An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles: Two-wheeled Transportation and Material Culture

Book Review By David Walton

An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles: Two-wheeled Transportation and Material Culture
By Steven E. Alford and Suzanne Ferriss
Lexington Books, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-1-4985-2879-5

Steven Alford and Suzanne Ferriss have been highly instrumental in promoting and establishing what is now looking like a consolidated academic area in the shape of motorcycle studies, and their previous book, Motorcycle (2007), set the bar very high indeed in terms of a wide-ranging study that shows how the motorcycle is permeated with cultural significance. The previous book explored themes of design, identity formation, the popular images of motorbikes and their riders as well as considering questions of aesthetics, without forgetting other issues like history, technology, engineering, gender, sexuality, consumerism and psychology. It has been a book I’ve recommended to anyone who wanted a comprehensive, scholarly and well-written introduction to motorcycle cultures. I thought that I wouldn’t be adding another one any time soon but after reading their new book I realize that I’m going to have to add another title.

Their latest book, An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles: Two-wheeled Transportation and Material Culture, engages with many of the topics covered in the previous book but is ground breaking insofar as it adds so much more into the mix. For a start, there is more emphasis on the wider world of two-wheeled vehicles: bicycles got into the previous book but they are of almost equal importance in this latest study, and the subtitle indicates the two other terms around which the themes of the book are structured: transportation and material culture. With regard to the form of the book it is ingenious and highly apt. As the authors indicate (in a useful illustration): it is like a wheel with the bicycle and motorcycle forming the hub in the middle with spokes representing asphalt, rubber, textiles and steel which point out towards the rim formed by politics, economics, history, colonialism, culture, law, biology and psychology. This gives an early idea of the wide range of reference, broad thematic variety and complexity of the content of the book: readers are invited to think about two-wheeled transport with relation to multiple contexts from the material to the ideological and cultural.

From this impressive menu of topics the authors adopt a materialist and synergistic approach that they link to Harvey Molotch’s work, and this is fundamental to some of the primary theoretical principles underlying the book. What this means in practice is that the authors reject “a straightforward unilinear or teleological” explanations which tend to see the bicycle’s and motorcycle’s development and history as inevitably leading to the perfected product. Their approach insists on rejecting the idea of these machines as products of geniuses (without downplaying the influence of key inventors and engineers) and puts the emphasis more on the multiple tinkerers whose inventiveness, perspicacity and will gradually produced all the components that would eventually result in the modern bicycle and motorcycle. This also involves the idea that the motorcycle is best understood, not as a result of technical determinism, an evolutionary process, as a bicycle with a motor attached (that would culminate in the car), but as a separate, but related vehicle, in its own right. That is to say, the technologies interact and are a synergistic part of developments in other manufacturing processes that seem, on the surface, totally unrelated to two-wheeled vehicles like armaments and sewing machines. In this the authors not only discuss history but engage with historiography.

This means that Alford and Ferriss show an admirable awareness of what it means to write history. Those of us in cultural studies will recognize that this approach is fundamental to many contemporary discussions of culture: if we want to understand any aspect of culture it is necessary, as Raymond Williams insisted, to consider the whole way of life and, à la Foucault, Certeau (and even Herbert Butterfield), it is necessary to take into account what kind of theory of history underpins our writing of it. This ensures that the book isn’t just an alternative history: it raises a number of important intellectual questions about the notion of history. This also involves the idea of “embeddedness,” that human devices always already appear in a social-cultural and economic contexts. The achievements of the engineer, the tinkerer and technological developments always occur within a set of converging social, political, cultural and economic contexts and these are enabling forces which cannot remain outside the history being constructed. The authors put this in succinct terms:

Hence, our focus would be improved by looking not so much at the geniuses and how their inventions led to social change, but rather by asking, how did individuals find themselves in a position to invent the technology responsible for social change? (2)

The answers to these questions would justify a careful reading of this book but there’s more. I would argue that the authors provide what Fredric Jameson would call, adapting a term from Edward Tolman, “cognitive mapping” (Jameson, 1991: 418) where the world is mapped in an effort to understand the vast economic and political complexities of capitalism. This is another aspect of the book which makes it of interest to those whose principal interest is not in motorcycle cultures. Thus the book explores the not so obvious relations between the motorcycle industry and European colonial rule and the exploitation of the colonies. This immerses the reader in explorations of how rubber and processes of vulcanization were made possible by Colonial interests in Brazil, the Congo and other parts of Africa.

The use of textiles takes the reader to the Indian subcontinent, protectionism and the deliberate destruction of Indian calico production and the relations of cotton and slavery. Then there’s the exploitation or iron and steel and the canny reader may guess (thinking of motorcycle manufactures like BSA, whose initials stand for Birmingham Small Arms Company) that many technical developments (in terms of things like tubular steel for bicycles and motorcycles) were actually developed by rifle and canon manufacturers for the purposes of war. The authors of the book also focus on other aspects of production like wages, working conditions, the exploitation, misery and poor health of factory workers, and environmental damage. As for the later, there is a pressing ecological vein to the book in the way that it considers how the Earth has often been treated as a mere source of extractable and exploitable materials rather than a complex and potentially fragile Eco system. This all leads to the sad realization that the consequences of building two-wheeled vehicles in factory conditions, and all the other “manufacturing” processes linked to them, cannot always be seen as socially or economically progressive.

All this gives the book a materialist slant (although it is not limited to this) something which is reinforced by other important contexts such as an exploration of the history of roads, road building, transport and the movement of people and goods. Another valuable aspect of this piece of research is to be found in the fact that we are offered a significant history of the material substance and politics behind road building in the United States. I see Alford and Ferriss’ book as admirably akin to Raymond Williams’s “cultural materialism” (see Problems in Materialism and Culture, 1980: 243) where he insisted that cultural analysis should take account of the processes of production and the social relations these imply.

This seems to me to be one of the book’s chief merits: many of us who identify with two-wheeled vehicles and the cultures surrounding them are, on the one hand, offered detailed and multiple social, political, environmental, technical and ideological contexts through which to understand these two-wheeled phenomena but, on the other hand, are forced to face up to a number of realities that may make us reflect on ways in which bicycles and motorcycles were (and are) very much implicated in practices that must invite not only reflexion but critique and outrage.

Of course, not all is doom and gloom, although there is an emphasis on social critique, and the authors tease out all kinds of themes which are of interest to cultural criticism. Gender is an interesting case in point. The authors explore the relations between men, women and two-wheeled vehicles in terms of the repression of women and the anxieties, social attitudes and politics that made it difficult for women to express themselves in the same way as men on two wheels: two-wheeled vehicles, in Dick Hebdige’s terms, soon became “sexed”. Yet, at the same time, the reader sees how women delighted in riding both bicycles and motorcycles and refused to be browbeaten into submission. There are very useful sections on the stigmatization of the step-through bicycle frame as seen as intrinsically feminine, fears that riding bicycles and motorcycles might endanger reproduction, or how the same practices were (in the most contradictory ways) seen as leading to unwanted sexual stimulation or the hypersexualization or the de-sexing of women (and how these issues were reflected in discourses on health). Those readers with a strong interest in gender issues will, I think, be very pleased by how the authors engage with themes like how bicycling became the vehicle for feminist reform, how an interest in two-wheeled vehicles related to freedoms, values, beliefs, dress codes, hygiene, aesthetics, health and the “amazonian,” Dykes on Bikes and the kind of attitudes reflected in films like She-Devils on Wheels and The Mini-Skirt Mob. In this context I would argue that the book reflects important hegemonic forces where men and women have struggled, and continue to struggle, over the meaning of what it means to ride motorcycles.

Again attitudes to woman and machines are seen to reflect wider values and beliefs that go beyond what seems like the limited sphere of motorcycle cultures. If gender is covered then so are other questions concerning class in terms of the reception, use and possibilities of the bicycle and motorcycle and the book also engages with the history of fashion with relation to bicycles and motorcycles and those who ride them (from early trends to the retro revolution associated with Belstaff, Lewis, Barbour, Harley, Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel etc.). We are also given sections on the image of the motorcyclist in film and journalism and how that feeds into, reflects and helps to forge, identities while often creating negative biker types which are still being repeated in contemporary popular culture. I found the chapter on the embodied cyclist and freedom particularly interesting (see below) and the sections on politicized motorcyclists from Motorcycle Rights Organizations to anti-helmet organizers to lesbian clubs like Dykes on Bikes are also of great interest to anyone interested in cultural studies and related areas.

When reviewing the questions of the embodied cyclist/motorcyclist and freedom (the unique experience of riding on two wheels) the authors explore what they feel are the weaknesses of an overemphasis on neurology, genetics and psychology and I found their use of Michael Apter’s concepts of the psychology of excitement (see The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notions of flow and freedom (as freeing the self from the self) very useful starting points for a wider discussion of the existential aspects of riding (see Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life). In this context they weave together aspects of psychology and, mainly, the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty to explore movement on two wheels through time where human time emerges from a capacity to present the self to the self. One of the thought-provoking conclusions to come out of this is that metaphysical freedom opens up consciousness as consciousness, the authors suggesting that “we enact our metaphysical freedom when we ride down the road on two wheels” (164). This is all very innovative and brings to the book a philosophical slant that adds another layer to an already multi-layered study.

I can hardly find anything that I don’t agree with in this book, yet, like any study which puts forward strong arguments, it is guaranteed to stimulate reflection, difference and debate (another one of its strengths). For example, among the concepts that help to shape the book are Thomas Cameron Burr’s “cognitive legitimacy” and Harvey Molotch’s “type form” (where social expectations override engineering and design considerations). These help to describe inertia to change where technologies, while seeming to offer advantages (like changing in the riding position or shifting the placement of the petrol tank), are not adopted. This opens up an interesting area of debate concerned with up to what point are consumers resistant to change because of their attachment to older, established technologies which seem to define the very nature of a vehicle. On the other hand, it can be argued that the history of use and choice among the users of two-wheeled vehicles suggests that consumers often respond positively to innovation, despite resistance (after all, the development, acceptance and dominance of the Safety bicycle overrode the cognitive legitimacy of the more dangerous Ordinary). Some might argue that the relation may be more dialectical (but this is really a question of emphasis because the authors provide detailed analyses of technological developments and their adoption). I also think the authors are right to resist technological determinism (that there was a smooth, uncomplicated teleological developmental history from bicycle to motorcycle) and, while some readers might have some reservations about such emphasis on “cognitive legitimacy” and “type form” (which may imply a certain level of cognitive determinism) I believe that this is the first time this debate has been introduced into discussions within motorcycle studies.

Related to this there is another claim concerning the Rover Safety bicycle and the Einspur motorcycle which the authors declare appeared at the same time (in 1885). It is possible to argue that the Einspur wasn’t actually designed (or used) as a mass produced two-wheeled vehicle, it had outriggers and had no rake or trail. If we accept the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller as the first mass produced model (1894) there’s actually a 9 year difference between the two but these are details to argue over and which do not undermine the authors’ point that the bicycle and motorcycle developed in distinct, parallel and, to some extent, complementary ways and that the evolution of the motorcycle was not inevitable; as the authors’ state: It could have been otherwise.

I’ve tried to show that this book is very wide ranging, synthesizing as it does fields as divergent as cultural studies, gender studies, history (including historiography – meta-history), psychology, neurology, ecology, materialist approaches and philosophy. Thematically speaking there’s more than I have outlined here, which is quite a feat given that it’s all packed into 181 pages (even from this short review it should be possible to see that the book is a veritable smorgasbord of cultural criticism). The last point is linked to another aspect worth emphasizing which is the way this piece of research has been written: it is essential for a book that covers so much ground (and that doesn’t run to multiple volumes) that the style be clear and concise; it is also exemplary in this respect. There are also some humorous moments. An example is when the authors discuss the role of nostalgia in motorcycle cultures (so dominated by retro styles) which is something not generally repeated by bicyclists. They conjure up an amusing image on page 153 of what this might look like when they envisage a modern-day retro bicyclist donning tweed Knickerbocker suits, golf stockings and cloth caps (who knows, it could happen!). I described the form of the book above (structured around the hub and spokes of a wheel) which not only provides an apt metaphor for the content but also makes the book easier to navigate while adding a spark to the reading experience. This is augmented by turns of phrase which provide witty stylistic nods which evoke the motorcycle at the level of metaphors. The authors invite readers to start from the beginning and join them “for the entire ride,” or “dip in for a brief spin”. They write of “complex webs” and following threads in a section on textiles. Bicycling is seen as “the vehicle” for feminist reform. At the pedagogical level the book has many useful illustrations is also backed up by further illustrations and resources on a dedicated website ( In a nutshell, I would argue that this study should find a place on your bookshelf, alongside the authors’ last full-length study.

The book, then, is excellent, an exemplary form of cultural studies: cutting-edge, socially aware, encyclopedic in scope, exceptionally well written and researched and, in my opinion, essential reading destined to become a major contribution not only to motorcycle but cultural studies (and its related areas). I would argue, it’s a “must read” and not only to those in the academic world. To further illustrate the relevance of the book and finish this review I shall give the authors the last word by quoting the final part of the conclusion, which addresses readers personally at the ethical level and carries a very important, often ignored, and sobering message to those of us who ride motorcycles:

It could have been otherwise then and, with a sense of environmental stewardship and a conviction that we are, ultimately, members of the same family, it can be otherwise now. We can move forward, secure both in the realization that transportation can change lives for the better, and that any of our achievements should be savored with a sharp sense of irony and enhanced understanding of the infinite complexities propelling – and sometimes impeding – our progress down the road. (175)


Cameron Burr, T. (2005). Markets as Producers and Consumers: The French and U.S. National Bicycle Markets, 1875–1910. PhD. University of California, Davis.
Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press.
Molotch, H. (2003). Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are. New York: Routledge.
Williams, R. (1980). Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. London: New Left Books.

David Walton is Senior Lecturer and coordinator of cultural studies at the University of Murcia and has taught courses on popular cultures, postmodern cultures, the history of thought, and literary and cultural theory. He currently teaches courses on cultural theory and cultural practice at undergraduate level, and comparative postmodern literatures and cultures at master’s level. He is a founding member, and currently President, of the Iberian Association of Cultural Studies (IBACS), which is dedicated to the promotion of the area on the Iberian Peninsular. He has organized a number of conferences and published widely in cultural theory, cultural studies and visual cultures. Recent books include Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning Through Practice (SAGE, 2008) and Doing Cultural Theory (SAGE, 2012), and his latest publication (with Juan Antonio Suárez) is Culture, Space and Power: Blurred Lines (Lexington, 2015). Recently, he has also published chapters and articles on new sexualities, the satire of Chris Morris, graffiti culture, the interfaces between philosophy and cultural studies and road racing on the Isle of Man TT.

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