June 2, 2010
BOOK REVIEW: 'Big Sid's Vincati': Building a Special Motorcycle Brought Father and Son Together
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntingtonnews.net Book Critic
Don't let the unusual title or the pictures of motorcycles on the front and back covers of Matthew Biberman's "Big Sid's Vincati" (Plum, a Penguin imprint, 288 pages, photographs, $16.00) throw you: This is a book for just about everyone -- especially fathers and sons -- not just motorcycle nuts.
It's the story of the complicated relationship between Sidney Biberman, born 1930 in Norfolk, VA. and his son, Matthew, born in 1966 and a professor of English at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. "Big Sid" Biberman -- he's 6-5 and weighs 300 pounds -- is a legend among motorcycle devotees. He's a master tuner of Vincents, a defunct and legendary British motorcycle brand -- bikes that were the fastest production machines before the era of the Hayabusa and other "rice burner" "crotch rockets."
Big Sid could listen to a Vincent Black Shadow or Rapide and determine what was wrong with the machine and proceed to fix it. Today, motorcycles are computer controlled, just like cars, and motorcycle mechanics are basically computer geeks who get their hands dirty. Back in the day, tuners like Biberman used their instincts and experience to let the bike tell them what was wrong. They were -- and are -- good listeners. His clients included famous motorcycle collectors like the late Steve McQueen and Jay Leno, as well as ordinary owners in Virginia and across the nation who sought out Biberman to tune their bikes.
I discovered this book by reading about Big Sid in Motorcycle Classics magazine, which compelled me to seek out and read the Hudson Street Press hardcover edition last year. I've been into scooters and motorcycles all my driving life, which dates back to January 1955 when I received my Illinois driver's license. I rode Cushman scooters and bought my first bike, a Honda 50, in 1967. I've owned a Triumph; a Yamaha; a Kawasaki police bike; Hondas, including an early GoldWing; a BMW; and a two-stroke Spanish street bike called the Bultaco Metralia --an example of which was included in the famed Guggenheim motorcycle show "The Art of the Motorcycle" which I saw at Chicago's Field Museum -- and other odds and ends. I no longer ride, but I devour motorcycle magazines, so the story of how Big Sid and Matthew Biberman created a special motorcycle from a 1970s Ducati GT chassis and a Vincent V-twin engine and transmission was a natural for me.
Big Sid loved both Vincents and Ducatis -- some models of which boasted frames designed by an Englishman -- so it didn't take much convincing on his son's part for the two to begin work on "Polly," the name they gave the Vincati, in honor of the widow of donor parts for the machine. To look at it, Polly looks like she came off a production line, the modifications are so well done. It's not the first Vincati -- that honor goes to a group of Australians who created the first bikes with Vincent engines in Ducati frames -- but it's probably the most pristine.
The saga of "Big Sid's Vincati" began while Sid, estranged from his wife, was recovering from a heart attack. He was living near Matthew and his wife Martha, who plays a role in the book, along with their daughter Lucy. In its treatment of family relationships in the context of motorcycling, the book reminded me of Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," but Matthew Biberman's book has its own distinct, non-derivative voice.
Growing up in the Hampton Roads area of coastal southeastern Virginia, Matthew Biberman bonded best with his dad when they took off on their bikes and road south to North Carolina's Outer Banks. Big Sid's father, Joe Biberman, was an abusive man who employed his son in his butcher shop and was scornful of his aspirations for higher education. Sid wanted to attend an engineering college in Milwaukee, but the closest he got was maintaining army vehicles in Germany during his military service in the early 1950s. Before he was drafted, Big Sid hung around the region's bike shops and became a fan of Vincents and other British bikes. Before the advent of the Japanese, the Brits produced bikes that were objects of desire -- and the Vincent was at the top of the totem pole.
Constructing the Vincati brought father and son together, but it also created rifts between Matthew and Martha, which are dealt with very well by the author. The rifts were bridged and everyone lived happily ever after, despite some motorcycle accidents that reminded me of my mishaps on two wheels. You're considered a virgin rider until you've laid your bike down!
If you're a bike nut, "Big Sid's Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime" is a natural. If you aren't, read it anyway and discover a memoir that will stay with you forever.
Websites: www.bigsid.com; www.penguin.com

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