by Victor Wanchena
What is the obsession with vintage bikes? Pull into a gas station on a vintage bike and you’re bound to get questions and admiration. Try and buy one and you’re in for some sticker shock. Many bikes go for much more than the equivalent modern bike cost and with all the vintage bike woes. I believe it is because much of motorcycling is based on heritage. And what greater reverence for motorcycling’s days gone by than to own an old bike.
The reality of life with a vintage bike is invariably less fun than the memories of the good old days often viewed through rose-colored glasses. Despite this admission on my part, I am drawn like a month to flame to the old and obsolete. So it was natural that I was curious about Down The Road. A quick flip to the index showed multiple references to Vincent and Brough Superior, two of my greatest weak points.
I found Down The Road to be a lighthearted look at the reality and adventure of classic British bikes. The author, Steve Wilson, comes to the vintage motorcycle table with real credibility. His long running column “Down the Road Apiece” in Classic Bike Guide is very popular and the list of machines he’s owned and ridden is extensive. He has toured around Europe on bikes most people would trailer around the block.
The book is essentially a collection of his columns from CBG; Wilson gives us an honest look at the fascination by some with classic motorcycles. He likens it to an attempt to recapture the feelings and rush of the “first time”. Not content to merely prattle on about the good old days, instead we are treated to stories and musings about the history of the British motorcycle industry and the interesting people that were a part of it.
There is plenty of historical insight offered as well. Stories about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s little known exploits on motorcycles or T.E. Lawrence, that most famous of motorcycling casualties. And how about the rocket firing BSA used in the Bond film “Thunderball”. Wilson’s take on the subtleties of Brando and “The Wild One” actually gave me food for thought.
I also loved the stories about the Ace Café from the early days, before the legend became greater than the reality. Wilson aptly puts it when he says, “Truth, as in war, was the first casualty.”
Instead of using glossy photos or cheap stock images, the book is filled with hand engraved illustrations done by Nick Ward. These illustrations are a wonderful detail as they remind me of the line drawings found in old motor manuals.
Wilson doesn’t try to fill the readers with every aspect of the British motorcycle industry, a task which would bore the reader and result in a multi volume book; instead he gives a taste of history and a glimpse into that world. Written in an easy, light style, Down the Road doesn’t try and beat the “vintage is better” mantra into the reader. You get to read and enjoy stories from a time and place past. It gets a three and a half out of four cylinders.
Triumph Cub—Who knew there so many British bikes?
BSA Gold Star—What, no tuning secrets?
Brough Superior—Pip, pip, thanks for the trip down memory lane.
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