Motorcycles with sidecars are an unusual machine in the motorcycle world. But, for people who might have some limitations to riding a two-wheeler, they just might be the answer for a lot of riders.
I became interested in a sidecar around 1996, when I saw brand new Urals at Costco selling for about $4000.00. I didn't buy one at the time and sometimes regret that I didn't. Shortly after that, I got divorced and my ex-wife left me with our six month old Chocolate Lab retriever. Up until then, I could take off on my bike for weekend trips any time the mood struck me. Suddenly, being stuck with the puppy, I thought about taking her along on camping trips in a sidecar. I didn't want to sell my sportbike and didn't have much liquidity after the divorce so I bought a basket-case 1977 Moto Guzzi, and thought about restoring it, reassembling it, and adding a sidecar. Until that could be completed, I was lucky to have other family members who were willing to dog-sit while I took occasional trips around the country on my sportbike.
Twelve years and four motorcycles later, the bike project was still piles of boxes in the back of the garage. A friend offered to take the old Guzzi off my hands and that was the end of that. The year after that, my puppy passed away of old age. I never did get around to taking her on a sidecar ride.
A few years before that, I met Eldon Aszman. When I met Eldon, he was parked on the side of the road with his Army green Ural Patrol with sidecar. He had his tool kit spread out on the street and I stopped to offer a hand. He had just finished repairing something pretty simple and, being that it was a warm summer evening, I invited him to my house a few blocks away for a cold one. Eldon was a crotchety old Viet Nam veteran and retired welder. In his life, he had done every kind of motorcycle activity you can imagine including road-racing in Italy and, when I say "road" racing, we're talking sanctioned racing on roads, not on the track. Eldon told me how, that previous winter, he had driven the side-hack north, from Oregon to The Yukon Territory in Canada. Prior to that winter adventure, Eldon had been diagnosed with advanced Lymphoma and was told that he didn't have a lot of time left. So, Eldon decided to make the most of the time that he had left and bought the side-hack just so that he could enjoy his last motorcycle trip on the snow and ice and carry his winter camping gear.
Eldon's brother, Vincent, wrote up a nice story for ADV Rider about Eldon's fund-raiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and how Eldon made some special modifications to the motorcycle & sidecar to prepare for the winter journey. He carried extra fuel, an automotive battery, and extra tools. The sidecar has lockable drive to the sidecar wheel, providing better traction on snow and mud.
Eldon's Arctic Adventure
Eldon's friend Hubert Kriegel posted Eldon's travel log from January 16 to February 7, 2005. On February 3rd, Eldon made it as far north as Mayo in the Yukon Territory, 400 km/250 miles north of Whitehorse and 3200km/2000 miles from Portland. Storm conditions forced him to turn around. Temperatures were hitting 60 below and Eldon got sick. Vincent wrote that "He was so sick with his vision and pain and the remnants of his cold, that the instinct to get home took over and that the rest of the trip is just a blur. He arrived back home in Portland, Oregon on Feb. 12, 2005 around 9 a.m. On the 14th, he checked into the Veteran's Hospital, where he once again found out that his lymphoma had returned." Eldon underwent chemotherapy and was back on his motorcycles by summer.
My friends and I spent many evenings that summer listening to Eldon's tales of motorcycling in many parts of the world, and driving the side-hack in the Yukon. Eldon died of Lymphoma on February 13, 2008 at 68 years old.
The German Wehrmacht commissioned BMW to build its first version of the R75 in 1941. The R75 was built with a sidecar, a lockable differential to power the side-car wheel, and a machine gun mounted on the sidecar. The R75 performed equally well in the sands of the North African Desert and the snow of the Russian Front. Its boxer engine was exposed to cooling air and its enclosed shaft drive was impermeable to sand and grit. With four speeds, reverse gear and a two-ratio transfer box, a skilled rider could traverse the most difficult terrain.
Joseph Stalin ordered the Soviet Military to acquire five units of the 1938 BMW R71 motorcycle (which was discontinued in favor of the R75, above). The five motorcycles were purchased on the black-market in 1941 through Swedish intermediaries. The motorcycles were disassembled and reverse-engineered so that the Soviets could build their own replicas of the bikes at their factory in Irbit, The Urals. That factory is known today as Irbitskiy Mototsikletniy Zavod-Ural and today, they still build the replica of the German WWII motorcycle with sidecar. They are sold under the Ural name and are very popular as a basic, hard-working sidecar rig. With low gearing, drive to the sidecar wheel and reverse gear, they can go almost anywhere.
This past summer, my friends and I took a four-day motorcycle trip to the Isle of Vashon for the annual vintage motorcycle rally. My friend Leigh, a mechanic at Ural of Portland brought his girlfriend, Sammy, along in the company vehicle. They carried their camping gear in the trunk and other stuff strapped on the luggage-rack, which is mounted on the spare wheel & tire. Leigh drove the side-hack just a bit slower than the rest of us on bikes but, whenever we stopped for a break, he and Sammy were caught up by the time we dismounted. Rest stops take a bit longer than usual due to the Ural delay factor; whenever you stop, people come around to look at it and ask questions. The curious are surprised to see that this World War II replica has fuel-injection and disk-brakes.
A few weeks ago, I took advantage of Ural's free demo-day to test-drive their motorcycle & sidecar. This was my first time to ever drive a side-hack. The Ural demonstrator had five rigs available and potential customers were lined up waiting their turns. By the time one group left the parking lot, another group was ready and anxiously waiting for their return. There were people of all ages and riding backgrounds, including retired couples and young families with small children. I saw two friends whom I regularly see at the neighboring Ducati shop. Most people had never driven side-cars but all had their motorcycle-endorsements on their licenses, as required. I'm guessing that they did about 25 or 30 test rides that day.
The demonstrator gave us a ten-minute tutorial on the differences in the three-wheeler compared to a two-wheeler. The hazardous part is turning right which, if done too fast, causes the side-car to lift off the pavement. Slowing well before the turn and entering from the outer portion of the lane is critical. To go right, steer the bars to the right, lean your upper-body to the right to weight the right, and feather the clutch. Turning left is similar but easier. When taking off from a stop, the side-car wants to drag you back on the right so, you have to compensate by steering left a bit. When approaching a stop, the side-car wants to carry forward and towards the left, so you have to compensate by steering towards the right a bit. You don't have to put a foot down at the stop. It was quite a giggle to ride through the downtown streets in a parade of side-hacks and see all the bystanders smiling and waving!
The salespeople said that most side-hack drivers buy them for taking their dogs on rides. They also have a huge carrying capacity with luggage racks on the bike's rear fender as well as luggage-racks on the sidecar. The sidecar carries the spare tire & wheel which can be used either on front, rear, or the sidecar. The one I drove had reverse-gear, shiftable drive to the sidecar wheel, and carried a jerry-can, folding shovel, and spot-light on the side-car.
Eric Ristau and Geneva Liimatta produced a wonderful documentary about dogs and their owners who take them out for rides. Check out Sit, Stay, Ride: The Story of America's Sidecar Dogs
Many motorcyclists may be unable to ride a two-wheeler due to a physical limitation. Many have adapted their sidecar motorcycles to all hand-controls. Driving a side-hack means that you don't have to balance the bike or put your feet down at a stop and, the sidecar can carry a wheelchair, if needed. The American Motorcyclists Association and Haul n Ride provide resources to make motorcycles more accessible.
Aside from carrying passengers, dogs, camping gear and machine-guns, many motorcyclists use their side-hacks like a pick-up truck. They carry their tools for work, firewood, Christmas trees, ice cream, scooters and dirtbikes, surfboards, lumber, groceries, bicycles, skis and snowboards, auto-parts, beer-kegs, and lawn-mowers. There's even a motorcycle sidecar hearse service that will carry you to your final resting-place.
So, if bad riding conditions, or the inability to balance a two-wheeler, or the need to carry stuff has prevented you from motorcycle-riding, you might go check out a sidecar motorcycle and enjoy the riding adventure in a fun, practical, and unique way.
Photos courtesy of Vincent Aszman and sidecardogs.com
Written By: Paul Andor Nagy