The Enormous Vroom / Vrooom

Was reminded by David Matos of one of the earliest reviews of Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. “The Enormous Vroom” by R.Z. Sheppard in Time magazine, April 15, 1974, the day after publication, and the same day as George Steiner’s “Uneasy Rider” in The New Yorker.

I’d forgotten it (and on-line copies had disappeared until I rescued a copy) but I recalled that opening paragraph instantly:

Like the pool hall and the tattoo parlor, the motorcycle usually gets a bad press. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) terminated his romance with himself aboard a British army bike, which he had named George VII. During the ’50s and ’60s, Hell’s Angels on their Harley-Davidsons turned in convincing performances as Visigoths at the gates of suburbia. Easy Rider could not keep off the grass, and Evel Knievel, that star-spangled Icarus of the carnival circuit, gives young minibike owners potentially lethal delusions of grandeur. But now, during the lull in the great gas panic of ’74, comes a 46-year-old Minnesotan and writer of computer manuals, who makes the motorcycle not only respectable but also a focus of mental and spiritual health.

It resonates with me not simply because it summarily captures the “culture-bearing” fit of the book, but because of that opening reference to T E Lawrence, another hero of mine. Like all good myths the tone is perfect even if the facts are wrong. (Although he’s often pictured in army private uniform on the Brough SS100 he called George V (10 years before his death), it was very much his bike. In fact he owned eight of them and had a close association with Brough, their designs and performance. George VII, the later one he died on in 1935, was also known as Boanerges, the name of he gave his first Brough Superior. George VIII was on order but undelivered when he died. Easy when you have Wikipedia, which Sheppard didn’t. And, personal interest, Boanerges was also the name of our engineering mascot vintage motor at Imperial College, London.)

Uneasy Rider carried the cachet of Steiner’s “stellar” reputation, but Sheppard’s Vroom is every bit as good, and part of the marketing of ZMM on its original publication.


[Post note: One intriguing suggestion from David Matos comment in his own FB post, the motorcycle with sidecar that Pirsig had been driven by his parents round London and England back in 1933 may have been a Brough!]

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