Book Review: THE PERFECT VEHICLE by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

I first reviewed this classic over two decades ago for another publication. Looking back at what I wrote then, all the accolades have certainly held up during subsequent readings – if anything, the book has gotten even better with age. Time has proven this to be one of the all-time finest books about our relationships with our adored (and sometimes cursed) machines and with the community of others who share our passion. Whether you enjoy feeling understood by an articulate soul who truly gets it, or you want someone in your life to get it who doesn’t already, I can’t urge this purchase strongly enough.

At once both deeply personal and broadly encyclopedic, The Perfect Vehicle oscillates between narratives of the writer’s own experiences upon entering our world and objective surveys of motorcycling culture, both historically and cross-sectionally. Pierson writes with the keen observations of a journalist and the emotional sensitivity of a poet (she happens to be both, literally!), capturing subtle nuances without missing the forest for the trees. Rich in its sensuality and intricate in its philosophical meanderings, Pierson’s writing conjures fond memories, articulates elusive feelings, and propounds psychological truths with artistry and precision. It is well-researched in terms of historical facts, social dynamics, and introspective reflections, serving as both educational text and intimate testimony. By recounting her individual journey from motorcycling’s outskirts to its very heart, she elucidates the commonalities in which we all participate. With the unjaded eye of a neophyte explorer, Pierson highlights elements of which we too often lose sight, familiarity tragically dimming our view. It’s worth noting that Pierson’s engagement with motorcycling had profound effects during her life after writing this book; she is an avid rider today, and credits motorcycling with altering her worldview and mental health for the better.

If eloquent prose elaborating something we hold dear isn’t enough of a selling point, here’s a smattering of the diverse topics examined and elucidated in well over 200 pages of writing (and 16 pages of nicely curated black and white photos): the thrill of spectating at one’s first race, the unpredictable and unavoidable adventures of touring – calamitous, terrifying and exhilarating, the endless cycle of frustration and triumph in dealing with interloping gremlins, and the evolution of our beloved mechanical species from the sepia-toned days of its conception. Perhaps most beautifully, she captures the paradox of motorcycling’s bad-boy image and the equally intractable generosity and camaraderie found almost universally among its faithful.

Speaking of boys, bad and otherwise, Pierson’s voice as a female writer was particularly striking when this book first appeared in 1997. The Perfect Vehicle was not only a phenomenal freshman effort (her first book), but also an extraordinary departure from the male perspective exclusively dominating motojournalism at the time. While women have gained significant market share in the motorcycling domain, they remain grossly underrepresented among those writing about it. Pierson will leave you hungry for more such contributions.

Occasionally, the transitions between widely varying types of content can feel a little disjointed, but I toss in this tepid criticism only to avoid sounding like an infatuated groupie. This isn’t a novel, after all, and Pierson covers so much ground that it would be impossible to fit everything together seamlessly. Take a brief walk out to your garage between chapters and all will be well.

An aside of special relevance to the MOA readership: When I first immersed myself in Pierson’s intense affection for the marque featuring prominently in this work, Moto Guzzi, I was in possession of my first twin-cylinder machine. I’d only owned Japanese singles and fours up to that point, and hadn’t yet taken the full-Euro plunge, but I was quite enamored of the gutsy thrust generated by my Suzuki TL1000S (twins would dominate the road-going portion of my garage from that point forward). If that TL hadn’t already won me over, I’d have converted on the basis of Pierson’s expressions of devotion alone. Boxer owners will relate not only to the visceral throbbing of two big pistons, but also the unique sensations delivered by a longitudinal crank and shaft drive, all of which you can feel while riding along with the author. Vintage bike aficionados will likewise recognize the perils and gratifications accompanying partnerships with aging hardware on the open road. Pierson’s enthusiasm for Guzzis probably won’t send many BMW owners scurrying out to replace their current mounts, but her descriptions will resonate especially well.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a long-time motojournalist and even longer-time enthusiast, both in the saddle and in the garage.  His book, Why We Ride, explores all there is to love about motorcycling. Get yours today at https://www.amazon.com/Why-Ride-Psychologist-Motorcyclists-Relationship/dp/1620082284/.