Why Are Sidecars Called “Hacks”?

Ural sidecar with passenger.
Ural sidecar with passenger. Image courtesy of Ural Australia.

The word “hack” has a bad rap, at least here in the U.S. It can mean using a hatchet in a violent manner, or employing nefarious means to gain unauthorized access to data. So why in the world would we use it as a slang term for something as innocent and fun as a motorcycle sidecar rig? It’s questions like this that keep us up at night, so we decided to do a little research and find out why sidecars are called hacks.

Read about our LA-Barstow-Vegas adventure on a 2WD Ural Gear-Up sidecar.

It all began in Jolly Olde England, in a village known as Hackney (now a borough) just north of London. In the year 1621, the first documented horse-drawn carriage for hire, known as a “hackney coach” or “hackney carriage,” plied the streets of London looking for passengers. Modern historians figure these carriages took their name from the village, which was being swallowed up by the growing London metro area. The Hackney Horse, a breed of trotting horse bred specifically for carriage driving, can also trace its name to the village and the hackney carriages.

hackney carriage
An engraving of a hackney carriage by W. Hollar, 1646. Image courtesy of Britannica.

During the Industrial Revolution, electric and internal combustion engine-powered hackney carriages gradually took the place of the horse-drawn versions. In typical quaintly charming British fashion, the new taxicabs continued to be referred to as hackney carriages; in fact, modern taxis are still licensed by the Public Carriage Office in London. Here in the U.S., Boston certifies its licensed taxi operators with a Hackney Carriage medallion, and in New York City, you can find a “hack” (taxi or taxi driver) at the “hackstand” (taxi stand).

So what does this have to do with motorcycles? Early motorcycles were not equipped to carry a passenger, having only a single seat for the operator. In 1893, a French army officer won a prize in a local newspaper for creating a bicycle sidecar, and in 1903 a patent was granted to a Mr. W. J. Graham of Enfield, Middlesex, England, to manufacture a motorcycle sidecar. For the first time, a motorcyclist could carry a passenger, and so the obvious colloquial term for such a contraption was “hack.” Makes perfect sense, right?

Now we can rest easy tonight.

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