COVID-19 Cutting Your Saddle Time? Tap Into UM’s Arsenal of Intellect to fight Back!
Over the years, Ultimate Motorcycling has reviewed most of the greatest new and classic motorcycles, and motorcycle literature out there. With the world in a battle against one of the most contagious viruses man has seen in years, many of us are under “stay at home” orders to try to stem the spread of the pathogen.
All is not lost. We thought it might be a good time to help out with suggestions on some of the best motorcycle literature to put some of that non-saddle time to good use. Here then, is Ultimate Motorcycling’s Safer At Home top reading material list.
We have categorized them, but they are in no particular order. Note that some of the books that made our list are current, while others are vintage books that may require a little looking around to find but are probably available from Amazon, AbeBooks, eBay, or other sources.
Literature (Spanning philosophy, humor, biography, memoir, and more)
Few motorcycle-riding writers have a greater command of storytelling than Peter Egan. Among these books, he takes us along on some terrific motorcycle adventures, informs us of the hazards of motorcycle maintenance, introduces us to some interesting people and places, and much more all with humor, insight, and inspiration. You will also want to read each of his Leanings books: Leanings, Leanings 2, and Leanings 3.
Jack Lewis is an Iraq War veteran who turns his talents with the written word into therapy and a way to reconnect with peace, freedom, and home. His turn of phrase, use of irony and sense of humor led me to compare his writing to that of Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson. Among contemporary writers, I think he is one of the best.
Focusing on Edward Truner, Jeff Clew reveals the imperfect genius and engineer behind some of the motorcycle industry’s most iconic and imitated models, including the Ariel Square Four, and Triumph’s Speed Twin, Thunderbird, and Bonneville.
Louise Lewis inspires, educates, and entertains in her book about the power of good that can arrive on two wheels in black leather jackets (or armored textile, as the case may be). Her content contributors include retired General Tommy Franks (who led U.S. and coalition forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom), Greg Allman, Peter Fonda, and many more.
Authors Nancy Gerloff and Mark Augustyn, with the help of illustrations by Aveliya Savina and Marat Kurokhtin, introduce the alphabet to our youngest future readers and riders.
Hunter S. Thompson introduced the world to the Hells Angels (their spelling) as a topic, and Gonzo journalism as a genre with this breakout book. His research for the book included riding, partying, and generally getting bent out of shape with the Angels, all while taking notes, doing interviews, and making fearless observations on the gang and the society that spawned it.
Robert M. Pirsig’s classic book is not really about motorcycle maintenance, though it is mentioned here and there. Pirsig relates a trip west from Minnesota to the west coast on a motorcycle with his son, Chris. Within that trip, there is a long monologue—a Chautauqua—about issues Pirsig carries with him from the past. These range from personal and family issues, to career, to man’s relationship with technology, philosophy, quality—as defined in several contexts—and defining, or re-defining himself.
Written by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, this was the first book by a female author featured in the Ultimate Motorcycling Rider’s Library. The book is about the bike, but only in certain junctures of the story—and primarily oriented by Pierson’s affinity for Moto Guzzi. That affinity may explain—at least in part—the presence of the 1956 Moto Guzzi V8 on the cover. Easily the most technologically spectacular Guzzi ever built. Pierson takes the reader on several journeys in the book—not epic ’round-the-world odysseys, but interesting trips, and some include roadside repair scenarios. The book is also a deeply personal account of some of Pierson’s relationships with people close to her, as well as an introspective look at her own struggle with something that everyone who rides must confront—fear.
If all you knew about Malcolm Smith came from his role as a co-star with Mert Lawwill and Steve McQueen in Bruce Brown’s documentary film On Any Sunday, you’d say he is a pretty remarkable guy. After all, he not only appeared in what is arguably the most entertaining and quite possibly the most popular motorcycle documentary ever, but it also showed him to be an incredibly talented motorcyclist able to ride nearly anything in any kind of competition and win—all while wearing his legendary grin. All of that is quite a story in itself, but it is but a tiny fraction of the remarkable story of Malcolm Smith. The whole story is in Smith’s autobiography compiled with veteran moto-journalist Mitch Boehm, and featuring a foreword by Brown.
Touring, Adventure, and Off-Road
Heather Ellis is a woman of remarkable courage in her outlook on the world she has traveled on a motorcycle as well as with her unflinching look into herself. Her first book, Ubuntu, recalls her incredible south-to-north transit of Africa. It was tough, dirty, dangerous and spectacular, and that’s only the half of it. The consequences of that journey set the stage for an even more profound epic told in Timeless on the Silk Road. Both are superb books about very long-range adventure rides, though neither is actually only about that. Ever wonder just how resilient and determined a person can be? Ellis has an answer.
Elspeth Beard reached a surprising decision in the summer of 1982. An important relationship ended, a key step in her professional education in architecture was completed, and she had prepared her 1974 BMW for long miles. That would end up being a ’round-the-world adventure covering 35,000 miles and two years of her life. More than once, things went seriously awry, yet some amazing people and circumstances helped save the day.
Ed Culberson had an obsession—to be the first person to fully ride the Pan-American Highway its entire length from Alaska to the end of the road in Argentina totaling about 19,000 miles, including traversing the notorious Darién Gap across the Panama/Colombia border. Ultimately, Culberson succeeded, but not without overcoming some incredible obstacles—geographic and political.
Author Andy Westlake offers up perhaps the most complete compendium of off-road racing history from the 1960s available anywhere, and he makes it all enjoyable reading in the process. For example, in Volume 1, Westlake details the late Bud Ekins’ remarkable career as a successful motocrosser, trials rider, enduro and desert racer, Hollywood stunt rider, and Triumph dealer. In that chapter, Westlake includes Ekins’ own account of the filming of the famous jump over a 12-foot-high wire tangle on a stock 1962 Triumph for The Great Escape.
Greg Frazier’s adventure legacy has its beginnings about 50 years ago, spans six continents, and five complete circumnavigations of the planet. Down and Out gives you a chance to get to know about it. Starting from his earliest days in Portland, Oregon, it carries us to his motorcycle odyssey to the far pavilions; if it can be reached by motorcycle, he has probably been there, and he may be about the only one who has.
Sylvain Tesson combines the history of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Russia in the winter of 1812 with the account of a motorcycle adventure tour to retrace Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow to Paris on its bicentennial. Astride Ural sidehacks, Tesson and friends undertake the journey in the dead of winter 2012. Let’s see—three Urals with sidecars in the dead of winter, trying to travel 2500 miles on treacherous roads. What could possibly go wrong? Tesson tells a story of tragic history and modern adventure that is at once funny, engaging, and moving.
Technical Manuals, Restoration Guides, Vintage Bikes, Buyer’s Guides
Ricky Burns’ book is broken down into 17 chapters, covering everything from how to set up your shop, basic tools required, finding parts, picking the right project to start, safety in the shop and out on the road, and, perhaps most important, techniques that are not likely to be covered in owner or shop manuals, such as polishing, cleaning, and the repainting and refurbishing of decals and badges.
Ricky Burns scores another excellent how-to manual focused on the details of the restoration of Honda’s legendary air-cooled SOHC fours. In the book’s 15 chapters, Burns covers key restoration elements for the CB350, 400, 500, 550, 650, and 750 single overhead cam models from 1969 to 1982. The 176-page softcover book provides nearly 650 color images with captions and technical information to guide the reader step-by-step through everything from assessing the suitability of a prospective project bike to fine points of engine rebuilding, reupholstering the seat, restoring paint, decals and badges and electrics.
This book by Chris Rooke takes the novel approach of making the narrative less like a technical manual and more like a conversation—an interesting and informative one, at that. Divided into 64 chapters (44 devoted to the T150V, 20 to the T160), the book provides some in-depth guidance on disassembly, refurbishing, and reassembly of critical sub-assemblies. Several hundred color photographs illustrate many of the key components and steps in the process. The book is littered with cautionary tales of what can happen and how to avoid some problems, including the ‘buyer beware’ of buying vintage motorcycles.
Peter Henshaw has written more than 60 motorcycle books, including no less than a dozen of those in Veloce’s Essential Buyer’s Guide series, and is the former editor of Motorcycle Sports and Leisure magazine. Henshaw reveals that the Norton Commando wasn’t actually expected to become a powerhouse in the British motorcycle scene, let alone globally. Henshaw recounts the Commando’s rise as a popular machine, model variants, racing success, advertising approaches, and the struggles of Norton Villiers Triumph to remain viable.
Let’s face it, even those of us who are ardent fans of the motorcycles from the days of yore often know of them, but precious little about the finer details. Details such as their inherent weakness, parts prone to failure, parts that may be particularly hard to source, and portions of restoration that may be particularly difficult. And, if you want the real deal in terms of an all-original vintage bike, knowing how to spot a fake can make a huge difference in what you should pay. In the case of the Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket III, there are some examples of where the knowledge of someone who has gone deep in the technical weeds as author Chris Rooke has can be very helpful indeed.
Author Ricky Burns has locked himself in his shed and plumbed the depths of vintage Suzuki three-cylinder two-stroke models to produce a book that includes the air-cooled GT350 and GT550, as well as the liquid-cooled GT750 models from 1971 to 1978. In this book, the restoration project illustrated in particular is a GT750.
Motorcycle history, brands, and events
Armand Ensanian created what can only be described as one of the most far-reaching books about motorcycles in recent years. Indeed, here’s what we said about it in our 2016 review: “If Bruce Brown’s classic motorcycle film On Any Sunday were done in book form, it might come out something like Armand Ensanian’s new book, Discovering the Motorcycle.”
Author Chris Jonnum highlights 25 motorcycles from the Ducati museum, the motorcycles spanning six decades from the 1947 Cucciolo motorized bicycle to the 2010 Desmosedici GP10 piloted by 2006 MotoGP Champion Nicky Hayden.
Brad Jones’ book is about one of the most storied Brit motorcycle brands ever. Still, it is not the usual kind of book that focuses on the brand’s greatness and success. Instead, Jones focuses on the final years of BSA when it slipped into extinction just two years after capturing the first three places at the 1971 Daytona 200.
Like the Vincent motorcycle itself, Philippe Guyony’s book is a singular achievement. It is one of those rare motorcycle books that is researched, documented, developed, illustrated, written, and edited to the level of a university textbook. Indeed, it would make excellent reading for university classes in design, engineering, and contemporary history.
Darwin Holmstrom’s book is the first to fully span the history of the Indian marque from its beginnings as the first mass-produced motorcycle—‘motocycle’ in official Indian company parlance at the time—in the U.S. in 1901, to its rapid rise to prominence in the early 20th century, decline, and bankruptcy by 1953. He covers the multiple short-lived attempts to revive the brand, including the success of Polaris Industries as the latest keeper of the faith.
Darwin Holmstrom’s latest book is less about that brand’s technical minutiae and more about the broader history and, in particular, the social and cultural impacts of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. That is not to say the book doesn’t explain a lot about the historically significant models, when they were introduced, what product improvements they represented, and their impact on the Motor Company’s fortunes. The progression from the Silent Gray Fellow to the Milwaukee-Eights is there, in remarkably concise terms. Those aspects of Harley-Davidson are covered, but they don’t form the core of the book. Ironically, that sets this book apart.
After six decades, in an industry defined by nearly constant change and technological advancement, how could the Sportster endure, you may ask? Seasoned motorcycle expert, author, and sage Allan Girdler explains it all in his latest book. This book is an update of Girdler’s 2003 version to mark the Sportster’s 60th Anniversary.
The latest edition of Ian Falloon’s classic original adds to the original edition’s excellent content. That means coverage for models in the Triumph line-up from 2016 to 2019, including the limited-edition machines, the introduction of the liquid-cooled T120 motor, as well as the nostalgic Thruxton and Bonneville Bobber, among others.
Authors Michael Dapper and Lee Klancher tell the stunning story of Victory in great detail, including insights rarely known outside a company’s inner circles of top management. For example, the book reveals details of how the engineering team developed the Victory V-twin engine design and worked out the decision on whether to build the engine in-house or have it built by a vendor.
The title says it all. It’s the story of the only motorcycle manufacturers in the world to be in continuous production for a solid century, and then some. As with other books about Harley-Davidson timed to hit bookstores about the time of the H-D centennial in 2003, this one has many of the trademark features—number one, it is huge. It is 384 pages, and packed with historic and contemporary images of Harley-Davidsons of every description. Twelve inches high by 10.75 inches across and an inch-and-a-quarter thick, and weighing in at about five pounds, this book is not what you might call light reading, but it is worth the effort!
Great Britain’s Barry Sheene was one of the most charismatic personalities ever to light up GP motorcycle racing. A two-time world champion in the Premier Class, his career is covered close-up by author Brian Tarbox.
If you judge the book by its cover, which features author Paul Ritter aboard his AMA National Superbike race-winning Ducati, you’d assume it tells the story of a successful racing career. The book does tell this, but there is so much more to it. In 1998, after having retired from successfully competing in Superbike racing, Ritter suffered a spinal cord injury in a vintage motorcycle road race crash, paralyzing him from the chest down. Ritter shares not only the medical aspects of his life after paralysis, but goes into some depth on a personal level where we are reminded that life’s tough problems and losses can pile on a person, giving no quarter to a person who also has to cope with using a wheelchair. Through it all, he pushes forward, adapts, innovates, and overcomes.
Even if you have seen the feature film, The World’s Fastest Indian, and the documentary film that gave rise to it, you still don’t have the whole story on Burt Munro and his legendary Indian Scout. To get the entire story—much of it told as Burt saw it—you must read this fascinating book by Roger Donaldson. The book is based on the Munro scrapbooks that provided much of the basis for the film, which Donaldson wrote, directed, and co-produced.
There could be but little doubt that nine-time Grand Prix World Champion Valentino Rossi would be the subject of a sweeping biography. Indeed, with Rossi still at the top of his professional form in 2017, his biography is still a work in progress. That said, London’s Michael Scott has created a spectacular biography that covers Rossi from his earliest days to the publication.
For the enthusiast who simply has to be able to check out who won which historic motorcycle racing event, Peter Carrick’s book is the one to have on the shelf — at least if the race, rider, racing team or event was part of the period from the beginning of the 1900s to 1975. Admittedly, the book is dated now, and something of a collector’s item, but Carrick’s careful and complete detailing of motorcycle racing through its first 75 years reminds the reader why some of the legends of the sport became legends.