From Russia With Love

By Jerry Garrett

April 4, 2008 6 min read


With its sidecar, the Ural makes a big impression

By Jerry Garrett

Copley News Service

The motorcycle market seems to have endless affection for nostalgic machinery. Harley Davidson's still carry styling touches from the 1950s and earlier. People continue to try and revive old, defunct classics such as Excelsior-Henderson, Vincent and Indian. The Japanese clone retro styles, such as Kawasaki's Vulcan Drifter, from times when they weren't even in business. But Russia's only motorcycle, the Ural, claims total authenticity; it hasn't changed in the 70 years since they stole it from the Germans.

Ural makes sidecar-equipped motorcycles that look exactly like a vintage BMW - because that's what they are.

Urals offer a curious blend of the latest technology, like a front disc brake and modern electronics, along with retro touches, like wire-spoke wheels, sidecars and machine gun mounts - an artifact of their long history of military service.

In the 1930s, BMW created a sturdy motorcycle with a sidecar, and sold the plans to the Russian army. BMW had also secretly designed a superior model for the German army's use. When Russia defeated Germany in World War II, they disassembled the entire BMW factory, where the better motorcycle was produced, and transported it to the tiny town of Irbit, in western Siberia, where they reconstructed it all, bolt by bolt.

At Irbit, over the next several decades, more than 3.2 million Urals were produced. Ural enjoyed a 100 percent share in the domestic market under the Communist system, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, and government subsidies for production ended, Ural sputtered and nearly died. At one point, the remaining employees dragged the assembly line pieces to a small, unheated building and tried to resume production using diesel generators. When fuel ran out, work continued by candlelight. Russian venture capitalists saved the enterprise at its darkest hour, in 2001.

Since then plucky Ural has soldiered on. It has a devoted, if tiny, following; annual sales have stabilized at about 2,000 worldwide. Last year, a Ural made a cameo appearance in the movie "Eastern Promises", albeit without its signature feature, the sidecar.

"Ural was born with a sidecar," explained Madina Merzhoyeva, one of nine employees in Ural's U.S. headquarters in Redmond, Wash. "People who buy Urals take the sidecars off very rarely. And when they do, they put it back on because a Ural without a sidecar is not a Ural."

Riders are drawn to the added utility of its sidecar. Not only can a Ural carry two people, the camouflage-painted Gear-Up model (with factory-installed machine gun mount - weapon sold separately) comes with a passenger seat on the motorcycle that increases total capacity to three. Behind the sidecar's seat is enough storage for a duffel bag or two. They also carry a handy spare tire.

"People used Urals as work-horses," Merzhoyeva said. "To haul stuff around, commute, haul potato sacks on farms - young families could afford Urals as their inexpensive but practical transportation."

Urals also offer two-wheel drive ability; with a flip of a couple of levers, the wheel on the sidecar joins the motorcycle's rear wheel in delivering power. Together, they can pull a Ural out of terrain nasty enough to snag a four-wheel-drive truck. The transmission also has a reverse gear.

Now known as Irbitski Motozykletny Zavod, or IMZ-Ural, the company is striving to upgrade and modernize its models. Ural still manufactures the frame, engine, transmission, wheels and sidecar parts to the original 1939 specifications. But more and more components come from suppliers in Japan, Europe and the United States.

To meet American exhaust emissions standards, the anemic 650cc two-cylinder engine had to be redesigned. In 2003, a 40-hp 750cc model appeared. "The challenge has been, however, to overcome the haunting reputation of poor quality," Merzhoyeva said, "and change the perception of Ural being just an old retro bike."

A Ural is not for everyone. The drag of the sidecar can make the 739-pound ensemble yank right while accelerating or changing gears, like torque-steer in a front-drive car. During deceleration, and braking, the Ural pulls to the left. Since there's always clutching, shifting, accelerating and braking going on, the Ural seems to squirm back and forth across the road.

Cornering is also a specialized skill; if the sidecar is empty, its wheel is likely to lift off the ground during a right-hand turn; turning works better with a loved one, or other ballast, in the sidecar. The handlebars must be turned; there is no leaning on a motorcycle with a sidecar (not without rupturing a hernia).

The Ural line now comprises five models: the $11,499 Patrol; the combat-ready Gear-Up, $11,999; the $12,299 Retro, which is most faithful to the 1939 BMW design; the $10,499 Tourist, with a windscreen for the sidecar; and the sidecar-less Wolf, a $7,995 cruiser which looks less like a member of the family than Marilyn Munster.

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