Volume 4, Issue 1: Spring 2008


Book Review

Steven E. Alford & Suzanne Ferriss
Reaktion Books, 2008
ISBN 978-1-86189-34-1





Paul Atkinson

As an academic design historian with an active interest in bikes, the opportunity to produce a book combining the love of a personal pursuit and the appreciation of an object’s design history in a visually attractive yet scholarly production would be a dream come true. Motorcycle is such a dream. Written from the outset with a clear and obvious passion for all to do with two wheels, it is engaging as well as informative.

Structured (as per the “Objekt” series of which it forms part) into thematic sections rather than chronological reportage, the book considers key developments in motorcycle design, the identity formation of motorcyclists, the representation of motorcycles and their riders in popular culture and the aesthetics of the motorcycle as a designed object. Its reach, then, is wide-ranging, and in its execution it is refreshingly non-eurocentric. Motorcycles, after all, are a global phenomenon, and their promotion and reception in different cultures is extensively varied.

Opening with an account of the emergence of the motorcycle as a “logical” development of the bicycle, the process is at first depicted as inevitable and deterministic, as one technical problem after another is addressed and solved in the name of “progress.” But the text soon expands to explicitly consider a wide range of social drivers, including the use of motorcycles as a military aid, a racing machine, a means of cheap transport and a marker of self-identity, as well as being an object of desire in its own right. The beauty of the bike in creating this desire, in fact, is a recurrent theme throughout the book.

The brief developmental history presented in the first section is not intended to be comprehensive. Nevertheless, it addresses the definition of a motorcycle in some depth and is descriptive enough for all but the most mechanically-minded. It is when the text moves into exploring issues of identity in the second section, though, that things start to get really interesting. Building on the work of Hebdige (as almost any narrative on design and self-identity would) individuals and groups centred on motorcycles in various countries are compared and contrasted. Japanese Bosozoku youths using road bikes as a rite of passage, American Hells Angels expressing their alienation from mainstream society, and Mods and Rockers clashing class cultures are described as alternative examples of brotherhoods of bikers drawn and bound together through the machines they own. The inevitable appearance of Brando in The Wild One is the starting point for a discussion of the image of the “outlaw biker” and the following commodifcation of rebellion, whereas the less well-known Motor Maids kick start a discussion on gender issues and crises of identity. Finally, recognizing the diversification of motorcycling over the years, the decline in the association of the motorcycle with deviance is acknowledged, although there is an unstated sense that the frisson the association creates will be missed.

There is an element of overlap between the sections, especially as the book moves from identity to image. The motorcycle in film is celebrated in its diversity, moving easily from Roman Holiday to The Great Escape and from Girl on a Motorcycle to 1960s “biker-sploitation” B-movies. The allusion made between the shutter of a film projector and the valves of the motorcycle engine is interesting if a little tenuous, but the move from “Angel” films such as Savages from Hell to Honda’s “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign is well presented, providing an illustration of an often overlooked variety in the representation of the motorcyclist. The riding of a bike as a declaration of freedom leads to a wide-ranging foray of film and literature, from Easy Rider to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and from Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries to Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round, proposing that such a variety of representation of motorcycling holds the promise of greater understanding, and hence greater tolerance and acceptance from the public at large. We’ll see.

Concluding with a section on the aesthetics of the motorcycle is a strength, as it draws a number of threads from earlier parts of the book together, and focuses the attention once more on the object itself. A perhaps overlong dialogue of Marinetti and Italian Futurism eventually gives way to a fruitful debate on the role of the motorcycle as art, using the Guggenheim’s 1998 exhibitions as a touchstone for the re-evaluation of form versus function. It is hard to deny examples such as the Britten V-1000 in exemplifying the links between engineering utility and aesthetic contemplation, although in places, restating the case projects a romantic, and it has to be said, personal view of motorcycling. The authors take on the chopper as a stand-in for their owner’s self-identity, for example, is made clear, but little distinction is drawn between choppers made by individuals, choppers commissioned by customers and choppers created as show pieces in this context. I suspect the truth of the matter is more complex than it appears. Self-identity, though, leads back to the outlaw/rebel biker, and an analysis of the iconic status of the black leather jacket--an object/image recognisable enough to have its own exhibitions.

The book is excellently presented with a large number of high-quality images, although for some reason one or two are conspicuous by their absence. I would agree with the authors that Hans Muth’s Suzuki Katana is one of the most significant pieces of motorcycle styling in half a century, but to read this in the absence of an image is frustrating. If I had another criticism, it would be that the obvious passion for bikes in the writing makes one conscious of the potential for subjectivity, but then this has to be balanced with readability, and this book is certainly readable. However, these criticisms are small, and overall the book is hugely satisfying. This is not just a book on bikes but on the culture of motorcycling in all its forms. It is no encyclopaedia of the motorcycle, and it is all the better for it.


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