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2 November 2016 No comments

The Alex Moulton "Earl Grey" Dashing Bike

Correspondence Friends Bicycles Monthly highlights
By Bregan Koenigseker
The Alex Moulton "Earl Grey" Dashing Bike

this slender, whippet thing of steel and rubber that carries a man far and fast, by his own glad effort, on the open road and takes him away from his cares … as nothing can,
Twells Brex

In the mid-1830s, Stephen Moulton sailed across the Atlantic Ocean (quite an undertaking at the time) to pursue business interests. This journey changed his life. As a broker in New York, looking for new opportunities, he made the acquaintance of a gentleman named Charles Goodyear.

Goodyear had - through over twenty years of ingenuity, experimentation and dogged persistence – unlocked the greatest industrial secret of the 19th Century. He discovered a method – later called ‘vulcanisation’ - of turning gum rubber into a durable, predictable ‘vegetable leather’. Rubber products, as we know them today – rubber tyres, hoses, seals, straps, soles – all depend on Goodyear’s invention.

Entrusted with three samples and the authority to sell the rights to the process for £50,000, Moulton brought ‘Goodyear’s Improved Rubber’ to Europe in 1842. He purchased a derelict mill in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, and founded The Moulton Rubber Company. The mainstay of this operation (and its successor, Spencer Moulton & Co.), was to supply rubber hoses, springs, seals etc. for the rapidly expanding railway industries right across the British Empire; but there were many other items of interest – waterproof capes for the British Army in Crimea, rubber boots (galoshes and Wellingtons), and mast supports for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern.

Whilst Moulton was manufacturing thousands of railway mechanical parts from ‘vegetable leather’, another man was finding new uses for animal hides. According to legend, in 1865 a young John Boultbee Brooks, harness-maker and general leather worker, bought a Michaux ‘Velocipede’ to replace his deceased horse so that he could travel to his father’s works in Birmingham. Bruised by the unyielding wooden saddle, he looked at his horse-riding saddle and the first Brooks leather saddle was born. In 1866 he opened the Criterion Works in Great Charles Street, where Brooks were to remain for almost a hundred years. In 1882 he filed his first patent – “I was dissatisfied,” he stated, “with the present type of saddle, which affords little protection against the shocks of cycling on our uneven roads” – and thus began a remarkably inventive and energetic career in saddles, bags and leather accessories.

Stephen Moulton’s great-grandson, Alex Moulton, joined Spencer-Moulton in 1945. He saw great opportunities for rubber in the burgeoning automotive industries. After many years of experimentation, reminiscent of Goodyear’s struggle with vulcanisation, Alex and his small research team were to make physical and mathematical sense of rubber as an engineering element. Hitherto rubber in compression was understood and reasonably predictable (and indeed rubber in tension was understood and treacherous), now he could work with rubber in torsion and in shear –and, critically, there was now a comprehension of the subtleties of design required to ensure long fatigue life of rubber parts.

The result of this research is now history – Alex Moulton put rubber suspension (cone and interconnected ‘Hydrolastic’) under ten million British cars – from 1959 until 2000. A further three million cars were equipped with Moulton’s ‘Hydragas’ interconnected gas-sprung units, the last being the MGF in 2002.

Alex turned his attention to bicycles during the first Suez Crisis. To ensure his activities were not curtailed by petrol rationing, he borrowed a ‘curly’ Hetchins as ‘a serious alternative means of locomotion’. Immediately being both intrigued and delighted with this lightweight steed, he nonetheless found it uncomfortable (although he had no complaints about the Brooks saddle) and unwieldy, particularly when carrying luggage. With characteristic conviction, he resolved to improve on it.

The Moulton Bicycle, with rubber suspension and small (16”) wheels, was launched in 1962 to immediate acclaim. Within a year Moulton became the second-largest cycle makers in Britain. To cut a long story short, Moulton sold the business to Raleigh in 1967 and started up again with the ‘Advanced Engineering Bicycle’ – this time targeted exclusively towards high quality – in 1983. This time he was determined to keep the business small, exclusive and under this absolute control. There were only two models available: AM7 with seven speed derailleur for the touring cyclist; and AM2 with two-speed hub gear. Both were enamelled in ‘steely grey’ and were unostentatious statements against the conspicuous consumption that typified the era - equipment was functional and form was guided by engineering principles.

The Moulton Brooks ‘Earl Grey 1866’ is the result of Alex Moulton’s design philosophy pared down to its elemental purity – in effect a return to the ethos of the AM2 . The lightweight (3/8” tube) space-frame was originally developed for the world’s toughest bicycle race, the Race Across America. As well as being over twice as stiff as a conventional diamond frame, it can be separated into two parts in a matter of seconds to allow easy transportation by train, car or taxi. The two-speed automatic gear is ideal for the square mile, the city and the University town; a return to essential simplicity. In a similar vein, the grey finish is typical of the aesthetes mindset – judge by form, by comfort, by performance, but not by colour. It does, however, complement the Brooks Cambium saddle perfectly. After all, what better match for a bicycle designed and manufactured in the cradle of Europe’s rubber industry than the vulcanised rubber Cambium saddle?

Each Moulton Brooks ‘Earl Grey 1866’ bicycle is individually numbered. To commemorate 150 years of Brooks saddles, these numbers range from B 1866 to B 2016. Each will only be used once, so those of you who would like to choose a significant year, please order early (via moultonbicycles.co.uk or Brooks' B1866 Stores).

And why ‘Earl Grey’, you may ask? To be succinct, Wednesday afternoons working with Alex Moulton were punctuated by Digestive biscuits and Earl Grey tea. And whilst J B Brooks was making his first saddles, the Great Tea Race of 1866 was underway. Clipper ships, sharp-lined and built for speed, raced from China (principally Fuzhou) to England. The first cargo of Tea to arrive each season was the most valuable to merchants, and so the Captains were motivated by an extra 10 shillings per ton if they docked first. In a remarkable turn of events, three ships – the Taeping, the Ariel, and the Serica – all left Fuzhou on the same tide. 99 days and 14,000 miles later, they arrived on the river Thames in London on the same tide on the 6th September 1866. Taeping entered London Docks at 9.45 pm, half an hour before Ariel passed through the gates of East India Dock. It is a pleasant diversion to spin down from Brooks’ B1866 shop to Waterloo Bridge and along the Thames to Docklands. If you do so, honour those tea-bringing ships’ masters and crews by keeping up a good clip along the Embankment. The more energetic may wish to continue down the river to Greenwich where the Tea Clipper ‘Cutty Sark’ is preserved. Don’t forget to stop for tea.

3.300 £ including VAT retail