In 1997, Melissa Holbrook Pierson published The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles, a delightful book that chronicles her love affair with motorcycles as well as the unique cultural and historical landscape of the two-wheeled world. In 1998, while struggling my way through graduate school in Philadelphia, I bought a motorcycle and learned to ride.
Within the first year of my own love affair with motorcycling, I read – no, I devoured – The Perfect Vehicle. Not only did Pierson artfully articulate the full spectrum of emotions, sensations, and experiences that are familiar to any motorcyclist and evoke the “ride to live, live to ride” credo, she educated me about the exciting new world I had come to inhabit.
When I read Pierson’s account of buying a Moto Guzzi Lario from a small European bike shop called The Spare Parts Company tucked away on a narrow street in the Old City section of Philadelphia, an area I explored regularly on late-night pub crawls and weekend wanderings, I felt an even stronger connection to her book. I had been to the shop before, and my then-girlfriend was friends with the proprietor.
On the 25th anniversary of The Perfect Vehicle, considered one of the best books ever written about motorcycles, we reprinted a review published in the August 1997 issue of Rider and which can be found on our website here. We also reprinted Pierson’s introduction to the Spanish edition of the book, which was published in 2021 by La Mala Suerte Ediciones, the first and only publisher devoted to motorcycle books in Spanish.
Scroll down for that introduction, and visit MelissaHolbrookPierson.com to order her books.
– Greg Drevenstedt, Editor-in-Chief
Introduction to ‘The Perfect Vehicle’ Spanish Edition
By Melissa Holbrook Pierson
Twenty-five years have elapsed between the time I began writing The Perfect Vehicle and the moment you are reading these words. The impetus for writing was, quite simply, unbridled joy. Why had no one ever told me motorcycles were so transporting? Why didn’t everyone know how affecting they were, how they enriched and condensed experience? How they were a powerful force for personal good?
So I attempted to say in my book every last thing I could think of to say about these machines that both capture and express the human imagination. But no amount one can say about something that’s essentially infinite can comprise “everything.” Even I would go on to find more things, and more things, to say. I wrote articles and poems and another book about bikes. I’m not finished yet. The meaning of the ride is never-ending, which is why we ride: to taste immortality in the form of the resounding now.
A quarter of a century is a long time. Time enough for everything to change – governments to rise and fall, species disappear, cities spread, new technologies revolutionize daily life and rewire our brains. In that long span, I can now report, much has changed about motorcycling. And very little. There have been technical advances in the bikes we ride – fuel injection, ABS, “ride by wire” (explained to me half a dozen times to no effect), things once visibly mechanical now directed in the dark by computer chips. No longer for me long garage bullshit sessions among friends, where I would marvel at the ingenious arrangement of parts mirrored in the minds of people who are to me equal marvels of nature: they manage to comprehend the way complex systems, the motorcycle’s biomes, flow together and apart.
I always knew my bike had a heart, but now it has a separate brain. In its advanced evolutionary state it may only be attended to at the office of the appropriate neurologist, I mean, dealer with the codes. This has put an unhappy distance between the soul of the machine and its rider, but the tradeoff is performance well beyond the imagination of the last century.
There are concurrent changes in the types of people who ride. The so-called adventure bike has become hugely popular, along with global journeys on it that once were rare but are at this moment being undertaken by astonishing numbers of people of every age, nationality, and gender. The percentage of riders who are female has more than doubled since I started riding, and these women are often pursuing it in cultures that openly disapprove. They don’t care; they do it anyway. That’s how powerful the allure is: we risk death to do it.
Much verbal handwringing has materialized, in the United States at least, about the “graying” of the motorcyclist, and the sport’s diminishing hold on youth who are reputed to care more about virtual life than the real thing with its weather and difficulties and the 360-degree view onto a disappearing but still gorgeous planet. Economic factors are often discussed. But that is in the small corner from which I write. Shift the scope to India, which has emerged as the world’s biggest motorcycle market, and see (as I recently did for myself) throngs of young people enthralled by riding and the places it takes you. I’m not worried about the demise of the motorcycle. The planet itself will be destroyed long before the peculiar happiness riding confers.
I, too, have come closer to my end. Going toward it on my bike is the only reasonable mode of travel through these years.
Motorcycles amplify all that is glorious about living. It is not an adjunct to waking up in the morning, or an occasional occupation. It explains everything, gives a purpose to being alive, and a place in both community and history, which still and forever unreels, like the road itself. I have lost dear friends, who happened to die doing the thing they loved most. But that was happenstance, not cause. Motorcycling has brought me the deepest friendships I’ll ever know, acceptance into a worldwide brotherhood, and the ultimate knowledge that love is real – love for an inimitable collection of parts that mysteriously opens a window onto the most vital of experiences, as well as love between two people brought together by what I can only consider a magical agent. Yes, motorcycles are even matchmakers for the lovelorn.
So much has changed in the years between then and now. So much has stayed the same. I still feel boundless anticipation and hope and desire and a fleck of worry every time I engage first gear. The world becomes new on every ride. But now I know a deeper secret, one I have both lived and witnessed, again and again. Motorcycles save lives.