Memorable Motorcycles Ural Sidecar

July 6, 2005
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The R71 s mystique came from the fact that it could carry a heavy machine gun  plus two men and their rations  in the harshest terrain.
The R71’s mystique came from the fact that it could carry a heavy machine gun, plus two men and their rations, in the harshest terrain.

In the higher echelons of motorcycling the competition gets really tough. Enthusiasts will argue for days about the merits of a BSA RRT2 gearbox or the quality of rebound damping on Ceriani front forks. Truly, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

However, few will disagree that the Ural sidecar outfit must be a hot contender for the top slot in motorcycling mediocrity. This BMW inspired flat twin is outstandingly one of the worst motorcycles ever put into series production – a creation of such comprehensive awfulness, in every respect, that it almost defies belief that even one example has ever been sold in the West.

Yet, it need not have been like this. The Ural began life as a BMW R71 and was the product of the 1939 Ribbentrop/Molotov pact whereby Germany sold, amongst other things, state of the art technology to the Soviet Union. Germany granted the Russians a credit of 200 million Reichsmarks to buy German equipment and in return the Nazis had free access to Russian raw materials.

Initially, everything went wonderfully well and the Soviets established an ultra modern factory on the outskirts of Moscow and produced, by all accounts, high quality replicas of the BMW. Then, Operation Barbarrosa was launched and the Germans somewhat inconsiderately invaded Russia and attempted to flatten Moscow. The R71 was considered to be a key war asset and production was moved to the Ural Mountains away from the attentions of German bombers.

Compared with walking and carrying a heavy machine gun on your back, the R71 was a big improvement. It soon became the Russian jeep, with drive to the sidecar being taken from the rear wheel of the bike. The outfit could carry a heavy machine gun, plus two men and their rations, in the harshest terrain. Its light weight, compared with a truck, meant that the outfit could be dragged through bogs and hauled up cliff faces – and it had the added benefit of being a small target for German tourists armed with 88mm anti-tank weapons. So the legend of the macho, go anywhere, catch-bullets-in-my-carburetor-and-eat-them sidecar outfit began.

Sixty years later, this myth needs viewing objectively. The all conquering Ural war hero belongs to the same age as when carcinogenic DDT was considered a good fix for delousing submariners’ genital areas and being trapped in a burning bomber was a mere occupational inconvenience. Things have moved on.

However, ride an Ural and you can still experience living proof of why the Soviet Union collapsed. The twin cylinder boxer engine produces an insipid 33 bhp – but feels less. Top speed is claimed to be 65mph but you would have to be receiving sympathetic psychiatric care to even consider riding the thing at this speed.

After the surprise German offensive Barbarossa was launched  the R71 was considered to be a key war asset and production was moved from the front lines to the Ural mountains.
After the surprise German offensive Barbarossa was launched, the R71 was considered to be a key war asset and production was moved from the front lines to the Ural mountains.

The four speed – and reverse – gearbox clonks and crashes like Irania the war heroine engaging the drive on her T34 tank, whilst the brakes provide little more than token retardation. In short, no part of the motorcycle functions in anything like a reasonable manner.

Strangely, it is not the mediocre performance, or appalling reliability, which takes the Ural to the very top of the worst motorcycle ever chart. Rather, it is the militant lack of care with which the bikes are built. Brackets don’t fit, welds would disgrace a 16 year old in his first week at Tech College and electrical wires dangle anywhere and everywhere. Paint looks as if it has been applied by a loose bowelled pigeon’s bottom. This is not a question of an old design or poor equipment, but more the ultimate manifestation of the couldn’t-care-less culture.

Still, there is one fact even more amazing than all the Ural’s faults put together; customers in the West still buy the things. Importers come and go but a loyal band of masochistic fanatics purchase Urals and produce paeans of praise lauding the bikes’ manly qualities and unique personalities. Web blogs are posted eulogizing the Ural’s ability to carry three rocket propelled grenades, an anti-tank missile, and a spare box of ammo for the machine gun – virtues which should clearly rate highly on every thinking motorcyclist’s mind.

Not unlike ritual public castration, bubonic plague and burning at the stake for reading a bible translated into English, riding an Ural is an unforgettable experience which every motorcyclist should try once. Then, go home and be deeply thankful that Japan never became a Soviet colony.

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