Jamie Leonard walks us through how his sidecar obsession started and then progressed to the shits and giggles of rig ownership!
Around 1939 or so, the Russian army was looking for a motorcycle and sidecar rig. They either (depending on who you ask) smuggled the German BMW R71 out or got the plans through some kind of technology trade.
The resulting Dnepr M72 750 cc flat-twin, (with side valves and producing a massive 22 hp) did not make mass-production until the early 1950s.
Aficionados of Russian rigs will no doubt be aware of the other sidecar manufacturer – Ural, who went from a state owned factory to a private company in 1992. Dnepr failed to follow suit and went out of business
Though new Dnepr “kit” bikes assembled from leftover parts from the production line would continue to pop up for quite some time afterwards, from some reports, the contents were of various children’s
They had frames of steel but mechanical parts of craft paper and glue – Dnepr kit bike ownership was mostly a matter of
Taking a motorcycle and slapping a sidecar on it thoroughly ruins it.
It doesn’t lean any more. It accelerates like a wounded cow. Braking, when you first attempt it, tends to give you a surge of adrenaline until you figure out just where in the hell you are going to end up.
Sudden right hand turns lift the sidecar, and really sudden left hand turns can = tilt your sidecar towards the ground.
It’s like kicking the laws of physics in the gentleman’s region and slapping inertia around just for kicks.
And despite all of this — or even because of it — I’d probably give up two wheels before I give up three.
DNEPR OR NOT DNEPR?
My personal sidecar obsession started several years ago after I’d read about a Ural in a write-up on the Internet. The image and description stuck somewhere in the back of my head (which is impressive, as most things tend to fall out of there within a relatively short span of time).
I began to search out articles and accounts of ownership which progressed to finding excuses to get my wife to “just peek into the dealer for a few minutes since we’re passing right by there.”
Passing right by if you count being in the same city, that is. Well, city next to it.
I began to drop hints to my wife. Like how I could take my nine-year-old daughter in the sidecar for rides. How I could pick up groceries and run errands. How I could finally drive her around the city (instead of just driving her around the bend) as I’ve never gotten my car license, and didn’t really see myself doing so in the immediate future.
And then a used Dnepr came up for sale …
I somehow managed to convince my wife that just to look at it wouldn’t do any harm and we found ourselves at Old Vintage Cranks in Hillsburgh.
The dealer, Ken Beach — often described as a guru of Russian sidecar
motorbikes — showed us the bike, which was in on consignment. The
welds were crude and it kind of lurked in a semi-menacing military
The sheet metal construction was farm-machinery heavy, and it looked like it could be used to tow the occasional battleship. Or small island if you weren’t particularly in a hurry and gave some extra room while merging into traffic.
I was in love. Then Ken took me for a ride in the sidecar. It ticked, squeaked, murmured, roared and rattled its way down the road – halfway terrifying, halfway exhilarating. The mechanics were mostly sorted out, and it was less than half the cost of a new Ural (budget being a big factor for us at the time).
My wife, ever the practical one, asked about taking it on trips and
overall reliability. Ken said, “I wouldn’t recommend the Dnepr for
that, but I’d take that Ural across the country in a moment.” pointing
to a black Ural Tourist just emerging from a crate, still halfway
assembled and gleaming with chrome.
We spent a while there, asking many questions with my eye wandering between the black Ural and the green Dnepr, as I walked back and forth calculating sums and figures in my head.
The next day we called and began arrangements for the purchase … of one shiny new Ural Tourist in classic black!
Arranging because Ken, like the Ural dealers worth buying from, wouldn’t let a machine out the door until he had gone through it and made sure it was set up just right. He also took us through setting up the seat and accessories – even customizing the seat height to accommodate my more than six-foot frame.
Even then he wouldn’t sell it to us without giving us a driving lesson and an overview of the basic maintenance first.
The first lesson – you don’t ride a sidecar rig; you drive it. It steers; it doesn’t lean into turns. It pulls to the left when you decelerate and pulls to the right when you turn the throttle.
We learned about “Flying the chair” – where you take a right hand turn too quickly and the sidecar wheel leaves the ground (learning both how to avoid this, and how to deal with it when it happens, and especially how not to panic in the process).
We learned how to engage the reverse gear, and drive it in reverse without doing anything terribly unfortunate to any bystanders, cars or small buildings. The sidecar on a Ural is made from sheet steel, not some lightweight nonsense like fibreglass or plastic. In a crash between a small building and a Russian sidecar rig I wouldn’t bet on the building getting the least of it.
THE INAUGRAL RIDE
By the time we got the machine in our hands, an unusually early winter had started with a light dusting of snow already on the ground. Normally you’d have already sent your motorbike off to sleep in some dusty garage or shed, dreaming of spring and clear pavement.
Not quite so with the Ural.
I wouldn’t tackle major snow — especially with my lack of experience — but with the aid of a cheap snowmobile jacket and gloves I was off riding. Slowly. Very slowly. Mostly around the back and in area parking lots. I’m sure the neighbours wondered at times if some crazed and horribly lost member of the KGB was stalking them!
By this time I’d also found an Internet forum to get all the info you need when delving into owning a Russian sidecar rig – the Canadian Ural Dnepr Riders association (or a slightly dyslexic CURD for short).
Mike Palmer, the CURD founder, was a Ural owner when the quality was much more hit-and-miss, and (from his stories) did they ever miss on his. But with a two year warranty and much effort on his part, he has ended up with a reliable machine. The newer ones (including my 2007 fortunately!) are said to be much improved.
The CURD forum was essential for information on the bike and how to ride it. I did try to not appear too green with my many postings, though I’m sure they suspected when I asked questions like “Is this noise normal?” and “Why do pedestrians keep running away screaming when they see how I drive?”
Eventually I became (over) confident enough to take my wife out for a ride. She started off the ride in the driver’s seat (she’d been practising driving a bit as well), and did quite well … if you didn’t listen too closely to the occasionally tortured gear change, or expect the bike to not stall on the occasional downshift.
Then it was my turn – and I drove flawlessly. If you ignored my wife waving her arms around, convinced I was about to slam into the car in front of us. Or possibly the one beside us – the extra clearance you need for the sidecar takes a little getting used to.
Still, we survived, with relatively little mayhem to the immediate area. Except for my backyard gate. Apparently a 4-by-4 post isn’t really a match for a Ural fender when you forget how wide a sidecar rig is. The fender was easily hammed back into position. The gate however still has a bit of a lean to it …
Since then we’ve put a lot of kilometres on our rig – going all over Ontario, mostly on the back highways. In doing so I’ve learned first-hand about “UDF” or Ural Delay Factor – where you get people coming up to you to ask questions, or just to tell their own stories of the bike they used to have.
Like the 80-something-year-old woman who stopped me, reminiscing about her honeymoon trip after WWII in a sidecar motorcycle (albeit an English Norton, not a Ural).
Seeing the rig took her back to those days of dust and wind-chapped faces – making a game out of discomfort and long days travelling.
Or the co-worker who told me the story about the police in his village in Eastern Europe driving around in a Dnepr rig, picking up the town drunks and carting them off to the tiny police station in the sidecar to sleep it off.
I’ve learned that Urals are not about speed – they’re about storytelling.
Like the guy who got mad at me trying to tell him it was a 2007. “No, I know bikes, and that’s older!” he shouted as he stalked off, angry at my imagined deception.
Or going along the cottage road after a rain with my daughter in the sidecar (she’s nine, and fearless). Potholes were hammering the bike, the bike splashing down into mud puddles with every bounce.
When we got to the cottage I was convinced she’d never want to ride in the thing again, but all she said as she got out was “That was AWESOME!”
The stories are part of the machine – it’s a mobile conversation piece. You measure trips in people met along the way.
So what’s my summary of Ural ownership after two years?
Reliability – If you do the basic oil changes, spoke checks, oil level checks, tire pressure checks and follow the very basic maintenance schedule – it won’t leave you stranded.
Speed – After the break in period, you can cruise at 90-100 km/h all day long, but it’s happier closer to 90. This isn’t a racer, but it’s the most fun you can have going slow.
Fuel economy – Compared to an SUV, quite good. Compared to anything motorcycle wise at all – bad.
Off-road ability – Surprisingly good. Oh it won’t go all the places an ATV will, or follow narrow single track. But with some patience and planning, it’ll get you places that’ll surprise you. If you go for the two-wheel drive version it’ll get you ever farther.
Price – They start at $13,995 and go up from there.
By the time you decide that you need one, however, you’ll already have WWII movie chase scenes going through your head – theme songs hummed under your breath and Steve Mcqueen lines on the tip of your tongue.
Price isn’t the main factor when you’re buying something that’ll give you giggles worse than a kindergartener.
Mind you, when we hit the puddles off-road and splashed through them with a bounce and an engine roar – I’m still claiming the high-pitched laughter was my wife.
Even if nobody believes me.