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Zen Honda moves to Smithsonian

Robert M Pirsig and son Chris Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

One of the most iconic bikes from the 1970s is the 1966 Honda Super Hawk ridden by author Robert M Pirsig in his 1974 classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

He died in April 2017 at the age of 88 and now his bike will be forever remembered when it goes on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, less than a mile from the White House in Washington.

Robert’s book became a philosophical handbook for many motorcycle riders in the 1970s and continues to be a bible for many riders.

He turned a nuts-and-bolts piece of equipment into something that is transcendent from this world.

Zen: The book

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance author Robert M Pirsig
Robert and his bike

The book is basically a travelogue of his thoughts while riding a 1964 Honda CB77 SuperHawk 305 from his home in Minnesota to the Black Hills of Dakota.

It’s not the wild and thrilling joy ride that Hunter S. Thompson describes in Hells Angels, nor an actual guide to maintaining a motorcycle as its title would suggest.

Instead, it is a thought-provoking journey into the mind of a rider.

We might not all grapple with schizophrenia as did Robert, but he made us aware of the isolation tank effect of a motorcycle ride and how it promotes mindfulness.

Even if you have never read the book, you have probably experienced much of the same thought processes while riding.

One of the more practical lessons from the book that I learnt was about mechanical sympathy, routine maintenance and a tortoise-and-hare approach to riding long distances.

Likewise, it took Pirsig four years of persistence to write and he was rejected by publishers 121 times. But over the long distance it has sold more than five million copies and been translated into 27 languages. Obviously motorcycles and philosophy are universal!

It is never too late to read the book which is still available today in hard cover, paperback, Kindle, audio book and audio CD.

Honda: The bike

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance author Robert M Pirsig
1966 Honda CB77 SuperHawk 305

Robert rode the Honda 5700 miles (almost 9200km) from the Twin Cities of Minnesota to San Francisco and back.

It has been stored for decades in the family’s New England garage and was recently mechanically restored.

The motorcycle is a gift to the museum from his widow, Wendy.

She also gifted Robert’s leather jacket, maps, shop manual, tools and other gear from the 1968 ride, together with a manuscript copy and signed first edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 

Museum curator Paul Johnston says the bike is “the most famous forgotten motorcycle in American history and literature”.

“Pirsig was a trailblazer in motorcycle touring and documenting its celebration of freedom and the open road,” he says.