V-twin engines an…

by Jake Kapsner

V-twin engines and custom tail pipes aren’t the typical focus of an academic discussion. Then again, a motorcycle showroom at the University isn’t standard fare, either.
More than 400 motorheads rolled into Willey Hall on Thursday night to hear Charles Falco lecture on “The Art and Science of the Motorcycle,” a look at the motorcycle as a cultural icon and lever for social change.
Falco helped select all 111 motorcycles for the famous Guggenheim Museum exhibition called “The Art of the Motorcycle,” setting attendance records in New York last year. Now in Chicago, the exhibit is scheduled to tour Germany, Spain and Italy.
The lifelong bike enthusiast didn’t ride one of his 15 motorcycles north to the West Bank from the University of Arizona-Tucson, where he is chairman of condensed matter physics.
But Falco did join the pre-lecture crowd that perused a display of classic and modern motorcycles on hand from area collectors and dealers.
Rick Mack, a second-year University graduate student, came to the talk as a curious Suzuki 650 owner, and because he’d read about the Guggenheim exhibit.
“Usually you don’t find something like this as a typical lecture at a university,” said Gary Dreyer, an alumnus of the Institute of Technology, which sponsored the free public lecture. “Normally you have to go to a biker bar or cafe.”
Falco’s talk mixed technological history and sociology as he displayed lighthearted media images of motorcycles on an overhead projector.
He emphasized the role motorcycles have played in society, from how design changes occur and often hinge on public whims to societal impressions of the machines since their invention in 1871.
“One way the evolution of motorcycles can be seen is by following the development of new materials,” said Falco, whose physics research involves materials development.
For example, the invention of seamless steel tubing in the late 1800s was used for cradle-style frames. Welding techniques and new plastics invented during World War II allowed for more complex designs. And in the 1980s, carbon fiber composite made for lightweight fenders and body parts, he said.
Another way to trace the evolution, he said, is through changing American perspectives. People had positive views of motorcyclists until just after World War II, when Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin in the 1954 movie “The Wild One” rendered a bad-boy image; Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper lent the freedom-seeker image to bikers in the 1960s film “Easy Rider.”
“In 1955, if two dozen bikers came riding into town, you’d be calling the National Guard,” he said. “Today, if you saw the same thing you’d say, ‘There goes my accountant, Fred.'”