The Ural Tourist - Stalin's Revenge

The AK47 Of Adventure Touring

By: Shasta Willson, Jack Lewis

As many do, I know a guy. Ivan is a mechanic from Russia. He keeps a shop in Kenmore, a greasy tatterdemalion of parts bins, overflowing tool drawers and half-corpses of intended and unintended donor machines where he'll fix anything with wheels. Like sausage grinding, his work is no spectator sport for the squeamish. "In Russia," Ivan tells me, dropping his mask and firing up the torch for an acetylene death match with an '84 Caddy, "everything is sh*t ... nothing but sh*t! We learn to make sh*t good."

Which brings us to the Ural, famous for its obsolete electrics, massive build and low performance. That's the Ural electric guitar. Like Yamaha, Ural's name appears on musical instruments. Like Kawasaki, there are Ural generators and industrial equipment. Like Honda and Suzuki, the global Ural hegemony has produced cars and trucks as well, all carelessly tuned to a vast sucking sound.

The motorcycle bears a richer story, starting with its curious provenance. Competing stories exist. Enthusiastic mythmakers recount a tale of five BMW R71s purchased through Sweden-an equal-opportunity collaborator-and reverse-engineered by Soviet intelligentsia. The prosaic version is that BMW re-tooled for its new R75 and passed off its obsolete R71 production line to the Soviets with the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact. The R75 successor represented the state of mid-century engineering art with a locking differential, hydraulic brakes and dual-range final drive. When the Wehrmacht drove across the Soviet frontier just two years after Hitler's wink and a nod to Stalin, they saddled up these refined chariots.

Prior to the blitzkrieg, the Soviets hastily tooled up a Moscow production facility and cranked out several hundred straight copies of the predecessor R71. Designated M-72: dead simple and field-repairable by farm boys. Cossacks brandishing stamped-steel PPSh submachine guns clanked out to prevent the Fatherland penetrating Mother Russia. By the time Operatsiya Bagration pushed the Germans out for good in 1944, the motorcycle factory had been moved from the ZIS auto manufactory in Moskow to a safe location in an Irbitzk brewery near the base of the Ural mountains. Irbitskiy Mototsikletniy Zavod (IMZ) delivered 9799 military hacks to Russian recon troops.

The IMZ/Ural plant continued to supply army materil until the late '50s, when Ukraine's Kiev Motorcycle Plant (KMZ) took over Red Army supply and IMZ switched to civilian output. As in Britain, postwar economics made sidecar rigs attractive alternatives to cars and trucks. In '64 the Soviet army received updated rigs from Kiev with 750cc, overhead-valve engines and driven sidecar wheels and could finally claim they'd nearly matched the engineering mark set by the Germans a quarter-century before. In '57, M-72 specs and molds were sold to China. Between the Russians, the Ukrainians and the Chinese, some 3.2 million of these commie Clydesdales-the AK47 of adventure touring-have been delivered worldwide. That may just make the R71 derivative BMW's most successful model!

When Tom Lynott started importing modern-day Urals through Washington as moto-novelty in '94, they were so unreliable he had to rebuild them at the distributorship. They broke anyway, but accrued a merry following. According to Madina Merzhoyeva, an employee from the old Ural America days who now serves as Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Irbit Motor Works of America, "Those bikes were pretty much a project for the garage. Now, people don't fix them-they ride them."

Now under private ownership, IMZ still forges bikes in its repurposed brewery, but leaner times mandate crisper efficiencies and new focus. To raise the quality bar, Ural became a "world bike" in 2007. While a 3-foot tool roll and roadside wrenchability remain atop the features list, Ural incorporated a roster of bits from 14 different countries to cut down on the number of times you need that roll. From Japan, 770 watts of Nippon Denso bright-think replace the crumbly Russian alternator, and Keihin supplies the carbs. Ignition by Ducati and a floating Brembo up front grant Italianate suaveness if you squint until the tears come. Solidifying the Axis triumvirate, gears are cut by KTM's Austrian supplier, Herzog. In a Cold War rapprochement, the wiring harness is U.S.-designed and Chinese-built. The result is marketed primarily to Westerners as a full-scale Dinky Toy: simple, decorative and solid steel. Annual deliveries now hover in the hundreds.

By Shasta Willson, Jack Lewis
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