Manchester based documentary photographer and journo David Dunnico celebrates the trailblazers of quirky British design and invention.
Barnes Wallis at his drawing board, photo: London Borough of Hillingdon
Probably the first “designer” I knew of was Barnes Wallis – the inventor of the Dam Busters’ bouncing bomb in the Second World War. If the phrase “blue sky thinking” had been thought of, he’d have been soaring right up there. He left a list of idiosyncratic successes and “what-might-have-been” and the enduring archetypal image of British designers being mavericks. (Don’t worry; we’ll get onto bikes in the next paragraph.) Nowadays “designer” conjures up images of men wearing roll neck pullovers, rather than blokes shuffling slide rules (if you’re under 40, you may need to ask a grown-up to explain slide rules to you).
A slide rule – if you’re under 40, you may need to ask a grown-up to explain slide rules to you,
photo: Guian Bolisay
James Dyson and Norman Foster are modern mavericks in the Wallis mold and both are fans of the man who designed my new Moulton TSR2 bike. Dr Alex Moulton came up with the suspension system of the original Mini motorcar in the 1950s. He went on to build the most iconic bike of the 1960s, and in the 1970s developed the space frame concept that did away with the diamond shape of most bike frames and used a lattice that calls to mind bridges, electricity pylons, or maybe the fuselage of Wallis’s Wellington bomber.
Alex Moulton on a Moulton, photo: Chris Jones
OK, so now we’ve made a tenuous link with bikes, what’s this got to do with Vulpine? A bit ago, Nick from Vulpine wrote about his ultimate commuter bike, a custom built Colourbolt.
Nick on his Colourbolt, photo: Josh Greet
I’m beginning to think a Moulton might be my ultimate commuter bike, although it’s the most un-utilitarian looking thing I’ve ever ridden. The one I got is their cheap(er) model, which is built by Pashley. It’s got 20 inch wheels, a belt drive instead of a chain, front and rear suspension, two speed kick back gears and a coaster break in the hub (which does away with most of the cables and gives it fixie-killer clean lines).
It’s also the most comfortable, most nimble (maybe a bit twitchy) bike I’ve ever had. Despite its looks, it doesn’t fold or ride like a Brompton. It’s ideal for riding around town as it turns heads and raises smiles. After a few miles thinking, “Well this is err different”, you start wondering why most of the bikes we ride in cities look like the ones our heroes ride in road races or on the track.
My Moulton TSR2 – looks weird, rides great
Whereas Nick hoped understated looks might deter sticky fingers, I hope idiosyncratic (alright, plain weird) looks might do the same. Moulton was an engineer, not a stylist – he looked at a way of solving the problems he saw with conventional bikes.
What he came up with was a design suitable for either sex. You don’t have to swing a leg over to get on or off it, one size nearly does fit all – you can be short or tall and ride the same bike. If only clothes could be the same – think of how much smaller Vulpine’s warehouse could be! Don’t just take my word for it. James Dyson reckoned, "Good design is about how something works, not just how it looks, which is why I like the Moulton bike so much.” And Foster thought, “Like other engineered objects that I find exciting, its appearance and performance are indivisible – it has a kind of sparse beauty”.
Chris Boardman's 1992 Olympic bike, photo: Sophia Brothers
Moulton who died aged 92 in 2012, wasn't the only British bicycle designer who did things their own way. Mike Burrows worked with Lotus to design Chris Boardman's radically different (and subsequently banned) 1992 Olympic bike. He went on to develop the compact frame, which had a sloping top tube, which was once considered weird, but is now ubiquitous. For a time Burrows worked for Giant, the worlds biggest bike firm, which goes to show that the stereotype of the lone genius who’s ideas are ignored is sometimes wrong.
In the words of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and another maverick with a taste for roll neck sweaters, “Real artists ship". Jobs and Moulton share at least one trait with Vulpine – obsession about the tiniest details. The products that result from this may not be cheap, but aren’t designer label expensive either. They look ‘right’ and do what they’re supposed to do.
The magnetic closure on a Harrington Rain Jacket
My favourite Vulpine garments to some extent eschew conventional thinking. They tap into a long tradition of British fashion being stylish and a little idiosyncratic. There are tiny touches of genius such as the magnets that fasten my Vulpine Harrington jacket, or the fold down bum flap of the Original Rain Jacket, or the very idea behind the Ultralight gilet and jacket.
A lot of cycle clothing borrows too much from racing to be suitable for how, where and when most of us actually ride bikes. Maybe Vulpine should make a black merino sweater sporting an internal iPhone pocket, with matching roll neck buff attached by magnets? Maybe not.
Oh if you’re wondering about the bike’s name, TSR2 was another piece of British genius – the most advanced aircraft in the World when it was cancelled in 1965 – Barnes Wallis was said to have been quite critical of its design. The best designers are not afraid of strong opinions.