Moulton Bicycles – Magnificent Engineering, but at a cost
Well back in 1998 I decided that my expanding girth could be addressed by cycling. I used to cycle a lot at school and it was one physical/sporting practice I was actually good at. So off I went with a new connection to the Internet and started searching. I found Moulton bicycles. Being totally enamoured with the Alex Moulton designed Hydrolastic suspension on my beloved Austin 1800 I decided this was a good place to start. It didn’t take long to discover that the really cool stainless steel Moulton bikes (such as the AM GT or NS) were going to cost me in excess of $10,000. Well not for me. So I searched and came across a Moulton APB14 Shimano Plus, this was an entry level Moulton bike made under licence by Pashley in the UK. A nice bike with mountain bike style gears and bars. It was $2,000 and was about 15 kg as equipped. No lightweight and quite pricey. Well I rode that bike for quite a while but found cycling to be a little uncomfortable. No matter what saddle I tried, be it a classic Brooks leather saddle, or a fancy gel saddle, comfort eluded me.
I altered the bike extensively to get drop bars with nice Shimano bar-end shifters, and all in all the bike was as I would specify it if I had built it. But the lack of comfort really puzzled me, so I decided it was time to investigate the recumbent world and so began my great Recumbent Folly.
But before I finish my story of Moulton bikes, let me say I love the idea of the Moulton, as an engineering teacher it makes sense to me. They are a work of beauty, particularly the NS Moulton with nearly 100 silver brazed joints on a 304 stainless steel frame. The use of small wheels with suspension, is terribly clever, and Moulton pioneered this for road bikes long before landing gear style suspension was thought of for off-road bikes. But the great failure of the Moulton concept, is they are a bicycles for the elite. Not elite cyclists, but the elite as in the wealthy. The NS Moulton costs around £4,500, now that is around AU$ 10,000 (depending on exchange rates). That makes a new carbon fibre road racer look cheap. And that is where my love affair with the Moulton turns sour. Alex Moulton has turned the humble bike into a work of art only the wealthy can truly afford. The only other way is to give up your car and then justify spending a similar amount on a bicycle. This is a tragedy because I had the pleasure of riding an NS Moulton and it is a revelation, light, fast, responsive and smooth like no other bike I have ridden. But this brilliant engineering will remain a mystery to most due to the high cost of joining the club.
It wasn’t always this way, back in the 1960’s Moulton managed to take on the established cycling world with his small wheel F-frame bicycles, complete with small wheels and suspension. But they failed to displace the established diamond frame/safety bicycle design and by the 1970s they were gone. When the new and advanced space frame Moultons came on the scene in 1983 Alex Moulton deliberately made them expensive high end machines and sentenced the average cyclist to the world of conformity. Sadly most will never get to ride the best Moultons, and never realise how good they are.
Ultimately my gripe with Alex Moulton is he has developed an improved bicycle, and it is only available to the wealthy, who else can justify a $10,000 bike, that can’t even be used in competitive races (banned by the UCI for a drafting advantage). Moulton bikes are truly lovely pieces of engineering but here in Australia, sadly the cost is just prohibitive, to the point of being ridiculous.