The Many Faces of Motorcycles - Sidecars

Wednesday, January 12, 2012

The Many Faces of Motorcycles - Sidecars

Sidecars have always belonged to the red headed stepchild group of motorcycle genres. Never have I once heard a biker say that they'd rather ride in the sidecar. But the fact remains that they've been a prominent addition to the motorcycle family for over a hundred years. Even some of the most iconic motorcycles such as the BMW R71 and dozens of military motorcycles were seen with them. Actually, it was during WWII that sidecars were probably most popular but they seem to be making a bit of a comeback today.

It all supposedly started in 1903 when George Moore created a cartoon of a motorcycle with a sidecar for Motor Cycling, a British newspaper. Apparently the idea sparked something in a Mr. W. J. Graham who sought out a provisional patent for the concept and was granted one, three weeks after the publication of the paper. These motorcycle add-on's proved to be quite handy and a heck of a lot cheaper than passenger cars were at the time giving many growing families an alternative form of transportation. And I'm going to go ahead and guess that many parents would gladly trade in the mini van for a motorcycle with a side car if their significant other would let them. Heck, Brad Pitt was even spotted making the trip to the store with his son in one.

But it was the army that found sidecars to be indispensible. Sure, bikes like the 1943 Moto Guzzi Superalce had a mounted machine gun loaded and ready for battle, but the bike had to be put in neutral before the thing could be of any use. And even that was a step up from the 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA that had it's gun uselessly stored in a holder while a soldier was riding, forcing the rider to often dismount before they could fire. But put a sidecar on one of those puppies, and a rider could navigate while the passenger fired away, never having to stop.


The idea caught on in several countries, one of which was Russian. As WWII continued to escalate, the Russians became very aware that they needed to prepare for even the worst case scenario. They knew that their motorcycles weren't up to par to deal with the rugged and icy terrain of the Russian tundra and turned to the BMW R71 sidecar design that Germany had given them in 1939 along with a nonaggression pact. Of course, that pact went right out of the window when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Thus, the Ural was born. The remodeled Russian version of the R31 was renamed the M32 and thrust onto the battle front in October of 1942. By the time the war was over and the dust had settled, 9,700 of these bikes with sidecars had been delivered to the war effort.

But the end of WWII didn't mean the end of sidecars. While the necessity for them in the United States died out as cars became cheaper and more available to the everyday consumer, sidecars became an object of whimsy and collections. Urals managed to remain popular with many off-road riders who loved its ability to trek through almost any terrain and has even seen growth in their sales over the last few years. After 70 years of production, Ural is as popular as ever and has hopes of growing even further.

The most unusual and unknown of today's sidecar genre is that of sidecar racing. Yes, sidecar racing. From Sidecarcross (a distant cousin of motocross) to road racing, sidecars have found a place on both the dirt and the road track since they hit the market. Over time, however, the design of racing sidecars changes, giving them smaller diameter wheels and eventually making many look like motorcycles with just a platform attached. But no matter what the type of sidecar is or where it is being raced, a passenger is always necessary.

Today, sidecars have remained a sort of oddity that many collectors find interesting while sidecar caring enthusiasts are somewhat rare themselves. Scooters have since been fitted with their own side cars every now and then and bicycles have seen their own sidecars from time to time. Some countries have even found the sidecar to be a great alternative to ambulances or medical supply cars. But it's Urals that remain the most popular. With the 70th anniversary of the company recently passing, the company has done a great job of remarketing and reinventing their sidecar motorcycle to retain its rugged appeal with a dash of the newest technologies. After all, there's not a whole lot you can't do with a Ural. It can even turn the most cynical of disbelievers into sidecar lovers.

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