton’s new support system.
Suitably impressed, Issigonis brought Moulton onto his team, now at Alvis. His conical rubber suspension system played a star role in achieving the comforts of a ‘big car’ ride despite the compact dimensions of their design. With the first Suez Crisis focusing minds on fuel economy, Issigonis was charged with the urgent task of ‘driving these bubble cars off the roads’ by Leonard Lord at BMC.
The now-legendary Classic MINI was launched in 1959, suspended on Moulton rubber cone springs similar those first used at Alvis. By 1964, a more refined ‘Hydrolastic’ fluid suspension system was developed by Moulton and found its way onto the MINI factory floor, creating an even more enjoyable ride. Soon adopted by other car manufacturers, it continued to roll off production lines as late as 2002 – 43 years and 12 million cars after the first.
Later commenting on this wild new rubber-based system, Moulton explained: ‘We had no analogy to fall back on; indeed the devices were more akin to biological organs than engineering mechanisms’.
But it wasn’t just cars on the brain for Dr Alex Moulton. Once again the radical ideas pioneered with the Classic MINI would be vital in his redesign of the bicycle.
Inspired by the space liberated by the reduced wheel size on the Classic MINI, Moulton conceived the idea of a small-wheeled bicycle with an open frame, with front and rear suspension to improve rider comfort and allow the use of high-pressure tyres and large luggage carriers. In effect, it would achieve for cyclists the same goals of radical efficiency first pioneered by the Classic MINI for motorists. Scarcely six weeks after his Hydrolastic suspension was introduced on the new Austin 1100 in 1962, the ‘Moulton Bicycle’ launched to wild acclaim. On December 9th, racing cyclist John Woodburn broke the Cardiff-London speed record, establishing a solid reputation for Moulton’s latest endeavour.
The seemingly magical ride offered by Moulton’s steel and rubber design is still manufactured in the original workshops in Bradford on Avon, and remains in high demand.
Moulton’s engineering legacy, aside from the artefacts themselves, lies in his sensitivity to the emotional responses felt by users of his designs, something any MINI fan can appreciate. Whether it’s the go-kart thrills of a MINI first developed in part thanks to his ideas, or the efficient ergonomics of his bicycle, the renegade concepts and entrepreneurial spirit of Dr Alex Moulton live on with each turn of the wheels.