Monday, 19 September 2011

Book Review: "Big Sid's Vincati. The story of a Father, a Son and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime"

Very few “motorcycle” books ever get published, and when they do, they often go unnoticed, gathering dust in the more obscure and out-of-the-way shelves in bookshops. “Big Sid’s Vincati. The Story of a Father, a Son and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime” is just one of those books.

The main protagonist of Vincati is “Big” Sid Biberman, an ageing mountain of a man whose claim to fame is that of having been one of the foremost North American experts on tuning Vincent motorcycles. The book, written by his son Matthew Biberman (a professor of creative writing and literature at Louisville University) opens at the side of Big Sid’s hospital bed, as he waits to undergo emergency open-heart surgery after having suffered a serious heart attack. He has apparently lost the will to live and, on the spur of the moment, his son comes up with a plan to build one of motorcycling’s rarer exotic hybrids, a Vincati.

At this juncture I should perhaps pause and explain what a Vincati is. Put simply it is a Vincent engine bolted into a – fairly modified – Ducati 750 GT frame. As such it is one of those creations that give Vincent enthusiasts and Ducati cognoscenti apoplexy attacks. You can’t buy one of these motorcycles over the counter, so they are usually the fruit of a slightly zany mechanic’s hard toil in his home workshop.

Right, back to the book. Saying that this is just a motorcycle book would be over-simplifying it altogether. True, bikes run through it on every page, but there is more to it than that. It is in fact an account of how a father and son who have grown apart come together and learn to coexist – pretty much for the first time in their lives – thanks to the creation of the mythical Vincati, which in itself leads to the father coming out of retirement and resuming his trade with help from his son.

In so doing, the author goes back over his father’s life: an unhappy childhood under the thumb of a tyrannical father with little or no paternal spirit; his teenage years and discovery of motorcycles in general and Vincents in particular; his Army years, during which he treads hallowed ground – the Vincent works in Stevenage, England; and finally his adult life, first running his father’s butcher shop, then setting up a bike shop and gaining renown as a tuner.

At the same time, and in parallel to this, Matthew Biberman charts his own life, and the way that – despite a shared love of motorcycles – he and his father became estranged, mainly due to the fact that the author was a bit gauche with a spanner in his hand, and the way in which they finally come to peaceful terms with each other, as Big Sid grudgingly allows his son to assist him in restoring various Vincents as they both amass the funds to pour into the Vincati project.

Despite the distinct smell of petrol and the oily finger-marks on the pages (the author himself speaks of giving lectures reeking of petrol and with grimy fingernails), this is definitely a book that can appeal to readers who are not motorcycling enthusiasts, somewhat like the legendary “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Unlike that tome, however it does not delve into mysticism, and stays firmly in the real world. Yet diehard motorcyclists won’t be disappointed: there’ enough talk of motorcycle rides, crashes, near-misses, and mechanics – and at the end of the book, Matthew Biberman has thoughtfully included the complete technical specifications of the Vincati.

Although it doesn’t have the gonzo-journalism punch of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels”, the adventure of Ted Simon’s “Jupiter’s Travels” or the mystical aura of the aforementioned “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Persig, “Big Sid’s Vincati” is a very enjoyable book that is at once moving, funny and down-to-earth.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Marc for your honest and thought provoking review. If you ever want to translate a nongonzo, nonmystical, non globe trotting but still pretty good motorcycle book into espanol, well then we should talk! Thanks again, Matthew