Normally, the 4 Sale column takes a look at motorcycles for sale on the used market, bikes with an interesting story. But this week, we’ve got something different for you: Mecum Auctions is selling the contents of a workshop, along with some books, papers and a rainsuit.
Sounds like an estate sale, you say, and you’d be right. Except this is no ordinary estate sale—all this stuff belonged to author/philosopher Robert Pirsig, who penned Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s possible no other book had as powerful an impact on North American motorcycling in the 20th century.
The Right Book At The Right Time
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance was very much a book of its age, exploring man’s relationship with technology in a cerebral fashion that appealed to university students and professors alike, especially in philosophy departments. It was first published in 1974. The hippies lost prominence after the Summer of Love, but they were still around, and they dug the far-out book with its counter-cultural aura. At least, they thought they did; a lot of readers didn’t really understand its meaning, but it was fun to speculate on its themes, sort of like a Bob Dylan song.
Pirsig wrote the book after a motorcycle trip in 1968, traveling from Minneapolis to San Francisco with his son Chris, two-up on a 1966 Honda CB77. Those long hours in the saddle put Pirsig’s already overdriven mind into an even higher gear. As Mecum Auctions says, in its write-up:
This trip would form the backdrop for one of the most celebrated motorcycle books ever written about culture and philosophy, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” which was translated into 27 languages with 5 million copies sold after its publication in 1974. In the book, Pirsig relies on tools and their myriad uses as an allegory for the different philosophical approaches of romanticism and classicism in the pursuit of quality. Quality is the central goal in the book, and Pirsig refers to it with a capital Q at least 400 times …
From the seat of his Honda, Pirsig took in the world, noting that motorcycle travel demands full attention, and there is an intimacy in the intricate way of handling such a machine while cruising down the backroads of the United States.
The book, often referred to by the shortened title of “Zen,” was on best-seller lists for years, and is often held as the most-read, most-sold philosophy book of all time. It’s confusing, but it still sells thousands of copies a year, and many riders have recreated Pirsig’s Minnesota-to-San Francisco journey to discover the book’s meaning, or discover something about themselves (find Mark Richardson’s excellent book on such a trip here).
The tools behind the book
There’s a lot going on in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, but one major recurring theme is Pirsig’s discovery and exploration of his machine, and himself, through working on the bike himself. This wasn’t just a one-off thing for the trip—Pirsig was a lifelong tinkerer and wrencher, as you can see by the items in this listing. There’s a set of torches and welders, bench and hand grinders, and a Black and Decker saw. The listing includes a drill press, hydraulic press frame and brick-topped welding table that Pirsig built himself, too. There’s also “Many other hand and power tools from his shop,” but these aren’t specified.
After Pirsig died in 2017, his Honda and a bunch of his tools ended up at the Smithsonian, so maybe this is from that lot? At that time, the Smithsonian said “Pirsig’s favorite toolboxes, with tools for maintaining his bike and other vehicles as well as tools he made himself, are also part of the donation.” From the auction photos, it seems the listing would more-or-less line up with that description, as there’s smaller stuff like sockets, wrenches and even car manuals.
If you’re a Pirsig fan, it would still be pretty cool to have his tools, but there’s a lot more available in this auction. Along with the tools, the sale also includes a set of British laminated plate glass goggles and a rain suit, both referred to on page 38 of the book. The listing also includes signed copies of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance and Pirsig’s other, lesser-known novel, Lila. There’s also discarded draft manuscript pages from Lila.
All this stuff is for sale at Mecum’s upcoming motorcycle auction in Las Vegas on January 26-31, and there’s no reserve price. Mecum’s write-up says the Pirsig collection is “all to be offered as one lot” at the January sale. No doubt we’ll see smaller, individual bits from this collection auctioned off in the future, as not all of it will be interesting to a collector, who may want to recoup some investment.
For more details, head over to Mecum’s website, and keep an eye open for updates as the auction approaches.