The Ural Tourist - Stalin's Revenge

The AK47 Of Adventure Touring

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 sht ... nothing but sht! 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.

Power is expected now, and the Ural has...some. Chrome cylinder liners and 8.6:1 compression pound out 40 raging bhp on 91-octane fuel. Sporting only two fewer ponies than a '54 Triumph Tiger Cub 110, the Patrol model's recommended top speed is 62 mph-actually pretty good for a military vehicle. This is your grandfather's Oldsmobile. Urals are clunky, low-tech, retro...and delightful, with externals that belie their modernized innards.

The spare tire shows Model-A Ford charm, and leading-link front suspension is more steampunk than reruns of The Wild Wild West. It's agricultural as a Massey-Ferguson and frivolous as a parade float, guaranteeing more social intercourse than 30 grand worth of turbo Haya-blinga. Squids, soccer moms and O.C. Chopper wannabes all grin at Stalin's Revenge. Feel free to just amble along. People will smile and wave. Compared to a '67 Vanagon, the tech sheet is awe-inspiring. There's a real disc brake on the front wheel and it's likely the world's fastest motorcycle in reverse.

Reverse isn't the only lever mounted alongside the exposed driveshaft and its truck-like U-joint. On Ural's Patrol, Gear-Up and Sahara models, a lever near the rear drive engages a driveshaft to the sidecar wheel for solid-axle, 2WD traction. Surprisingly effective off-road, 2WD should be rigorously avoided on the pavement. Still, the motorcycles remain rough, ready and cobblestone-simple.

Some bikes are made to be worked on at the dealership with specialty tools. Others you tackle in the garage. A Ural is meant to be repaired in a bar pit, using only its onboard toolkit: a cornucopia of canvas-wrapped chrome including every wrench you need to get down to the base gaskets, plus full-scale tire irons, touch-up paint, tire pump and work gloves. Despite recently extended service intervals, Urals still ask that level of commitment. A factory maintenance manual-happily available in English-is strongly recommended, but chores are straightforward. If you can cold-start your own lawn mower, you're golden. If you report to your dealership for tire pressure checks, try a different bike.

The Tourist we rode lit right off with the choke plungers drawn out, but only after brandishing a nut driver to reinstall the left-side intake manifold that fell off at 53 miles. Regular attention to fasteners can reduce such inconvenient back-outs. On the upside, nearly every bolt on the rig can be duplicated at any decent hardware store-or from that rusty coffee can on your garage shelf.

The Gear-Up option package will bring a smile to anyone who remembers Rat Patrol. Shun drab camo for the carousel colorations available to the Tourist buyer or the tuxedo-sharp Retro in pinstriped black. IMZ even had one done up by Svetlana Zyryanova in gzhel paint, a Russian folk art reminiscent of Delft ceramics from Nederland. Town or countryside, the Ural is a full-immersion experience-somewhere between riding a motorcycle and steering a light truck until the third wheel flies and you're countersteering all over again.

Sidecar inertia makes the rig pull right on acceleration and dart into oncoming traffic under braking. "Pull away, come together" is a useful mnemonic. Like any flavor of motorcycling, it's best to practice until muscle memory becomes reliable. Pretty soon, you're automatically fudging the bars to the right with every upshift. Our Ural toddled along cheerfully, cheating slightly to one side or the other whenever the road crown shifted, frisking a bit in right turns and asking little more of its rider than hanging off in turns like a Columbia Gorge windsurfer. I sustained semi-permanent marks on my butt from negotiating right-handers with an empty sidecar.

The gearbox, orders of magnitude improved over a few years back, shifts about as well as a '78 Kawasaki Z-1 ridden by a little old lady and only drag-raced on Sundays. Neutral is easy to find-sometimes well north of second gear-but the neutral indicator is elusive. Massive front suspension felt immune to side loads, allowing us to spin along with the sidecar flying at its balance point of around 40 degrees, wheel cocked up in the air like the hind leg of an insouciant hound. It's easier than wheelying, though the neighbors look at you funny.

Tipping the sidecar's windshield forward raises the chrome grab rail out of your way. Once you enter, the rail drops across your lap like the safety bar at Six Flags over Siberia and off you scoot, chair monkey for a day. Throwing your mitts into the air and squealing like an eight-year-old girl just adds to the experience. When I did that, ride wrangler Sergei admonished me firmly in Russian to "keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times."

We always thought sidecars were for lazy old fat guys. Turns out there's no need to wait that long. Pushing a hack to modest speeds is more physically draining than riding a streetbike fast, and it requires equal concentration. There's nothing like drifting into the oncoming lane of a busy arterial intersection to crank your pupils right open.

And that's entertainment. Feeling jaded by $10,000, 100-horse bikes? Try a $13,000, 40-horse, 2WD bikeosaurus. Riding a Ural-to the store, to the mountaintop, to the symphony with your sweetie, to the middle of nowhere with your dog wearing goggles-may not convert you to a babbling sidecar proselyte, but it will expand the way you look at motorcycles. "What kind of sh*t is that?" you might reasonably ask. The good kind.

Ivan would approve. More fun than a barrel of inebriated monkeys with more anti-hero cool than Steve McQueen reincarnated to lead Revenge of the Nerds, it's the 3-foot tool roll of adventure riding.

Crank it up with the button, or use the kick lever if you feel nostalgic. The Ural perches there, panting away like a puppy with a ball, slyly inviting you to go play outside. Listen to those valves tick. Are they counting down your dead-end life, or calling you to seek your misfortune? Excuse me for a moment. I need to find out for myself.

Ural Tourist
Price $11,999
Engine type a-c opposed-twin
Displacement 749cc
Compression 8.6:1
Transmission 4-speed forward, 1-speed reverse
Claimed horsepower 40 bhp @ 5600 rpm
Claimed torque 38 lb.-ft. @ {{{4000}}} rpm
Frame Steel double-cradle
Front suspension Dual Sachs shocks with adjustable spring preload
Rear suspension Dual Sachs shocks with adjustable spring preload
Front brake Brembo four-piston caliper, 300mm disc
Rear brake IMZ drum
Front tire 4.00 x 19 Uralshina
Rear tire 4.00 x 19 Uralshina
Seat height 30.9 in.
Wheelbase 59.0 in.
Fuel capacity 5.0 gal.
Claimed dry weight 739 lbs.
With a little enthusiasm, you can scrub the Ural's tires flat as cheater slicks on a Buick Grand National.
New World Order? The Ural is a funky outsider that fits right in, anywhere on Earth.
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Stalin in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these..
Vacuum petcocks cut off the Keihins when they've had enough to drink. Kampai!
Just like a tank bag, the Ural trunk carries a weekend's worth of clothes. Unlike a tank bag, it'll stow a pony keg, too.