Those who know what a bike nerd I am will understand my immense joy in bringing you this exclusive interview with Dave Moulton. For those who do not know who Dave is, here is a little background; he was a custom frame builder in England before coming to the US to be one of the most famous builders in Masi history. Dave later went on to build frames under the John Howard brand name and later under his own bike brand Fuso. Many of his bikes are considered to be some of the best examples of handmade craftsmanship.
Dave has been out of the cycling business for a number of years now and has been dedicating his efforts to writing, most notably the novel Prodigal Child. (I haven't read it yet, but it is now on my short list of books I will be buying.)
A short while ago, I stumbled upon Dave while doing a bit of research and commenting in a couple of bike forums. I was amazed to see his name and we ended up communicating with each other and I asked him if he would indulge me and allow me to ask him a few questions. He consented to the interview and now we find ourselves here!
I hope that you will enjoy all of this as much as I did.
Relative to Masi, what did you most enjoy about framebuilding?
What kinds of things did you learn to "hone" your skills as a builder?
Before I went to work for Masi I was a custom framebuilder, that is building one frame at a time to order. Not the most efficient way to build frames. At Masi I had the opportunity to build small batches of 5 or 10 frames all the same. I was able to stand all day and just braze frames. As with any skill it is with repetition you become better and faster at what you do. Even when I left Masi and went back to building custom frames I no longer worked on one frame from start to finish, but rather set the frame aside when it got to a certain stage, waited until I had at least 5 frames going then worked on them as a batch of frames even though they were all custom, and all different. And of course later when I opened my own shop and started producing the John Howard and later the Fuso I went back to the small batch production method of working on five frames at a time all the same.
What do you think it was that made Masi such a sought after bike?
The brand had a pedigree, Faliero Masi was a known name and many top European pros rode the bikes. Plus he always employed the best framebuilders like Mario Confente. But in the end it was consistent high quality of workmanship that built the reputation. I can only speak for when I was there, but Ted Kirkbride who later took over ownership of the company, always insisted on the highest standards and would accept nothing less.
Since you were already an accomplished builder when you left England and came to the US and worked at Masi, were there any other people at Masi that you learned anything from?
One can always learn from anyone at any time. Mainly I learned how to finish a frame by observing what people like Jim Allen, Jim Cunningham, and Bryan Baylis were doing.
How long were you involved with Fuso?
Was that a company of your own or did you work with somebody else to create the bikes?
I built Fuso frames from its inception in 1984 until I left the business in 1993. Fuso was never a company it was a brand name and trade mark registered to me. My business was always a sole proprietorship. As mentioned earlier, with skills honed at Masi I found if I could employ other people to prepare materials and constantly feed me those materials, I could braze a lot of frames. It was the brazing together of the frame that would dictate how the frame rode and handled along with the design of course. I find it satisfying to be able to point to any Fuso frame, or any of the others I built and say, “I stood there and actually brazed that frame together.”
What other builders did you admire when you were building, if any?
What builders, if any, do you think are admirable builders now?
The ones I admired back then are still around today. People like Richard Sachs and Ben Serotta. Apart from that I am too out of touch with the bike business to really know what anyone is really doing today.
Do you still speak to any of your former customers you built frames for?
I get emails all the time from people who own bikes I built in the 1970s and 1980s. Many have owned them from new and will not part with them. I probably have more contact with my former customers now than when I was actually building frames. I sold all my frames through bike dealers and had little or no contact with the individual customer. I just didn’t have the time back then, building the frames took all my time. It’s a very labor intensive business.
How many frames, on a guess, do you think you built over the years?
A realistic guess, about 6,000. I recently read a piece about a framebuilder who has been in the business a few years, claim that he had built 10,000 frames. It probably feels like 10,000 to him, but I doubt it. I was amazed when I came across my old frame number record book for custom ‘dave moulton’ frames and I actually counted them. There were only 216 custom frames built in the US between 1982 and 1986. Of course as Fuso production increased the number of custom frames decreased. I built just under 3,000 Fusos.
Now that you are out of the cycling industry, what kinds of things do you find interesting about it?
I feel that the road bike never really caught on in the US. I know it has always had its small core of enthusiasts, but I am talking of the general public. Whereas the MTB did catch on with the masses. Why? Style. Just like the popularity with the SUV. No one needs an SUV only for the style. The MTB is to the road bike what the SUV is to the compact car. And those dropped handlebars, no one wanted those. Every time I saw someone on a road bike riding with their arms straight, trying to sit as upright as they could with dropped bars and looking like a monkey humping a football. In my mind I would say, “For God’s sake bend your fucking arms.” With the MTB they designed a bike you could ride with your arms straight. Now the road bike is making a come back but the latest designs have been inherited from the MTB. Like sloping top tubes, bigger tubes, and aero rims that appear wider at least from the side view. What attracted me to the road bicycle in the first place was the fact that it appeared so fragile and yet was so strong. Reading what the younger road bike riders are saying on the various bike forums. The message I get is old school flimsy looking road bikes are for pussies. It’s all a matter of style.
As I said, I spent some time on your blog and was really impressed by your honesty and candor relative to dealing with your emotions and feelings about perfectionism.
Do you think you could ever build frames again? Do you even have the desire to? Do you feel that you've gotten over the perfectionist issue to a healthy point?
I very much doubt I will ever build frames again. The cost alone to set up a viable frameshop would not be a sound business proposition. In 1983 it cost me $30,000 to open my shop. Probably $100.000 in today’s money. I would have to build a whole lot of fames to get a return on my investment. The other thing I realized a long time ago was that with each frame I was creating a masterpiece and then selling the original. It doesn’t really matter how much money my frames will sell for in the future. I will never make another penny on any of them. Whereas in writing and publishing because of copyright laws I can keep collecting on my creation. As for perfectionism I have to constantly remind myself that I am not perfect, and neither is my work and give myself credit for doing as well as I have done.
As you said in the blog, you do not have a bike currently. Are there any bikes that you had in the past that you wish you could have again? Is there a modern bike that you would like to have?
It would be nice to own one of my custom bikes again or at least a Fuso Lux.
If I had a new bike built I would probably get Russ Denny, who was my apprentice and took over my business, to build one.
What frames or bikes are you most proud of?
The custom frame of course. And the John Howard and the Fuso Lux were nice ones.
Generic question; if you had the chance to do it again, would you become a framebuilder?
Who knows? My novel Prodigal Child is really a fictional account of what my life might have been had it taken a different turn earlier on. I had a choice of writing a biography which was somewhat interesting, but would have only appealed to a few bike enthusiasts, or write what I did and give it a wider appeal. As for my real life some of it could have been better, but some of it could have been a whole lot worse. And to quote from the book, looking back I wouldn’t change damn a thing.
Why do you think it is that small custom builders are gaining popularity in the US again?
Do you think that mass produced bikes/ frames are inherently inferior to custom frames?
These last two questions go hand in hand. Traditional lugged steel framebuilding is art. Functional art, but art none-the-less, and a good framebuilder is an artist. All true art comes from within the artist, the artist is simply the vehicle through which art appears. There is a part of me in every frame I built. You can’t define exactly what it is but people who ride the bikes tell me it is there. Like an inanimate object having life. On the other hand a welder working in a factory somewhere; one who could care less whether he welds bike frames or patio furniture as long as he gets his paycheck. You can’t tell me that these bikes are as good as one built by an individual custom builder with a passion for what he does.
I can't thank Dave enough for taking the time to answer these questions, especially since I am sure he has answered these same questions many times over since becoming a builder. I am honored to have had this "conversation" with him and to be able to share it with you.
I hope that this gives you the spark of curiosity to read more about Dave and his buike building history, as well as the incredible stories he tells.
Thank you Dave for your answers- I am very honored.