How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sidecar

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sidecar

Unread post by totalmotorcycle » Fri May 04, 2012 5:28 pm

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sidecar
By Wes Siler

IRBIT, Russia — I do not have the best luck with sidecars.

Back in July, I rolled a Ural sidecar into a ditch while riding in the mountains around Big Bear, California. I snapped my left wrist and made almost as a big a mess of the bike. You’d think that would have taught me something. But no. Not six months later I was back on a Ural. In Siberia. In the snow. Was I scared? Hell yes, I was scared. But no other vehicle could have gotten me here.

Since my accident, I’ve developed a fear of three-wheeled contraptions. Now, the crash might have been completely my fault — I was going entirely too fast — but that hasn’t stopped my brain from convincing me that the only thing a sidecar wants to do is flip over. This fear is both unreasonable and overwhelming. Simply sitting on a Ural inside the factory left me with sweaty palms and white knuckles. I was convinced I would inexplicably and suddenly find myself upside down beneath a sidecar.

I pushed such thoughts from my head. Setting out through the frozen factory grounds, I wasn’t a model of confidence. Taking a 90-degree right turn to go through the gate, I climbed as far as I could over the sidecar to steady it. In first gear. At about 1 mph. Shortly thereafter, I wound up in a snowdrift after a front-end slide. I was too scared to steer right to correct, convinced that I’d end up with the sidecar on top of me.

After giving myself a quick pep talk, I was determined to make this work. I didn’t spend 48 hours flying to the westernmost end of Siberia to give up inside Ural’s factory grounds.

I’m in Irbit, home to Ural’s sprawling Soviet-era production facility. It covers one square mile and once churned out hundreds of thousands of motorcycles each year. There was a time when everyone in the Soviet Union wanted a Ural but, despite massive production, had to wait to get one. Now, Ural’s biggest markets are Europe and America, where aging boomers with a taste for adventure buy about 900 of them annually. Production has been consolidated into a single building. The rest of them slowly rot away.

Ural doesn’t sell many motorcycles because sidecar rigs have many inherent problems; a predisposition to killing me is the least of them. Like cars, they’re difficult to park, they don’t get very good fuel economy and you can’t lane-split on them. And like a motorcycle, you get wet when it rains, cold when it snows and in a lot of trouble when you crash. But they also have the utterly unique tendency toward oversteer while making a left and understeer while making a right – while also tending to lift the third wheel off the ground. If you aren’t careful, you’ll lose control. If you’re an idiot, you’ll roll over.

Still, Ural has carved out a niche in the incredibly competitive motorcycle market because its machines have some inherent advantages. They’re internal combustion’s version of the mountain goat: They can go absolutely anywhere.

Off the road and in deep snow — as close to its native environment as you can get — the front wheel doesn’t offer much grip. It acts more like a rudder. But the locking differential on the rear end more than makes up for it. The narrow tires dig deeply into the snow — or mud, or sand, or water, or whatever — and always find enough grip to get you out of whatever mess you’ve ridden into. There’s absolutely nothing short of a vertical cliff capable of stopping a Ural sidecar.

Every Ural that’s ever hit the road was built here in Irbit. It’s a misnomer to call the Irbit Motorcycle Factory a motorcycle factory. Don’t get me wrong — it definitely makes motorcycles. It also makes bolts, pins, spokes, rims and nearly everything else required to assemble a Ural sidecar rig. These tasks are done using some of the most archaic, gigantic machinery you’ve ever seen. This Gatling gun of doom is one of six machines used to mill material from each cast iron cylinder sleeve, a process as laborious as it is slow.

Heave open the foot-thick steel door that insulates the workspace from the bone-chilling cold outside and you’re overcome by an overpowering odor of grease and ozone. You can almost see and feel the oily air entering your lungs. The other immediate sensation is one of emptiness. Although the building is so densely packed with machines — more than 800 in all — that it can be difficult to walk, there’s almost no one in sight. The factory employs roughly 150 people, down from more than 10,000 at Ural’s Soviet-era peak.

Company owner Ilya Khait and I make some effort to find any employees while walking the factory floor. Of course, people might be avoiding him. Implementing the changes necessary to transform a Soviet-era factory into a modern production facility has been painful for everyone.

To understand how the factory ended up like this, you need to understand something of the story behind Ural. Contrary to popular opinion, the first Ural, the M72 introduced in 1941, wasn’t a carbon copy of the BMW R71. The exact sequence of events has been lost to history, but Khait’s research shows Soviet engineers started with the R71 as an inspiration, then designed their own vehicle to meet their own needs. The R71 was never intended to be, or actually used as, a military vehicle. German military sidecars were based on a later design, so the Russkies had to build something more suited to the demands of combat.

Working within the vacuum of a massive but isolated planned economy, Ural wasn’t restrained by things like standardized components or the realities of cost-effective production. So when its motorcycles were offered to Soviet civilians after World War II, they were sold at a fixed price determined more by politics than economics.

The legacy of such conditions remained pervasive when Khait acquired the company in 2000. More than 1,000 employees built no more than a handful of sidecars annually, fulfilling contracts for clients like the Iraqi and Egyptian militaries. It didn’t help that the Egyptians paid in bouillon — the kind used to make soup. The factory was ridiculously inefficient, hugely expensive and turning out products light years behind the quality and reliability standards of Western economies and consumers.

Having been designed by Soviet engineers working in a manner Khait described as “fanciful,” Ural’s production was hopelessly inefficient. The spokes, for example, were made to a unique diameter no one else uses, needlessly complicating production and making it impossible to simply order spokes from the same suppliers everyone else uses. Even now, those spokes are spit out of an ancient machine the size of a house before being hand-threaded by an elderly man peering through delicate reading glasses. He makes a box of spokes, waits until they’re nearly gone, then makes some more.

Unique spokes require unique hubs, rims and even balance weights, all of which must be produced in the same factory. This ridiculous over-complication is seen in nearly every component. Sixty of these gigantic machines comprise the production process for the crankcases alone, which are forged at a foundry within the old factory grounds. (The foundry has been sold to a third party and is no longer run by Ural). In a nod to modern quality, Khait instructed the foundry to use aluminum ingots in place of the dilapidated automobiles and other scrap metal it typically melts down to make parts for other clients.

Such inefficient specialization is seen in the employees, too. Back when the government was paying the bills, each worker specialized in a specific task on a specific machine. That’s great if you’re trying to create jobs, not so great if you’re trying to build a profitable company and highly efficient workforce.

The factory was so out of date and so archaic that the first thing a Canadian efficiency expert did during a recent visit was have each workstation fitted with a compressed air line. Now workers can quickly and easily clear metal shavings while crafting components. Before he came along, workers would complete a part, sweep away the detritus by hand, then begin work on the next component. This change was met with much skepticism and resistance.

Despite the challenges that remain one decade after he took over, Khait has no plans to relocate the factory to a more accessible location or farm out production to suppliers.

“We owe a moral debt to these people,” he said of why Ural will stay put.

This factory and these workers make Urals unique, and that will not change as Khait slowly drags the company into the 21st century.

One thing that has changed: Ural no longer prints its own money.

During the early 1990s, if you presented Ural specie (shown above) at the bakery in Irbit, you’d have received six one-kilo loaves of bread. Operating in a collapsed economy, the company supported its workforce and its town by dispatching crafty employees to trade sidecars, tools and parts for supplies. Ural, in effect, created its own economy.

Similar coupons books were printed for other everyday items. If you wanted something beyond the impromptu economy, you could work out an exchange rate. Bread was the foundation of the economy, however, both because everyone needed it and because the factory received commercial baking equipment as payment for a batch of sidecars. The factory turned out bread so delicious that it threatened the town’s established bakery, creating not a little tension within the community.

Such horse-trading wasn’t confined to Russia. Egypt once paid in bouillon cubes. Everyone in Irbit ate soup for months.

The problem was the labor and materials needed to build a sidecar didn’t translate well into such unconventional currency, and the full value of the machines wasn’t realized in the grey market. Even with bizarre bread-for-motorcycle exchange rates, Ural was selling its products at a loss. This did nothing for the company’s domestic reputation and essentially destroyed the potential market for its goods as the Russian economy stabilized in the late 1990s. Stamping out this shadow economy was one of Khait’s first priorities. It fed Ural’s workers and their families for years, but almost destroyed the company.

Now if I could only keep this Ural from destroying me.

Once I got over my fear of flipping, I could ride with relative ease over the expanses of ice that pass for roads in Irbit, cruise through town onto snowed-over dirt roads and through the forest into a field deep with snow. Nothing else on earth – not a Jeep, an ATV or a snowmobile – has such versatility and ability. Something – the ice, the tarmac, the trees – would have stopped anything else. The fact I could navigate such diverse terrain in sub-zero temperatures without even the faintest pass at training just drives that point home further. If you really want to get off the beaten path, don’t bother with a BMW R1200GS or a KTM 990 Adventure or even a Land Rover Defender. You need a Ural. They can go damn near anywhere, and if you somehow manage to break it, they’re dead-simple to repair. That Ural I crashed near Big Bear? My friend Sean Smith replaced the front end using basic hand tools and rode it out of the wilderness for me.

Despite the similarities to a motorcycle – the handlebars, the saddle, the fact you straddle it – riding a sidecar has little in common with riding a bike. That’s why I’ve always struggled with them. You steer toward a corner, not away from it. But, riding a sidecar has little in common with riding a quad or driving a car, because you have to account for lean angles in the operating equation.

Operating a sidecar proficiently requires getting used to flying the chair. Lifting the sidecar is all but inevitable in fast right-hand corners or tight maneuvers off-road. The trick, for me, anyway, is getting used to the idea that lifting the sidecar does not necessary mean flipping over is imminent. It’s best to think of it a bit like pulling a wheelie: There’s a whole ‘lotta lift before you hit the point of no return.

So what you’re left with is a vehicle that uses handlebars to steer toward corners. You shift with your left foot, operate the clutch with your left hand and accelerate with your right. Of course there’s no ABS and you’re using hands and feet to get the thing to stop. The lever at your right hand clamps down on the single front disc, while the lever under your right foot operates both rear drums. You’ll keep it in one-wheel drive most of the time, but once you hit deep snow, thick mud or some other mess you’ll lock the rear differential using a lever down by the drive shaft. Approaching left-hand turns, you give it a little gas to initiate a slide, then countersteer to keep things pointed around the corner. Right-handers require a bit more care, with a calculated mix of throttle and understeer to lift the right rear wheel as the front wheel pushes through the turn. Judicious application of throttle, front and rear brakes helps keep it all balanced.

In short, the Ural isn’t a motorcycle, it isn’t an ATV and it isn’t a car. It’s a completely unique vehicle that requires as much time and effort to master as a motorcycle or automobile. It’s hard, but the effort is rewarded with an utterly unique experience on a machine that can do almost anything and go almost anywhere.

Was I terrified riding the Ural? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. One day, I might even be good at it.
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Re: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sidecar

Unread post by momule » Wed Jul 18, 2012 1:16 am

Outstanding post and thank you. I drove a BMW with a sidecar once in my youth and didn't get it then and don't get it now. It would be a creative way to perish however and there's a lot to be said for that.

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