Bikes

A Forgotten Sidecar Motorcycle Company From Russia Is Making a Comeback in Seattle

Ural’s Soviet-style sidecars are primed for adventure

Cold-War Bike by Ural Sparks Sidecar Revival

You know that chase scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Harrison Ford is dodging Nazis with his pops, Sean Connery, in a sidecar?

That’s actually a thing—minus the Nazis, but still with plenty of adrenaline—that you can do, too.

For three days near the Washington state headquarters of Ural Motorcycles, I rode up two-lane highways into the mountains and wound through muddy, snowed-in logging trails. I rode through coastal hamlets, quiet except for the workers down at the corner pub and caribou in the fields.

I’d heard that these Soviet-style sidecar motorbikes were indestructible, and I wanted to find out for myself.

Ural sidecar motorcycles cost between $12,000 and $16,000.

Ural sidecar motorcycles range from $12,000 to $16,000.

Hannah Elliott via Bloomberg

A Bike Built for Two

As long as there’ve been two-wheeled conveyances, people have been tacking on extras: A “safety” bicycle with a light sidecar earned a patent in the late 1800s. The idea was that a cyclist could carry a lady next to him as he pedaled.

When the bicycle became motorized, sidecar bicycles followed suit. The frames back then were pretty basic, made of steel tubes bolted onto the main bike. By 1913 they had four attachment points between the sidecars and the motorcycles and used leaf springs as a sort of suspension system. Even Harley-Davidson got in on the act: It cataloged a three-wheeled bike in 1914.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the U.S. Army to realize how useful sidecar bikes were, and during WWI, Western Front soldiers used them for dispatch duties. After the war, though, cars became much less expensive, and most sidecar companies declined. 

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The Urals excel in the rain and mud. 

Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg Business

Ural is the biggest—and definitely the coolest—of the handful of small brands such as Liberty and Royal Einfeld that are still selling sidecars and sidecar kits. It’s made sidecar motorcycles in Siberia since World War II, based on the BMW R71 bike that the Germans shared with the Soviets in 1939.

In 2000 a group of Russian entrepreneurs led by Ilya Khait bought the brand, kept manufacturing in Russia, moved headquarters to Seattle, and began marketing the bikes to young riders with discretionary funds and wanderlust. (Ural now buys some unspecialized parts, like engine control units and brake calipers, from suppliers around the world. It’s easier to monitor quality and reliability that way.)

The strategy paid off: More than half of Ural’s 1,200 annual sales go to Americans.

Sidecar motorcycles have been used since before WWII; they excel in inclement weather and hazardous road conditions.

Sidecar motorcycles have been used since before World War II. They excel in inclement weather and hazardous road conditions.

Hannah Elliott via Bloomberg

 

Testing the Hype

Ural makes four models: the Gear-Up ($15,999); the 2WD Patrol ($15,599); the M70 ($15,999); and the CT ($12,999). I rode the CT hundreds of miles for three days in the Olympic Mountains, over Snoqualmie Pass, and out to Bainbridge Island in Washington. It proved more than capable of handling the rocky, muddy terrain.

Riding a sidecar feels simultaneously more stable and wobblier than riding a two-wheeled motorcycle. The seat is solid—you can thank the third wheel for that—but you’ve got to have a strong hand with steering, since it takes considerably more force to turn than a regular motorcycle. Slowing down and cornering are lessons in physics. Instead of counterbalancing around turns, which you do on a regular bike, on a Ural you lean into the turn, trying to keep the third wheel down in contact with the road (otherwise it will sometimes levitate on corners, which, once you get used to it, is actually pretty fun).

All the Specifics

The CT has a 749cc air-cooled 2-cylinder 4-stroke engine. It gets 41 horsepower and 42 pound-feet of torque with a 4-speed manual transmission. It has a gear for reverse (unheard of on regular motorcycles) and a kick-start lever (in addition to a push-button) ignition for those times when you want to feel very tough and cool.

Aluminum rims with steel spokes on 18-inch tires, plus a double-sided swing arm with hydraulic shock absorbers, make it well-suited for snow. Instead of the archaic, friction-type steering unit Ural motorcycles used to have, the CT has a hydraulic piston-and-rod damper like the kind you’d find in a Ducati.

It's very easy—and fun—to get festive with these bikes.

It’s very easy—and fun—to get festive with these bikes.

Hannah Elliott via Bloomberg

For more comparison, the seat height is 31 inches—the same as Ducati’s new Scrambler. It weighs 700 pounds. That’s about twice as much as the Scrambler but considerably lighter than half of the Harley-Davidsons on the road today. It can carry almost 1,400 pounds of weight, too, if you need it. Which will more than cover Fido and a lady friend, right? I hope so.

All told, you can get about 35 miles to the gallon on this puppy and go about 180 miles on a single tank of 91-octane unleaded fuel. Top speed is about 70 miles per hour, which you can reach if you really try. Not that it would be the smoothest ride: These things hit their sweet spot closer to 50 mph.

Make It Your Own

The real fun, though, comes when you customize the sidecar to your own specifications.

On a Ural, every stop invites conversation and quips from curious onlookers.

On a Ural, every stop invites conversation and quips from curious onlookers.

Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg Business

You can get extra LED searchlights, spare tires, snow shovels, first-aid kits, wind visors, axes, ammo canisters, luggage racks, specialized toolkits, and extra-long seats to enable even more passengers. And the trunk is big enough to hold an adult passenger and a dog, or a huge golf bag and some cases of beer, or a gun case, or a tent and camping gear. Your pick.

On the other hand, Urals aren’t great for highway cruises over long periods of time (gas mileage, plus that whole 50 mph comfort zone), and they’re considerably more expensive than many “regular” motorcycles. They’re big to park and heavy to lift, on the off chance that you tip it over. (It’s a legitimate concern.)

And if you own one, it will force you to be social.

No “lone ranger” attitude allowed with these things—everyone will want to go for a ride.

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