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22nd December 2009

The Encyclopaedia of Classic Motorcycles, by Richard Rosenthal
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If you like dipping in and out of an old bike book, rather than following a lengthy narrative, then you probably enjoy the 'great big list' formula. Here is possibly the greatest, biggest list we've ever encountered...

This is one seriously weighty tome, in both literal and content senses. It aspires to replace the once-famous Tragatsch Encyclopaedia, and it is certainly capable of achieving that fine ambition.

Author Richard Rosenthal knows as much about old motorcycles as anyone else, and probably a lot more than most would want to, and is plainly no stranger to the stunning archives owned by Mortons Media, publishers of almost every classic bike magazine and publishers of this very book. Some of the photographs in here are superlative; packed with interest and with history, too.

Possibly the greatest, biggest list we've ever encountered...

Production values are high (in other words, the book is beautifully designed, laid out, printed on high quality paper and bound between shiny hard covers) and the content is exactly what its title suggests. This is probably the definitive encyclopaedia of motorcycles. All motorcycle, motorcycles produced everywhere, not just in the UK.

Do you remember the very fine series run in one of the old bike magazines entitled 'Not Available In Tragatsch'? Yes, I know I should get out more, but it was a regular series which, unsurprisingly, listed marques and models which had somehow escaped inclusion in that earlier encyclopaedia. Lots of fun for anoraks everywhere. It would be a brave soul who tried to pull the same stunt with this huge work (and yes, I checked; Kerry and indeed Komar are both included, as indeed is the Kenilworth), although I was forced to observe that although they are mentioned in the CCM entry, Armstrong don't get their own moment of fame (can I have a prize for that?).

So then; what we have here is a huge list. There's a couple of introductory pages uttering generous comments about various folk and the VMCC, and then, with little ado, there is a vast, vast swathe of data. Everything you ever wanted from a list is here, and the reading of it is addictive, as is often the way with lists.

The range of illustrations is vast, too, with a very good selection of images from catalogues, from trade publications of the day, and with a healthy selection of shots from modern times, showing the bikes in use on the roads of today. In fact, the illustrations are the best part, and it's a tiny shame that they couldn't be used bigger, but there is only so much space available, even to a mighty publisher like this one. Some of the pics will be familiar to many of us, but loads of them were new to me, not least some of the shots of European machinery taken in the 1950s; they really were very different to the models common in the UK.

For your £35, you receive well over 400 pages containing an enormous wealth of information. It is almost impossible to comprehend the effort, time and energy which went into this, and it's a terrific achievement.

However, all reviewers delight in criticising, and I'm not different. Given that this book contains marques and models from all over the world, it would have been a great opportunity to investigate and consider how the development of the motorcycle varied from country to country, and Richard Rosenthal is certainly the author to write that study. And, just to prove that all reviewers are too big-headed for words, I don't think Les Williams ever built a Matchless…

Reviewed by Frank Westworth


Encyclopaedia Of Classic Motorcycles, by Richard Rosenthal, is published by Mortonsbooks at £35. 01507 529529. Tell 'em we sent you....

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