RoadTrip America

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Legendary Motorcycles: The Stories and Bikes Made Famous by Elvis, Peter Fonda, Kenny Roberts, and Other Motorcycling Greats, by Basem Wasef

James Dean's Triumph T110
Basem Wasef
James Dean's Triumph T110 in front of his boyhood home

Cal Rayborn
Mick Woolett
Cal Rayborn aboard his Harley Davidson XR750 in the 1972 Transatlantic Match Races

Peter Fonda on "Captain America"
Harley Davidson Panhead v-twin known as "Captain America" in the filming of Easy Rider, ridden by Peter Fonda

This is a book I really wanted to love. Stunning photographs of famous motorcycles and interesting stories about their owners and a shared appreciation for the love of speed -- what could be better? The author even took a road trip in a vintage 1983 Porsche 911 SC while during research for this brand new book, and there is even an odd sort of symmetry in the finished work. The book opens with a discussion of James Dean's early love affair with speed in general, and his 1947 CZ 125-cc motorcycle and finishes with Steve McQueen's 1947 Indian Chief Chopper that he nicknamed "The Blob." Author Basem Wasef's goal was to find and describe "…the most historically significant motorcycles," and he was successful in profiling an appealingly eclectic lineup of such machines.

Legendary Motorcycles is a fine book for "random paging," and as a coffee table book, I think it performs admirably. But the road trip books that earn my personal recommendations always go beyond the superficial. Even though this book has some moments of brilliance, I reached the end of the book with a sense of frustration about how the narrative unfolded. How much better this book could have been had the author chosen to weave the individual collection of stories into a single whole -- but perhaps that wasn't the point.

On the other hand, the photographs are nothing short of fantastic, and I gained new perspectives on some of the individuals described in the narrative. The author included some very memorable stories in this book. Three of my favorites are Freddie Spencer's successful campaign to become a double champion in the 1985 GP racing series, the back story behind the legend of Lawrence of Arabia, and the incomparable story of Burt Munro's efforts to join the 200-miles-per-hour club at Bonneville Salt Flats on his Munro Special.

The outstanding photographs of these famous motorcycles do a wonderful job of transporting the reader to different places and times. In fact, the author made a point of photographing some of the historic bikes in locales that were reminiscent of the racing tracks and garages where they gained their fame. One fascinating feature of the book is the sleuthing that the author did to locate and track down the sometimes mysterious ownership lineage of the bikes. The "John Edgar Lightning," also known as "Rollie Free's Bathing Suit Bike" and "Captain America," the Harley Davidson v-twin Panhead made famous by Peter Fonda in the film "Easy Rider" are two contenders for the most convoluted ownership histories.

Legendary Motorcycles shares a glimpse of life in the fast lane from Burt Munro's purchase of an Indian Scout in 1920 to the announcement in spring of 2004 that basketball star Michael Jordon was entering the world of professional racing by sponsoring an AMA Superstock and Supersport motorcycle team. Even if you find the prose a little disconcerting in spots, the images of the bikes and the stories of the people who made them famous make this book a must-have for motorcycle aficionados.

Mark Sedenquist

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