By Mike Hessey
This is a progress report, so I don't intend to repeat all the information about the specifications of the bikes and their basic strengths and weaknesses - please see previous test reports on this site for this background information. This report will concentrate on how the bikes have behaved over an extended period and distances of over 1000 miles.
Although this is described as a long term test, the age and mileage covered by the bikes varies quite significantly, the oldest being the Moulton AM7 at nearly 15 years and just under 7000 miles, while the newest is the Birdy, which dates from June 1998 and has covered just over 1000 miles. I also have a Moulton Stowaway which I have owned since 1964, but this is not included in the report as the model has been out of production for many years, and mine is not used often nowadays.
This bike has reached its first thousand miles in a shorter time than any other bike I've owned. However, this does not indicate that it's my favourite, nor the most useful - it is more a reflection of the facts that:
On my very first ride a locking bolt in the folding mechanism of the steerer tube came out and left the fixing rather loose, but this was rectified by the dealer during my next ride, which was fortunately in the same area. Otherwise there have been no problems with the bike, apart from rattles (mainly from the V brakes), which I have managed to reduce, but not eliminate.
The rate of rear tyre wear was a serious concern initially, particularly as other people have reported problems in this respect, and I doubted at one stage that I would get 800 miles from the rear tyre. However, with 1032 miles covered there is still some life left in the back tyre, though I can't see it lasting more than a few hundred more miles. The front tyre shows little wear. In terms of life I'd rate the tyres as acceptable, though not outstanding. In other respects the tyres are not as good for road riding, as they feel to have rather a high rolling resistance, and the maximum rated pressure is lower than those available in other sizes - the lack of choice with the 18" wheels is one of the drawbacks of the Birdy. I should add that I use the high pressure (85psi) version of the tyre. Off-road these tyres perform quite well. The gear range on the 7-speed Red is a bit limited, but more importantly it is rather too high (at least for me) overall. It's tempting to fit a smaller chainwheel, but this is not as easy as it sounds, as the chain retaining plates on the chainwheel would not fit a smaller chainwheel. I find the gear change rather clunky, particularly changing into and out of bottom gear, but otherwise it is satisfactory. The transmission system is generally rather noisy when riding, sounding as those there is some friction there, and the chain rubs against the retaining plates in the highest and lowest gears, which must waste energy. My initial impression of the brakes was that they were too powerful and too abrupt, but a combination of bedding in, accumulated dirt and familiarity leaves them now much more acceptable - though it is still rather easy to lock a wheel on loose surfaces.
I still find the limited luggage carrying capacity a problem. For convenience I now use an A to B cover (no longer available) on the bike rather than the original bum-bag cover, as it packs smaller with less trouble and is lighter to carry. Although folding is reasonably straightforward, I only fold the Birdy if I have to. The need to put it in top gear before folding is a nuisance, and I usually manage to get my hands dirty when folding and unfolding. When folded the bike does not stand as neatly as a Brompton.
Generally the Birdy has performed well, but its underlying weaknesses (tyres, lack of luggaage capacity and construction) do make themselves felt. Although there is no bending or other sign of weakness, it does feel less sturdy in some respects than some other bikes, and comments from some other owners suggest that spares availability can be a problem - I had difficulties at one stage simply getting replacement high pressure tyres. I find it a useful machine to have, but it is not my favourite, and I would not want to have it as my only bike.
My New World Tourist (NWT) is two and a half years old, and has now done 2700 miles. I also acquired a Pocket Rocket earlier this year, but the distance covered on that does not justify its inclusion in this report.
Current NWTs have V-brakes, but my older model still has the original Big Dog callipers, and the braking performance is probably the worst feature of my machine. With new cables and everything perfectly clean, the braking performance is not too bad, but the positioning of the cables and brake units is such that they soon get dirty and performance deteriorates to being mediocre. The mudguards seem specifically designed to throw as much dirt as possible onto the callipers, and the long cable runs, with quite a lot of bends, mean that quite a lot of effort can be required to produce the maximum braking. Changing the brake blocks and fitting a V-brake 'noodle' in the cable at the back produces some improvement, but not a lot. The V-brakes of current models fitted with the 406 sized 20 inch wheels should be much more satisfactory, and I may modify the bike to take these at some point.
The lack of suspension means that the bike has a rather harsher ride than those with some form of suspension. However, on the road I find it acceptable, and the simplicity and reduced weight resulting from the absence of suspension components is very welcome. Off-road though the performance does suffer, and on some extreme surfaces it is so uncomfortable that I get off and push the NWT where I would have little difficulty in continuing riding the Birdy or Moulton. Despite this I'm not tempted to add the suspension seat post and/or Softride stem, as these would add weight and seem to me rather crude forms of suspension.
The bike isn't the most convenient or easiest folder, and I would not want to do it twice a day on a commuting run with train assistance that required bagging. However, luckily the local trains in my area take bikes with no restrictions or charges, so folding and bagging is only carried out for longer train journeys. Bagging is much improved since I bought an A to B cover (no longer available), which slips quickly over the bike and is small and light to carry in a pocket - much more useful that the rather bulky and heavy carry bag which is available as an official Bike Friday accessory. I do not have a carry case and trailer.
The NWT has given no problems since I've had it, and it is a very dependable and useful machine. Although it has its weaknesses, if I could only have one bike this is the one I would choose, though if I had to fold and bag it daily for commuting I might have to change that selection.
In eight years and a relatively limited 2400 miles the Brompton has never let me down, and on several occasions has been invaluable. The fitting of Primo tyres and Stubbie bar ends have improved the ride, both in terms of riding position and rolling resistance. I've had a few punctures with the Primos, but really no more than I might have had with other tyres. Both Primos are now looking rather tired, due to cuts as well as wear, and will need replacing soon, but they have done around 1500 miles, which is acceptable in my view. This 1990 T5 had CLB brakes, but I was not very impressed with them, and Alhongas were fitted during 1998, together with some better levers, which provide a worthwhile improvement in braking. However, I would still not rate the braking as particularly outstanding. At the same time I removed the rear carrier and dynamo lights to reduce weight, and also fitted a carbon fibre seatpost. The bike now feels quite lively when ridden without the bag and luggage, and is certainly noticeably lighter to carry when the need arises. Replacement of the rear mudguard was necessary as a result of the removal of the rear carrier, as a different pattern is required, and the bike was off the road for some weeks, as obtaining the parts took an age - more, I think, due to problems at the dealer than anything to do with Brompton, but disappointing nevertheless. Most recently the chain tensioner (an obsolete type) was replaced with a current unit, as the jockey wheels were showing quite a lot of wear.
The main drawbacks of the Brompton for me are the rather upright riding position with a short reach, and the wide gaps between the gears on the 5-speed Sturmey-Archer hub (I dont have any real complaint about the overall gear range, though I have chosen the lowest option). For longer rides these detract from the pleasure of cycling, but otherwise the Brompton is superb, and even with these slight disadvantages (for my use) it remains the best bike in many situations, and the most versatile.
Over the years the AM7 has given immense pleasure, and no serious problems. The front suspension jammed after 7 years (the usual problem of the plug sticking in the tube) - but I really don't think that this deserves any serious criticism at that age and mileage. Compared to the suspension on modern mountain bikes, the Moulton system is maintenance free, as opposed to needing greasing every month and an annual full maintenance.
The original CLB brakes were dreadful, but fitting Shimano 105s transformed braking, so that it is now probably the best of my bikes in this respect - smooth and progressive, reasonably light without being dangerously so.
The gear change on the bike was originally also not good - very difficult to find the right gear cleanly, and a tendency for the chain to come off when changing into top gear. Despite many attempts to rectify these problems, I never eliminated them, and other AM7 owners seem to have suffered in the same way. A couple of years ago the transmission and rear wheel were replaced, and the bike is now in effect an AM8, with Shimano indexed gears. Gear selection now presents no problems, and until the Folder Forum at Ventnor I thought the dropping of the chain had also been eliminated. Since then though the chain has managed to come adrift very occasionally when changing into top gear, and I have not yet managed to adjust the system to entirely eliminate the problem. Although there is an unfortunate gap in the gears near the middle of the range, I find the simple, direct, light 8 speed single chainwheel system of the AM ideal in other respects, and I would not want the extra complexity and weight of a double chainwheel system on this bike.
The good rear luggage capacity has made the AM a useful light tourer. This being an early model, it has slightly less substantial front forks than the latest models, and perhaps partly for this reason it is prone to an alarming shimmy if a heavy load is put at the front. Therefore I always put light and bulky items at the front when touring, and carry heavy items at the rear. Treated like this the AM makes an excellent general purpose bike, day-ride bike and light to medium tourer.
If the bike is to be carried in a car, and not separated and bagged for travel on public transport, the AM is an excellent machine. The problem comes if you need to carry it on public transport - I've only ever fully separated and bagged the AM once, preferring on other occasions to book and pay for it travelling fully assembled in the guards van of the train. Much as I love my AM, I havent used it as much since I gave up the car.
My APB is a very early model - number 32 - dating from April 1992. As such it started life as an APB 12, and lacked a number of features now standard on APBs. It's been much modified over the years, with a lot done to reduce the weight. It has road tyres (City Jets) and 3x7 gearing (which does not help on the weight front of course). Over the years it has given no trouble, and although I fitted a slightly softer front spring a couple of years ago, this was done more to enable an article to be written for the Moulton Bicycle Club magazine than because it was really necessary. The softer spring is incidentally the one now fitted as standard. Although some people have experienced jamming of the front suspension of the kind I experienced with the AM7, this has never happened yet to my APB. After nearly 7 trouble free years I would not be unduly upset if it did occur, and it is an inconvenience if it does happened, and does not represent a safety hazard or prevent one using the bike.
This is a very solid, dependable and reliable bike, and with the good standard luggage racks or one of a number of different alternatives, it is an excellent luggage carrier. The combination of larger wheels and stiffer springing amongst other things means that there is little sign of any of the front end shimmy mentioned in the case of my early AM7. I regard the APB as a useful general purpose bike, and a superb medium to heavy tourer - very comfortable, easy to get on and off, and with excellent luggage capacity.
The drawbacks with the APB are its weight - even with the most rigorous weight reduction measures it is about 3 pounds overweight - and consequent rather lumbering feel on the road, and its lack of portability, which is similar to the AM series.
All these bikes have all acquitted themselves well, and there have been no serious problems with any of them - in fact probably less problems than with the average conventional non-folding/separating bike. Each has different strengths and weaknesses, and generally these were apparent from the start, rather than being exposed by extended use. For my own purposes, which place rather more emphasis on riding than folding, if I had to choose just one of these bikes it would be the Bike Friday NWT. If I needed a bike which was to be folded almost daily for commuting by train, the Brompton might well come out on top, and if I were limited to 2 bikes then the Brompton would be one of them. If I were looking for a bike which would be ridden from home or taken by car, rather than public transport, the Moultons would become stronger contenders. So it's a case of horses for courses, and I'm glad to be able to choose from this extensive stable and be able to pick the most suitable mount to match the occasion, and also have the pleasure of a change of bike.
So does familiarity breed contempt? Well in the case of all these bikes, far from it. It's fair to say that the more I use them the more pleased I become with them, and the more I useful I find folding and separating bikes in general.
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Last updated: 20 February 2001