MOULTON AND THE MINI - THE DUNCAN DRAGONFLY

2019 marks sixty years of the legendary Mini.  There is much to be celebrated about the Mini – and Alex Moulton’s contributions to the project - and here at the Alex Moulton Charitable Trust we have a couple of events planned to mark the occasion.  We are delighted to be welcoming Mini expert Peter Barker to The Hall to talk Mini on August 16th; and we will be screening the inimitable film ‘The Italian Job’ in the grounds on August 31st.

The Mini was very much a vehicle of new ideas – innovative packaging, front wheel drive, small wheels, Moulton’s rubber suspension and the gearbox in the engine sump with both ‘sharing the same bath water’.  The genius of Alec Issigonis was exemplified in combining all of this with interior room to rival much larger cars, keeping the exterior dimensions diminutive and also ensuring it was charming and endearing to boot.  Thus the Mini became a legend in its own lifetime - hugely successful and remaining in production for over forty years. You can read more about Alex Moulton and the Mini here.

Of course, not all of these ideas and features were entirely new and many had appeared on other car designs both pre- and post-war.  Indeed, there was one car – the Duncan Dragonfly of 1948 – that demonstrated enough innovation in many of these areas that the Austin Motor Company bought the prototype and all the rights from its designer, Ian Duncan.  The Dragonfly had front wheel drive, the engine and gearbox in a single unit, diminutive 12” wheels and was much smaller than contemporary cars.  In a highly unusual move, it also featured independent suspension utilising rubber as the suspension medium.  This was designed and engineered by none other than Alex Moulton.  Moulton had recently joined the family firm, Spencer Moulton in Bradford on Avon, and had submitted a paper to the Board proposing the development of rubber suspensions for automobiles.  As was characteristic, he didn’t delay and the suspension for the Dragonfly was one of his first designs – although is was not entirely new as it was derived from the work he did on the Fedden Car during the Second World War.  Both types comprised stack of rubber ‘pastilles’ loaded in compression and were relatively crude in comparison to Moulton’s later suspensions.

The Fedden Car was developed under the auspices of Sir Roy Fedden, Chief Engineer at Bristol Aeroplane.  As an out-of-hours diversion, three of Fedden’s assistants worked on the car; as leading aero engineers they thought car design to be straightforward.  These ‘Three Musketeers’ would be humbled by their naivety and arrogance, and were disastrously influenced by the German Volkswagen.  The Fedden Car is a story for another day, but its three main protagonists were Ian Duncan, Peter Ware and Alex Moulton.  They shared an office at Bristol Aeroplane in Filton, and indeed Duncan and Moulton were flatmates in Clifton. All three played significant roles in the development of post-war cars. Duncan went on to form his own car company, developed the Dragonfly, and as part of its sale to Austin he worked at Longbridge for three years.  Ware became involved in the Rootes Group and the Hillman Imp; and Moulton went back to his family roots in rubber technology (and eventually Moulton suspension ended up on twelve million cars from 1959 to 2002).  Hence when Duncan needed a suspension design for the Dragonfly, he turned to his friend Alex Moulton.  As a quid pro quo it is thought that Duncan styled the Moulton steam car (and there lies another tale). 

Alex Moulton would later meet Alec Issigonis and the pair would develop rubber suspension systems that were more effective and more efficient than those on the Dragonfly.  Duncan’s car was still at Austin (then under the new British Motor Corporation umbrella) when Issigonis was brought in to design the Mini to drive all the bubble-cars off the road.  Issigonis was a man to solve problems in his own way and took no interest in Duncan’s work – although, thanks to Moulton’s efforts – Issigonis was at least aware of the Dragonfly’s features and this may have reassured Issi that some of his concepts had at least been trialled before and given him the confidence to make the Mini the game-changer it was. Certainly small-car design would never be the same again.