Volume 8, Issue 2: Fall 2012


Roundtable on Teaching Motorcycle Studies

The Motorcycle's First Century: Materials, Mechanics and Culture

Leland Giovannelli, PhD

College of Engineering and Applied Science

University of Colorado at Boulder



Some years ago, I wrote for IJMS an article about teaching a brief history of motorcycle design—a history so brief that I covered it in 50 minutes.  Clearly this topic deserves much more than a single class; it deserves at least semester.  So . . . I present here the syllabus that grew out of that single class.  I have not yet taught it, but I hope that it might be of interest to IJMS readers.  


Format:  Interactive, team-taught1 lecture; three 50-minute meetings per week; 15 weeks of class.


Audience:  My students are all engineering majors.  They appreciate technical information—to a point:  though they are all good at math, they have not reached the same levels in it.  They grew up with computers; they did not grow up fixing cars.  I would not expect more than 8 genuine gearheads in a lecture class of 45 or 50 students.


Goals:  This course will explore motorcycles both as engineered objects and also as shaped by and expressive of cultural, economic, and historical forces.  Ten different motorcycles, presented in chronological order, will serve as focal points.  The course will provide lasting insight into the complexity of this artifact and the web of meaning that surrounds it.


Assignments and assessment:  


1. Testing: This material lends itself to objective quizzes, tests, and a comprehensive final exam, consisting of true/false questions, multiple choice questions, fill-ins, and image identification.  Tests will include qualitative application of mechanical formulas.  That is, tests will not require quantitative mathematical calculations of air-flow or engine efficiency, but rather ask questions such as Which of the following options would be most effective in minimizing air turbulence on this motorcycle?  How could you increase the stability of this motorcycle design?  

2. Student presentations:  In groups of three or four, students will give PowerPoint presentations (of roughly 20 minutes per group) on the featured motorcycles of the course.  Groups will choose their topics/dates by the third week of the semester.  Presentations will follow a standard format based on a list of stock questions.  Of these questions, some will address historical, social, or economic facts (narrative of invention, back-story of inventors, competition with other marques, import/export tariffs, target audience, etc.); others will address engineering details and their consequences (power output, braking ability, engine design, lubrication style, etc.).2  Accompanying photographs and diagrams will be organized as systematically as possible.  At least 24 hours before presenting, student groups will meet with instructors to ensure accuracy of information, as well as economy of presentation.3  

3. Essays:  Philosophical or disputatious texts offer the opportunity for two short analytical papers.  The course promises a sufficiently dramatic change in student attitudes to warrant one reflective paper at the end of the semester; students will meet with one instructor to hammer out their final paper topic.  One unfortunate drawback:  the impossibility of safe-guarding against plagiarism makes assigning research papers impractical in this course.4 


Topics and Sample Reading Assignments:




Sample texts


Introduction.  Discussion and survey of student experience with and attitudes toward motorcycles; syllabus topics and assessment; brief overview of history and cultural significance of the motorcycle. 

Alford and Ferriss, Motorcycle, intro and Ch. 1, to survey motorcycle history and to raise queries about engineering, social context, manufacturing, etc.


The materials that made the motorcycle possible:  iron, steel, aluminum, rubber, petroleum, ceramic, etc.  This will include both the physical account (stress-strain analysis, pre-industrial uses, modern techniques, etc.) plus the socio-economic account (industrialization, European imperialism, etc.).  Guest speaker will detail steps in petroleum distillation. 

Kent, Kent’s Mechanical Engineers Handbook, from sections 1-7 on materials and their characteristics. 

Irving, Motorcycle Engineering, from Ch. 7 on Manufacturing Methods and Materials.



The bicycle and the engine.  The motorcycle unites bicycle technology and engine technology:  this week looks at both.  Topics:  (1) early history of single-track vehicles until 1900; (2) brief origins of steam engines, their use in personal transport; transition to gas-powered 4-stroke engines; parameters of internal combustion engine; (3) freeing new technology from old design and use:  see Petroski article.

Wells, Anticipations, Ch. 1, Locomotion in the 20th Century.

Chanute, Progress in Flying Machines, on limits of air travel.

Mumford, Technics and Civilization.  Ch. 5, Sec. 6:  Power and Mobility.

Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things, Ch. 10, The Power of Precedent.


A scientific approach to motorcycle design.  What are the basic design parameters of a motorized single-track vehicle?  How does the appeal for speed put additional structural demands on this vehicle?  

Presentation: the Curtiss V-8, a bicycle with a V-8 engine, designed to race. 

Irving, Motorcycle Engineering, Ch. 1:  An Outline of the Problem, Ch. 2:  Steering Geometry, Ch. 3:  Front Suspension in Practice.

Veblen.  Theory of the Leisure Class, from Ch. 6:  fast horses as honorific objects.


Women and motorcycling.  With a brief reminder of the bicycle’s importance to 19th c. women, this week features the Van Buren sisters and other early 20th c. trailblazers; it extends past this period to include the Motor Maids.

Presentation: Indian Power Plus, the motorcycle of choice for the van Burens.

Koerner, “Whatever Happened to the Girl on a Motorbike?  British Women and Motorcycling from 1919 to 1939.”

Various 19th c. texts:  medical doctrine on female debility; feminist opposition.

First test.   


Early motorcycle design:  form and function.  What is the role of aesthetics in motorcycle design? 

Presentation: Megola Sport.  Innovation that did not work and did not last.

Presentation:  BMW’s R32.  Innovation that did work and did last.   

Selections from de Toqueville, William Morris, Louis Sullivan, and Fernand Léger, on design and aesthetics. 

Dziga Vertoz, Man with a Movie Camera, which gives a dizzying look at the Jazz Age sensibility.


Motorcycle technology in economic context.

Presentation: Indian Chief.  American post-war self-confidence and prosperity. 

Presentation: Imme R100.  Innovative post-war minimalist machine, created in a crushed economy. 

First written assignment, addressing issues raised in last week’s readings.

Dewey, Intelligence in the Modern World, The Individual in the New Society.


Three categories in post-war motorcycle design, intellectual rather than historical or lineal:  economy (e.g., Imme), engineering prowess (e.g., Vincent), and rider attitude (e.g., Indian).

Presentation:  Vincent Black Shadow Series C.

Irving, Motorcycle Engineering, selections.

Holbrook Pierson, The Perfect Vehicle, selections.


Group identification.  Introduction to concepts in and the research practice of anthropology; its application to motorcycle cultures, with reference to last week’s three categories. 

Alford and Ferriss, Motorcycle, ch. 2, on Identity.

Second test.


Media images: The Wild One and Easy Rider.  The extension of category 3:  rider attitude.    

Presentation: Harley-Davidson Easy Rider Chopper.

Alford and Ferriss, Motorcycle, ch. 3, on Image.

Veblen, selections from The Theory of the Leisure Class.


Issues in motorcycling today.  Helmet laws:  what are the issues, and from what legal and social principles do they arise?  ‘Dykes on Bikes’:  what is the problem?    

Tenner, Our Own Devices, Ch. 10:  Hard-headed Logic:  Helmets.

Weiss, “The Effect of Helmet Use…”

Weller and Chandler, “Motorcycle Safety and Motorcycle Education…”

Rollin, “It’s My Own Damn Head…”

Moon, “Riding Half-Naked…”

Ilyasova, “Dykes, Bikes….


Issues in motorcycling as we think of tomorrow.  What will shape the future in motorcycle design—communal ownership?  A new understanding of mobility?  What will the motorcycle signify in future advertisements?

Crowther, “Sustainable Motorcycling…”

Pierce, “The State of Alternatives”

Varela, “Motorcycle Consumption”

Second written assignment, addressing issues raised in last week’s readings.


Tomorrow’s motorcycles:  materials that we have never seen… 

Guest speakers on new materials relevant to motorcycle engineering.    

Paper conferences to help students forge final paper topics on course’s impact:  explore a change of attitude in the context of two texts from the syllabus.


Tomorrow’s motorcycles:  … in designs that defy our imagination.

Guest speakers on innovative technology in motorcycle engineering.    

Paper conferences to help students forge final paper topics on course’s impact:  explore a change of attitude in the context of two texts from the syllabus.


Review for final exam.

Final paper due.


Final exam.




Required text: 


Alford, Steven E. and Suzanne Ferriss.  Motorcycle.  London:  Reaktion Books, 2007.


Primary texts to be made available on-line:


Irving, Philip E.  Motorcycle Engineering.  Los Angeles, CA:  Floyd Clymer Publications, no date given.  While parts of this book have been superseded by more technical works such as Vittore Cosalter’s Motorcycle Dynamics (http://www.lulu.com/2006), I prefer its non-technical approach and its literary charm. 


Kent, Thurston E.  Kent’s Mechanical Engineering Handbook.  New York:  Wiley & Sons, 11th ed., 1938.  Here, too, although there are more modern books of this type, I prefer to use this edition.


Works Cited


Alford, Steven E. and Suzanne Ferriss.  Motorcycle.  London:  Reaktion Books, 2007.


Chanute, Octave.  Progress in Flying Machines.  Orig. pub. New York:  The American Engineer and Railroad Journal Publications, 1894; Dover reprint, 1997.


Crowther, Geoff.  Sustainable Motorcycling: Rethinking Mobility, Consumption and Market Relationships.” IJMS 7.2 (Fall 2011): http://ijms.nova.edu/Fall2011/IJMS_Rndtble.Crowther.html


de Toqueville, Alexis.  Democracy in America.  Orig. pub. 1835-1840.   On-line edition at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/toc_indx.html


Dewey, John.  Intelligence in the Modern World.  New York:  Modern Library, 1939.


Léger, Fernand.  The Machine Aesthetic:  The Manufactured Object, the Artisan, and the Artist.  Orig. pub. 1924, reprint in Robert L. Herbert, ed., Modern Artists on Art.  Mineola, NY:  Dover, 1964.


Ilyasova, Alex.  “Dykes, Bikes & the Tenancy of Masculinity (a ‘microLECTURE’).” IJMS 8.1 (Fall 2012): http://radiocoloradocollege.org/2012/06/microlecture-dykes-bikes-the-tenancy-of-masculinity/


Irving, Philip E.  Motorcycle Engineering.  Los Angeles, CA:  Floyd Clymer Publications, no date given. 


Kent, Thurston E.  Kent’s Mechanical Engineering Handbook.  New York:  Wiley & Sons, 11th ed., 1938. 


Koerner, Steve.  “Whatever Happened to the Girl on a Motorbike?  British Women and Motorcycling from 1919 to 1939.” IJMS 3 (March 2007): http://ijms.nova.edu/March2007/IJMS_Artcl.Koerner.html


Mill, J. S.  On Liberty.  Orig. pub. London:  Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1869.  On-line edition at http://www.bartleby.com/130/  


Moon, Wendy.  “Riding Half-Naked (or the Conversion of a Safety Nazi).” IJMS 7.1 (Fall 2010): http://ijms.nova.edu/Spring2011/IJMS_Artcl.Moon.html


Morris, William.  Signs of Change, Orig. pub. London:  Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1896.  On-line edition at http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1888/signs/chapters/chapter5.htm


Mumford, Lewis.  Technics and Civilization.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1934. 


Petroski, Henry.  The Evolution of Useful Things.  New York:  Knopf, 1992.  


Pierce, Christian.  The State of Alternatives.” IJMS 7.2 (Fall 2011): http://ijms.nova.edu/Fall2011/IJMS_Rndtble.Pierce.html


Pierson, Melissa Holbrook.  The Perfect Vehicle.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 1998.


Rollin, Bernard.  “‘It’s My Own Damn Head…’:  Ethics, Freedom, and Helmet Laws.”  In Harley-Davidson and Philosophy.  Peru, IL:  Carus Publishing, 2006.


Sullivan, Louis H.  “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.”  Lippincott’s Magazine, 1896.   On-line edition:  http://academics.triton.edu/faculty/fheitzman/tallofficebuilding.html 


Tenner, Edward.  Our Own Devices:  How Technology Remakes Humanity.  New York, Vintage Books, 2004.


Varela, Diego.  Motorcycle Consumption: A First Look at Peer-to-Peer Motorcycle Renting.” IJMS 7.2 (Fall 2011): http://ijms.nova.edu/Fall2011/IJMS_Rndtble.Varela.html


Veblen, Thorstein.  The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Orig. pub., New York:  McMillan & Co., 1899.  On-line edition:  http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/veblen/veb_toc.html


Vertov, Dziga.  Man with a Movie Camera.  Russian, 1929: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iey9YIbra2U


Weiss,  Andrew A. “The Effects of Helmet Use on the Severity of Head Injuries in Motorcycle Accidents.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 87.417 (Mar., 1992): 48-56.


Weller, Ralph B. and E. Wayne Chandler.  Motorcycle Safety and Motorcycle Education: Past Research and Survey Results,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Vol. 8, Health and Safety Issues (1989): 93-108.


Wells, H. G.  Anticipations.  Orig. pub. Leipzig:  Bernard Tauchnitz, 1901; Dover reprint, 1999.



1 The most hypothetical element of my syllabus is the engineering colleague who could join me in teaching it. 

2 In some cases, of course, answers would overlap, as when a politically forced change in suppliers results in a change in quality of some component.  Questions will be stock, but the manner of answering them will vary.

3 These rehearsal meetings will take time, but I gladly pay that price to forestall disastrous presentations.  Moreover, the opportunity to get feedback before a presentation is of special value to engineering students:  they will give regular PowerPoint presentations during their senior design courses, in order to report their progress to their clients from industry.

4 My students have been told since grammar school to put paraphrased text into their own words—which they take to mean make a word-for-word translation into easy vocabulary.  Inevitably, and quite innocently, they plagiarize concepts and sentence structure alike.  I cannot vet their work for plagiarism unless I control the source material they use.  Thus I have developed a different kind of assignment for history courses:  in a lengthy prompt I contrast word-for-word-translation and original synthesis; then I provide extensive passages from conflicting secondary sources (actual text, not citations) from which students must create their own original argument.  In this course, however, secondary sources do not offer a sufficiently broad range of interpretations to make even this exercise worthwhile.  



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