This story goes back to pre-World War I, when the Russians had signed a non-aggression pact with the Nazi government of Germany. At the same time, the Red Army was attempting to design a new military motorcycle that would meet the demands of a Russian winter. They chose to build what was essentially a BMW R71 motorcycle. Through Swedish intermediaries, the Red Army purchased five BMW R71s and reverse engineered the motorcycle. A plant was built in Moscow to assemble the new military motorcycle. Shortly after production had begun the Germans invaded Russia. It was decided that the military motorcycle with sidecar was too valuable to be produced in Moscow where the Russians feared the Germans could bomb. The factory’s machines were loaded onto trains and shipped east to the Ural mountains in Central Russia, where it was all put back together and installed into a new home, which was an abandoned brewery. During World War II, the Irbit factory in the Urals produced over 9,000 of these rugged machines.
In the 1950s, the Red Army moved on to another design for its military motorcycles, yet the Irbit factory continued to produce the old BMW R71 copies for civilian use. In much of the country the roads are bad or simply non-existent, and the R71 clone with its tough metal sidecar and two wheel drive could negotiate just about anything. Families all over Russia continue to use the contraption as their primary mode of transport, and in later years the motorcycle-sidecar unit named the Ural has been exported to the U.S. barely changed from its 1939 design.
In recent years the engine has been given some important upgrades to deal with U.S. emissions, and a number of components for the motorcycle have been sourced from outside manufacturers like Ducati and Brembo. I’ve been following the evolution of the Ural for some years now, and these recent upgrades have made the Ural a more viable transportation option. This past weekend I decided to have an up close look at a Ural, simply out of curiosity. After going online to find a dealer, I learned that the closest one was in Boxborough Massachussetts, not far from Boston. I jumped in the car Saturday morning and headed east.
The dealership was modern and very well kept. As I walked towards the front door, a Ural came roaring around the corner with its rider and a sidecar passenger. After having owned a BMW for seven years, the sound of the Ural’s horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine sounded very familiar. I went inside and met Fernando the sales manager, and he showed me the various models. One that had particularly caught my eye was a lightly used two wheel drive model with a lot of accessories. It had been owned by a very particular fellow and he had added some high quality touches to the unit. It was also an olive green that really gave it the military look. Before I knew it, I was introduced to Ted, a relatively recent Russian immigrant who was the assembler and tech guy for Urals at the dealership. While Ted’s English was passable, we both understood the language of motorcycle, so communication was no problem. He even liked my Russian Komandirskie watch and told me he has several and was a sergeant in the Russian Army.
Ted explained all of the controls on the Ural, which included both foot and hand shifters, and the best part, a reverse gear. He piloted the rig around the dealership with me in the sidecar a couple of times, and then let me ride the bike while he rode the sidecar. The controls felt familiar, but the bike’s handling was unlike anything else. Three wheels do not act like two or four, so it takes time to fully understand the handling dynamics. However, having read a lot about sidecar handling over the years, I felt right at home. Even with a relatively low 65 mph top speed, you can get into trouble with a sidecar rig if you don’t know what you are doing. Long time motorcycle riders like myself are known to have difficulty remembering what they are riding at the time, and a sidecar rig can’t be compared to a motorcycle because it does not handle like one.
After my test ride, I wanted it. Unfortunately Fernando and dealership owner Dimitri and I could not agree on a price and I drove home with no commitment. However, I do happen to have a nice Honda 750 in the garage, and a small fiberglass sidecar rig that I purchased a couple of years ago and just haven’t gotten around to having set up yet. Well, it’s time. It may not be a Russian contraption, but I’ll bet it’s as much fun.
Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m