We exited the San Francisco airport and climbed aboard the Ural, making a beeline for the
“So? What do you think?” I ask my daughter, Kiva, as she slips on her Shoei and settles into the Ural sidecar.
“I like him,” she says. “He was very stylish.”
“No, not Jon.” As in Jon Bekefy, Ural Motorcycles’ marketing czar, who just handed us the key to this 2012 Ural Gear-Up sidecar. “What do you think of this? The sidecar you’re sitting in.”
“Oh, this,” she says. “It’s okay. It looks like an army tank. Where are my iPod and my book?”
While my fashion-forward 12-year-old seems nonplussed by Ural’s Iron Curtain aesthetic, I’m smitten. The chunky, pre-war styling, blocky tires, mil-spec “Forest Fog” powdercoat finish and all that metal ignites my imagination. This vehicle looks like it can—and will—take you anywhere. It’s impossible to stare at the Ural and not envision adventuring to the tip of South America, or some remote Alaskan outpost. The Ural takes you places before you even turn the key.
Where it’s taking us first, however, is from our current location, on the lower level of San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3 parking structure, to the Motorcyclist offices in Los Angeles, 500 miles to the south, for our MC100 centennial celebration held last summer. An event like that only comes around once a century so I wasn’t about to miss it. The only problem was that the party conflicted with another special occasion—Kiva’s 12th birthday—and I wasn’t missing that, either. The only solution was to make her my “plus-one.” She’s wanted to visit Los Angeles since forever so she accepted the invitation, but balked when I tell her about our mode of transport: “A sidecar, Dad? Really?”
The toolkit includes everything necessary to field strip the rig, including genuine Russia
Kiva isn’t unfamiliar with sidecars. We’ve ridden all over our hometown of Milwaukee on a borrowed Harley-Davidson sidecar, and she enjoys these short trips. Still, she’s typically pre-teen, and the idea of spending four days side by side with me gives her pause. She isn’t the only one. Bekefy seems slightly uncertain too, especially after I refuse to complete the “strongly recommended” sidecar-driving course. Still, he patiently explains all the Gear-Up’s archaic features like how to manually engage two-wheel-drive and the reverse gear, and then cheerfully waves us off.
The Ural clatters to life with the mechanical presence of an industrial compressor. I stomp on the heel/toe shifter to “persuade” the non-synchronized, four-speed transmission into gear and engage the dry, dual-disc clutch, making the machine shudder away like a Russian T54 tank. We don’t travel 50 yards before we’re introduced to what is commonly called UDF—Ural Delay Factor—the inevitable Q&A sessions we were warned would spontaneously occur anytime we stopped within five feet of another human being.
This time it’s the elderly Chinese immigrant stationed in the parking booth. “I haven’t seen one of those in 50 years,” he says, incredulously. He refuses to believe it’s brand new, even after I show him there are just 41 kilometers on the odometer. “Not for 50 years…”
Sidecars like the Ural (and the closely related Chang Jiang and Dnepr) were a frequent sight in Communist China and Russia a half-century ago. There are two stories about how the Ural was born, and even the folks at Irbit MotorWorks in Irbit, Russia, where Urals are made, can’t say which is true. The romantic story says that on Stalin’s orders five 1939 BMW R71 sidecar outfits were purchased in Sweden then smuggled into Russia, where they were reverse engineered to create the first Ural M-72 that Red Army forces debuted in 1942. The more likely story is that R71 drawings and perhaps even tooling were supplied to Russia directly from BMW as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a treaty of non-aggression between Russia and Germany. Russian engineers worked forward from there.
Either way, the R71 was already obsolete in 1939 (BMW had begun developing the R75 that replaced it), and not much has changed since then. There have been many updates to the Ural recently, especially since the company was privatized in 1998 and focus shifted from providing state-sanctioned employment to actually selling motorcycles. Look closely and you’ll see modern Brembo brakes, Sachs shocks, and Keihin carburetors, which, even if they aren’t cutting edge, at least represent late-20th-century technology. But the basic design—the double cradle frame, the leading-link fork, the 750cc, air-cooled flat twin and the all-steel sidecar—are essentially unchanged. Nearly every piece of the bike—even the wheel weights—is manufactured inside a massive factory in Irbit, 1000 miles east of Moscow on the edge of the Siberian steppe. The machines are built almost entirely by hand, each receiving more personal attention than even the most exclusive Bimota, which partly explains their near-$14,000 price tag. Once you recognize Ural’s old-world authenticity, it’s hard not to fall in love.