by Victor Wanchena
Sunny days and sidecars always produce smiles. It seems that regardless of who you are, a sidecar rig will pull a smile across your face. Maybe it’s the way they look so different or the way that they remind people of a bygone era. Rider, passenger and casual bystander seem to always have the same expression on their face. More than just a motorcycle, a sidecar rig has the added benefit of greater utility. Their charm is often beguiling to non-riders. Especially someone nervous about the “in the wind” feeling of a motorcycle might feel more at home in the safety and security of a sidecar.
The IMZ Ural is what is called a modern classic. The bike looks like it rolled of the assembly line circa 1950. And in many respects it did. The IMZ Ural has been produced on the same machinery and has been styled the same for the last 60 years. You see, the Russians were so impressed by the rugged BMW motorcycles and sidecars used by the German army of the time and being supremely practical and not wanting to waste needless time for research and development, the Russians instead bought a couple and brought them back home. After copying them down to the last bolt and adding a few Russian touches along the way, they began to produce motorcycles. And the rest is history. The Ural has been built continuously since 1939 in the IMZ (Irbit Motorcycle Works) plant located deep in the Ural mountains of Russia about 1500 miles east of Moscow. Over 3 million Urals have rolled off the assembly line. the Ural, as it is affectionately known, represents an interesting piece of Russian and German heritage. The model pictured here is called the Bavarian and plays heavily on the German side of the Ural heritage doing its very best to look like a BMW R60/2. It also is Ural America’s 10th anniversary model, celebrating the 10 years that Urals have been imported to this country.
This most current model represents the large changes that have occurred with the Ural over that time. The biggest news is the enlarged motor. The motor has finally received the enlargement it has needed all along. The original Urals imported to the US had 650cc motors that worked fine but were over-stressed and over-worked at the speeds found on US roads. Fine for rural highways and dirt roads, the Ural was not very comfortable on busy urban highways or interstates. With the growth of the motor to 750cc and a claimed 41 horsepower comes the added confidence on faster roads. The motor also has slightly less vibration than former machines. This may be inpart to the more relaxed feel the additional horsepower allows or it may be due to closer quality control on the part of IMZ. As an interesting note, the motor uses pistons and rings made in the US and Japanese carburetors because these items help ease the passing of EPA emission standards.
The extra power of the motor also makes better use of the gearing on the Ural. The top gear in the four-speed transmission had felt too tall in older models. The additional power helps the Ural pull cleanly through all gears and allows you to maintain a constant speed, even on hills. The Ural offers a big feature here not found on any other motorcycles. The Ural has a true reverse gear, as opposed to the modern equivalent that runs the starter motor backwards for a power assisted back up. You can back yourself out of most predicaments with that gear and travel in reverse much faster than you would ever want to. Don’t ask me how I know.
The other hot addition to the Ural recently was electric start. This adds greatly to the ease of use for the Ural and makes it much more appealing to many that were turned off by the old kick-only starting. Granted, this is not exactly in keeping with the Ural vintage lines but until you’ve tried to kick a stubborn bike to life on a 20û morning, the true beauty of that starter is not readily apparent. The electric starter, along with the revised carburetors, makes starting the Ural a simple procedure. Just pull out both chokes (there’s one on each carb) and hit the starter button. The Ural always started immediately. Then shut off the chokes and let the bike warm up for a couple of minutes. The motor will idle cold with no help from the rider, unlike older models that required constant attention until warm.
The fit and finish of the Ural is on par for a motorcycle in this price range. That is to say that the bike looks nice, but don’t expect a show-bike level of attention to detail. The paint is of average quality and the shiny parts shine for the most part. The quality of the metals used in construction is adequate but any lack in quality is made up for by a robust over-built feeling. The Ural definitely does not have a flimsy-plastic feel. Instead most everything on the bike is made from steel or aluminum. This translates into a very sturdy feel while riding. The sidecar’s steel construction adds to the sense of security for the passenger and when compared to the light fiberglass used for most other sidecars, the Ural’s feels positively tank-like.
On the road the Ural treats it’s passenger in the sidecar to a rather plush ride. This is thanks to a suspension system that uses not only an independent swing-arm, but also rubber air cushions that allow the car to soak up most road bumps. The same can’t be said for the rider of the bike itself. The bike’s suspension is rather harsh. Granted the bike needs a firm feel to allow proper handling of the machine as a whole, but this causes most bumps to be transmitted directly to the rider. Initially I thought the spring preload was set too high in the rear, but discovered that it was in fact on the lowest setting.
Any complaints about the suspension disappeared once I ventured off paved roads and onto the dirt roads that the Ural was designed for. In it is quite an incredible transformation. Any awkward tendencies the Ural has on paved surfaces disappear once you turn off the main road. Anyone who derides the Ural’s performance should be challenged to a drag race through an open field, a snowy parking lot or better yet a muddy gravel road. I don’t care how fast your bike is on a road, this humble bike will teach you the meaning of the word respect once the pavement ends or slippery stuff falls. With the exception of true dirt bikes, nothing really operates with as much ease on adverse road surfaces as the Ural. Combine your new found sense of confidence on bad roads and the Ural’s tremendous capacity for carrying bulky or unwieldy items and you have your self a great machine for back roads camping trips. Never wanted to camp off the bike because you couldn’t carry all the gear you need? That excuse is gone. If you really want the ultimate in off-road performance, IMZ even offers a model with a driven sidecar wheel giving you true two-wheel drive!
The Ural is without a doubt the best value in the sidecar market. The Bavarian lists for $8,595 for the motorcycle, sidecar and setup. If you were to buy a bike and sidecar separate, the setup cost can be several hundred alone. For the price alone you can overlook any of the minor shortcomings of the Ural. Not a machine intended for everyone, the Ural is for those riders who definitely stand apart from the crowd. A big thanks to St. Croix Harley-Davidson for use of the use of the Bavarian. It should be noted that they are currently the only IMZ Ural dealer in our area.
by Sev Pearman
This month’s bike selection is a natural. What do you do in early March when you want to ride but snow still covers the ground? Climb on your Ural w/ sidecar and get a jump on your buddies. If you have never seen a motorcycle with a sidecar, let alone driven one, hang on to your helmet. What you are about to read may surprise you.
Regular MMM readers will recall our last Ural and Sidecar combination test in Issue #24. For those who are new to the brand, the IMZ factory in the Ural region of Russia has been producing their BMW-inspired flat-twin bike and sidecar since 1939. The Soviets ‘obtained’ the tooling from BMW during WWII and moved production into the mountainous Ural region.
The boxer twin design is simple, durable and well suited to sidecar work. A low center of gravity aids stability. The design places each jug out in the breeze to aid cooling. It is under-stressed and well suited to take on the additional loads of a sidecar.
While a proven motor, the Ural is no mechanical antique. Continuous refinements and improvements have been incorporated, and the Ural is ready, willing and able to serve you for many years to come.
Ural America is proud of their new 750cc motor. It is thoroughly updated and features Wiseco pistons and rings and US-made valves, valve seats and oil seals. The stock carbs are jettisoned and replaced with Taliban-proof Keihin CVK’s. All US models run an electronic ignition, so there are no points to fiddle with. Added together, you have a reliable machine that can carry driver, passenger and gear at a sustained 65 mph with ease.
While riding solo I made one burst up to an indicated 70 mph and with a passenger briefly brought the combo up to 55. In both cases while the engine was nearing its peak output, there was power yet in reserve. MMM would like to test a fully broken-in 750cc powered unit.
One minor gripe was the range. We were averaging 250 kilometers/5 gallons so that’s uh…let’s see…point 6 miles per kilometer…carry the one… Why exactly can’t we get an odometer that reads in miles? Our Ural ran between 25 to 31 miles per gallon. That means you flip to reserve at 110 miles or so and start pushing between 130 and 155 miles, depending on your load and throttle hand. Of course you’ll have to re-convert back to kilometers but you’ll get the hang of it.
If you have never driven a sidecar, there is a short but steep learning curve. When you accelerate, the unpowered sidecar tends to lag behind and the outfit wants to turn right. While braking, that same mass causes the rig to yaw to the left. Our US-market Ten-Year Anniversary Edition has a braked sidecar wheel, so this braking/left yaw effect is reduced, but not eliminated.
Most significant is that counter-steering no longer applies with your three-wheeled, two-track vehicle. To turn right, you muscle the bars right; a left turn requires a hard turn to the left. The stability advantage of three wheels is reduced with sharper turns. Sidecar drivers really need to ‘lean into’ turns. The tighter the turn and/or higher the corner speed, the more lean required.
Don’t let any of this scare you. If you are a patient rider and can follow a lesson plan, the basic skills of sidecar operation can be picked up over a lazy weekend, with further refinement an ongoing proposition. I have many thousands of miles on a Suzuki GS-1000 sidecar rig I used to own, and the skills quickly returned as I eased back into things.
The Ural comes with an excellent and thorough Sidecar Operation Manual. It has exercises with diagrams to get you going. Additionally, your dealer can suggest available courses or instruction for those interested.
Most curious (and most fun) is the ability to “fly the chair.” This is sidecar-geek speak for being able to loft the sidecar and drive on two wheels. It looks dramatic and can be learned relatively quickly. Here is where it gets interesting: when you drive the rig on three wheels, steering is ‘car-like’ (turn bars right, go right; turn bars left, go left) The moment you fly the chair, you instantly must revert to conventional motorcycle counter-steering (push left, turn left. push right, turn right).
With the car in the air, the net effect is driving a regular motorcycle, but one that is grossly unbalanced. To return to three wheels, simply ease off the throttle, and the chair will return to earth. Of course, you must again switch steering modes as the sidecar wheel lands. Sounds complicated, but we assure you, it is loads of fun.
The design of the Ural does show its age while underway. While improved, it is still based on 50-year-old technology. The Ural is comfortable to drive, but is not as refined as current products from other manufacturers. The bike sits and feels like a /6 or /7 BMW twin to me. You ride on a comfortable bench seat and the bars have moderate rise and pullback. Nothing revolutionary, but certainly proven and comfortable enough.
Ornery MMM operative Paul B. was coerced into a 160-mile chair ride at 45º F. Well over 6 ft tall with a 36 in inseam, he easily fit in the sidecar and was comfortable for the duration. He noted the folding sidecar windshield aids entry as well as the separate springing of both the sidecar wheel and the sidecar body from the chassis. Paul described the ride as being smoother than in a Jeep® Wrangler®, but choppier due to the short wheelbase. Asked if he’d do it again he replied with a big grin, “In a minute.”
The rear of the sidecar contains a trunk with room for five grocery bags. The trunk lid hinges to the rear for access to the generous tool kit complete with adult-size steel tools. There is even a T-type tire pump for inflation duties. All Urals and sidecar come with a fully inflated spare that rides on the trunk lid. Why bother to patch a flat when you can simply switch wheels?
Urals are built like tanks. I quickly started driving off of curbs and seeking rough pavement. The bike frame and sidecar chassis are beefy steel and designed for rural Russian primitive roads. The outfit has the heft and feel of an agricultural implement. Hardware is equally robust. There is no waisted-shank, grade-8 magnesium exotica here. Anything you’d ever need can be found in a good hardware store, diesel shop or Fleet Farm type place. The Ural is built to take it.
From the drivers seat you look over the chrome headlight surround. A large speedometer primarily marked in kph and secondly in mph is your only gauge. As no tach is offered, you’ll be shifting by sound and feel. Inset in the speedo is the kilometers-only odometer (kilodometer?) No tripmeters, fuel gauge or clock for you, sir. Surrounding the speedo are four large idiot lights for high beam, turn signal, neutral and generator. Despite their size, bright sun and the surrounding chrome easily overpower them.
The bars are covered in lustrous chrome and sport modern Japanese-looking switchgear. These performed excellently, despite many miles ridden at or below freezing in both snow (!) and rain. Control levers are doglegged and flexible rubber gaiters protect the cable ends. The bar-mounted mirrors were vibe free, but I was unable to adjust the left one to see beyond my many layers of cold weather gear.
The US importer upgrades the headlight to a halogen bulb that exceeds DOT requirements. Despite this, we felt the illumination to be “just OK.” If the sidecar were mine, I’d add a second driving light on the sidecar body. Blinkers are big and bright, though our tester had a relay that caused them to blink very fast.
The sidecar wears a white marker light and right front blinker on the front, and a second tail/brake light and right blinker on the rear. These lamps give the rig greater visual presence and should help you get noticed by those somnambulant cagers.
Mated to the new 750cc motor is a four-speed tranny with reverse. It is stout, robust and unforgiving to the timid shifter. Leave your candy R1 riding boots behind on a Ural. Think early Shovelhead®, /5 BMW® or Guzzi Eldorado®. Gearshifts require determination and a firm stomp on the heel-and-toe set up. As usual, I had difficulty finding neutral whether moving or stopped; from first or second gear. To be fair, the tranny loosened up as we accumulated miles and the temperature climbed out of the 20’s. Yes, we giddily drove the Ural in 22º F weather
Reverse is ridiculously easy to engage. With the bike running, find neutral. Squeeze clutch. Reach your right hand down to the stubby shift lever by your right ankle. Rotate the lever backward about 60 degrees. Gently ease out the clutch, look behind you, and watch the neighbors stare as you back out of your garage. When you are done showin’ off, squeeze the clutch, rotate the jockey shift forward, stomp on the lever to find first, ease out the clutch and you are on your way. Big fun!
The tested Ten-Year Anniversary Model is tailored for the American market. The bike of course receives the larger 750cc motor and features electric start and the bigger battery. The “aesthetically challenged” Earles fork is swapped for a conventional telescopic front end. Extra chrome brightens the headlight, handlebars, sidecovers and other trim pieces. If that isn’t enough for you to polish, your dealer will happily sell you a catalog’s worth of bright goodies.
The rest of the Ural is covered in beautiful gloss black enamel, accented with white pinstriping. The paint appeared to be hardened and very durable. We did notice one nick down to the primer near the trunk lid latch, but not to worry as Ural America includes a small jar of touch up paint in the tool kit.
If you are interested in owning one of these fun and practical vehicles, know that a regular motorcycle endorsement is enough in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. No additional licensing is required. (Check local laws, your mileage may vary, blah blah blah.) Both the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and the Evergreen Safety Council offer specific sidecar operation classes. Ural America has an excellent website www.ural.com that provides links to these and other sidecar resources.
The bottom line? Sidecars are fun. People like them. Even minivan-driving soccer Moms wave. Sidecars are practical. You can carry stuff. LOTS of stuff. You can confidently ride in slippery and/or colder weather. Sidecars enable you to ride year-round. If you can’t have fun owning and riding one of these quality rigs, then it may be time to hang up your helmet.
Vastly improved and more powerful motor.
Old-school simplicity and charm
Rugged Soviet tank build quality.
Less than 160-mile range.
Old-school need for regular maintenance.
More ‘old-guy magnet’ than’chick magnet’
Wife’s First Reaction: I can’t believe how beautiful it is.”
Selected Competition: There is none, Boris. The Ural is truly in a class by itself.