By Victor Wanchena
From Russia With Love
There is nothing like a sidecar to draw a crowd. Everywhere you ride you get waves, thumbs up, and when you stop somewhere the questions abound. What year is that thing, who’s it built by, can I have a ride? A single man’s dream. That was what life was like for the week I spent on an IMZ Ural sidecar rig running around the city. This story begins months ago when I was casually talking about whether it would be possible to ride through the winter. Then our resident café racer decided to give winter riding a real go, but when he mentioned the certainty of crashing, I knew there had to be a better way. To the rescue came the folks from St. Croix Harley-Davidson in New Richmond Wisconsin. As dealers of IMZ Urals, they were happy to turn me loose on a Deco Classic model. With the reckless abandon of a child with a new toy, I kicked the Ural to life and headed off.
If you are a little rusty on your world motorcycle brands IMZ (Irbit Moto Works) is a Russian company located in the town of Irbit in the Ural Mountains on the edge of the Siberian plain. Their Ural motorcycle was born in 1939 when Russian engineers bought several BMW motorcycles through Swedish brokers. They carted them back to Russia, completely dismantled them and made exact copies of all the parts. They then set up shop in Moscow and began producing them for the military. When W.W.II began the Russians were fearful the factory would be in range of German bombers so the decision was made to move the factory to Irbit. Now the bike was without a name&endash;and people love names&endash;so they were fondly named for the mountains where they were born, the Urals. After the war production continued, was eventually turned over to civilian models and they have continued to be produced with very little changes over the years. So few are the changes that people continually mistook the ’98 model I was riding for something circa 1950. Nor would some believe it wasn’t a BMW.
In 1993, a group of motorcyclists from Seattle decided to start importing Urals. They struck a deal with the factory and updated a few items on the machine to meet EPA regulations. The factory has now expanded their model lineup (in mother Russia there is but one model) tailoring some models for the U.S. market. Today there are four different sidecar models to choose from with prices ranging from seven grand for the base bike and sidecar up to $8500 for the Sportsman with its driven sidecar wheel.
Now if a brick outhouse could be put on wheels it would be a Ural. As soon as I gave my bike a walk-around it was plain that it was over-built and made to handle as bad a road as you could find. The frame of the bike and sidecar are built of heavy gauge steel tubing and the sidecar itself is made from steel. No fiberglass and very little plastic is found on a Ural, saving weight was not a design concern. Dry, a Ural weighs around 700 pounds and fully loaded up to 1200 pounds, enough to even shame a Harley. But throw a leg over one and it doesn’t feel nearly that big.
The heart of the Ural is its very conspicuous boxer flat twin motor. Take a look at the motor and you’ll think it was stolen right from an old R60/2 BMW. Displacing 650cc and putting out an under achieving 35 horsepower, this motor is a faithful enough copy of the Beemer power plant that many parts can be swapped. Fans of the airhead Beemers will be in love, just two valves, low compression, and that distinctive putt-putt sound. For us stateside the ignition and carbs have been updated along with the 300 watt generator. The transmission is a standard four-speed deal and in case you are worried about pushing it out of parking spots there is a real reverse gear. Trust me, it goes fast enough in reverse to get you in trouble. The final drive is your classic shaft setup with a very cool exposed shaft and u-joints, but let this be your warning, keep your fingers clear at all times. Starting the Ural is a bit of an art form since there are separate chokes on each carb and a mysterious third choke on the air cleaner.
The running gear is fairly basic with all the controls being in the standard positions. The speedometer has mph markings but the odometer and trip meter are in kilometers, which can confuse the metrically impaired. The clutch and front brake are cable actuated and the rear brake and sidecar brake are linked with a simple rod assembly. The fuel tank holds five gallons including reserve, which equals a safe 200 miles of riding. Speed traps are not a problem since even with taller gearing on the Deco model the Ural has a tough time with anything over 65mph. Interestingly, top speed is listed as 74mph in third gear not fourth which acts as a sort of overdrive. The Deco classic and Bavarian Classic models come with telescopic forks, while the Tourist and Sportsman use the rugged leading link style forks. The brakes are all drum style and are not particularly powerful. Granted the Ural is not intended for the high speed world of freeway traffic, but even without a full load they are just plain sad at best.
The sidecar is a well-constructed affair and doesn’t feel rickety at all. The windshield tips forward to ease entry and the seat is nice and plush. Once seated you’ll find plenty of legroom unless you are over 6’4″ in height. Everyone who rode in the car was amazed at how comfortable and smooth the ride was, this is thanks to rubber mounts that soak up all but the biggest bumps. Under the spare tire, which is carried on the back of the car, is a spacious trunk. Flip the lever and the top opens to reveal an area equal to a set of large saddlebags. I could fit a helmet and jacket, or two bags of groceries and still have room to spare. In the trunk is also stored a complete but cheap tool kit that includes tire irons, air gauge, an air pump, and a patch kit with instructions written in Russian. Also included is a tonneau cover for the sidecar if you wish to keep the elements out of the car while riding solo.
Fit and finish overall on the machine is fair but not to the standards of other European bikes. But that’s part of the Ural’s charm and before we slide down the slope of character versus quality let me say its quirks are its heritage. The paint on this model was a cool two-tone cream and black that really got the looks. Normally the Deco Classic is equipped with a solo tractor seat but the previous owner of this specimen, who had traded it for a different model, had fitted a bench seat which is more comfortable for taller riders.
Now that I had the beast for a week I was determined to ride it everywhere. On the trip back from New Richmond I quickly learned how to handle a sidecar. Rule number one: Take all corners at the posted speed. I entered my first right hand corner way to hot and promptly found the sidecar in the air or as they say in sidecar circles, I was “flying the chair”. Not that this was a bad thing but to a novice side-hack rider like myself it was a little scary. Back on three wheels I found that a sidecar rig handles like no other machine and this includes trike setups. As you roll on the throttle or hit the brakes the Ural tends to squirm a bit because the drive wheel is offset from the center of the whole machine. Corners are not effortless, it takes a fair amount of pulling on the bars to keeps the bike on course in a turn. If this sounds like complaining, it’s not, but sidecars have quirks in their handling that take a while to get used to. The real home for the Ural is on back roads, especially dirt roads. There it seemed to find it’s way like no other bike could. Pounding through bumps and tracking straight. Traction never became an issue despite ice, mud or snow. The aggressive tires and good torque of the motor kept me moving.
On the downside this machine did not have electric start, only a shiny kick lever that you must get off the bike and stand on the left side to operate. This caused me some difficulties on cold mornings or whenever a crowd had gathered to watch. The good news is that all 1999 models come with electric start standard while keeping the kick-start for backup. The Ural is also rather cold blooded and needs several minutes of warm-up before it is ready to hit the streets.
Despite any complaints I had about the Ural, every time I hopped on I had fun. It’s just a blast to ride. Whether it was running errands, going to work or taking someone for a ride I always had a smile on my face. I could very easily see making one my primary vehicle regardless of the weather. Ice or sand was never a concern and sliding through those icy corners was really neat. If you’re worried about the brutal cold of winter I found that snowmobile gear kept me reasonably warm for rides up to an hour. If you are thinking of going year-round with your riding or even just looking for something out of the ordinary as your next ride, I think the Ural deserves serious consideration.