The Perfect Vehicle (Book Review)

by Andy Saunders (originally published in the August 1997 issue of Rider)

For those among us who have never been able to explain the fascination of the motorcycle, here’s someone who can, with the elegance of a Moto Guzzi sweeping through the corners of Monza. The book is actually a collection of essays, loosely linked by a timeline following Melissa Holbrook Pierson‘s 10 intense years of motorcycle riding experience. And it’s much more than that.

Pierson, a former contributor to Rider magazine, starts out telling her motorcycling story–and we’ve heard a million of those before. But her gift of vividly analytical writing soon makes you realize this story is common to all motorcyclists. It’s a story of passion, of a love for motorcycles that transcends love of the men in her life.

We’ve waited a long time for the next Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book isn’t it, but it’s 10 times easier to read, and comes from an unusual angle. As a woman motorcyclist, Pierson is an outsider in an outsider’s world, and although never foolhardy she’s not afraid of taking chances.

For one thing, she isn’t scared of reaching out to the dark side of motorcycling–the crashes, the injuries, the lifetime of disability that a few will suffer, through to the other side, to celebrate the passion of those to whom life without motorcycling would be little better than walking death.

The Perfect VehicleWhen I did see the book–you can’t miss it, it’s got a picture of a Moto Guzzi V-8 on the cover–I was quite prepared to give it a wide berth, after reading on page one: “There are only two kinds of bikers: those that have been down and those that are going down.” What has that crashing cliche, grammatical errors and all, to do with the attraction of motorcycles? Pierson quotes deep sea diver Hans Hass, “I became very conscious of how anyone who defies danger in any form is at the mercy of chance. But ought one really to draw a conclusion from this? Should one expose oneself the less to danger and to chance? A life spent in constant anxiety over losing it would be no life at all.”

Just going for a ride with Pierson–to Laconia, New Hampshire, for the annual races, to the bayous of the Deep South, or through the cobbled stones of ancient Italian towns is entrancing. Sketching out her ride, adding extra details with a flourish, in a few sentences she captures the essence of motorcycling.

For anyone who has ever ridden a motorcycle, picking up the book will strike a chord. If you’ve ever experienced that miserable ride, when you’ve been going all day in the pouring rain, your waterlogged leathers are the consistency of pork sausages and you don’t think you’ll ever reach your destination….

This is probably not the book to give as a Christmas present to the favorite aunt who still can’t understand why anyone as rational as yourself rides a two-wheeler. Give it only to that favorite aunt if she once rode an old Indian herself. And if she did ride, maybe there’s a picture of her here.

Pierson’s research is impressive–she has obviously read every book she could get hold of, going back well before the turn of the century on the subject of motorcycles, and each chapter is suitably leavened with historical gleanings. There’s even a section on literary motorcyclists. It’s a great relief to read a mass-market hardcover (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) on the subject of motorcycles that doesn’t depend on the stereotype of the outlaw biker for its central theme. Italian V-twins are mentioned more than the domestic variety, particularly Pierson’s Guzzi Lario, a modern Italian motorcycle that combines Italian style with the reliability of a golden age motorcycle. (Yes, I do own one myself, a bike bought by its first owner from the same tiny motorcycle shop in Philadelphia where Pierson bought hers).

Still you don’t need to ride a Guzzi to enjoy The Perfect Vehicle, and indeed I’d bet that any motorcyclist who enjoys sitting down to a good book won’t be able to put this one down easily, or at all. Whatever your kind of motorcycle affliction, you’ll find something in common with the author, whose passion for motorcycles is obvious and sincere.

The Perfect Vehicle–What It Is About Motorcycles is 237 pages, illustrated with 36 black-and-white photographs and lists for $24 from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. It’s sure to have hordes of motorcyclists trooping into bookstores to buy it. And hundreds of bookstore clerks will tremble a little at the sight of helmets and leather riding gear. Unless, of course, they’ve read this book. Then they’ll understand.


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