A Short History of Sidecars

That’s a 1915 Harley-Davidson with the first genuine Harley-built sidecar; in 1914 Harley, eager to get in the hack market, had been offering sidecars made by the Rogers company.
That’s a 1915 Harley-Davidson with the first genuine Harley-built sidecar; in 1914 Harley, eager to get in the hack market, had been offering sidecars made by the Rogers company.

Curious conveyances, sidecars. Few of us have ever ridden in one, fewer yet driven a rig. But there is a small, passionate number of sidecarists who love their three-wheeled machines, sometimes referred to as hacks or chairs, and a sizable number of companies that cater to these aficionados.

The origins of the sidecar are in much dispute, but with the patenting of the “roller chain” in 1880, and the popularization of the “safety” bicycle (two equal-sized wheels with a chain driving the rear one), creative types developed very light sidecars so an energetic young bicyclist could carry his damsel in an approved fashion.

When the bicycle got motorized, thought was immediately given to carrying a passenger. In that late-Victorian Age a respectable woman would never be seen riding pillion, not to mention that early pillion seats were horribly uncomfortable. The first reference to a motorcycle sidecar that I can find was an 1893 contest put on by a French newspaper that offered a prize for the best way to carry a passenger comfortably and elegantly. Three very different solutions were presented, the forecar, the trailer-car and the sidecar.

Traditional English rig, a '53 Ariel Square Four with a Watsonian chair, albeit mounted on the American side.
Traditional English rig, a ’53 Ariel Square Four with a Watsonian chair, albeit mounted on the American side.

The forecar was a tricycle contraption, with two wheels and the passenger seat(s) in front, the operator sitting behind. Anybody who has had the pleasure of being in Saigon in the halcyon 1960s has probably taken a ride in one of these contraptions, usually controlled by a speed-crazed Viet Cong sociopath. The main problem here is that the passenger takes the brunt of any collision.

Read our Road Test of the 2014 Ural Gear-Up

The trailer-car concept was quite rudimentary, with an elevated tongue going above the rear wheel and attaching to the frame of the motorcycle, generally under the seat. This two-wheeled chair could provide quite sumptuous accommodations, but it meant the passenger was on the receiving end of all the exhaust smoke and noise. Not popular with the gracious ladies.

The third, and lasting, variation was the sidecar. The earliest photo I have seen of a sidecar is from 1903, bolted on to a Thor motorcycle; that year the American company listed one in its catalog. The car is very presentable, all done in wicker…useful for its light weight. Five years later many motorcycle companies were offering sidecars from the factory, and not only chairs, but also cargo boxes or sidevans for delivery vehicles. Motorcycle outfits were inexpensive compared to automobiles, and with the poor condition of American roads had the advantage of being easy to push when stuck.

This 1943 BMW R75 is an example of military sidecar outfits in World War II.
This 1943 BMW R75 is an example of military sidecar outfits in World War II.

Sidecar frames were quite basic, generally made of tubular steel, with a passenger car or utility box bolted on. In 1913 sidecar designers were using two, three and four points for attaching the car to the motorcycle frame—the two-pointer has vanished, probably due to too many sidecars detaching themselves at speed. The most basic rigs had no suspension, but leaf springs began to take over. In 1913 Earl Johnson, of Harlan, Iowa, patented a sidecar chassis with a wheel that tilted with the motorcycle, anticipating the famed Flxi-Flyer and Equa-Lean designs. The car/box itself developed any number of renditions—single seaters, two seaters, fire-fighting apparatus, chimney-sweeping equipment, etc.

Tackling the LA-Barstow-Vegas dual-sport ride on a 2WD Ural Gear-Up

Harley-Davidson was eager to get in on the sidecar bonanza, and its first cataloged hack was in 1914, although it was actually built by the Rogers company. In 1915 Harley produced its own car. In 1916 the U.S. Army ordered up some Harleys with sidecars to help track down Pancho Villa in the deserts along the Mexican border, and Bill Harley developed machine-gun mounts for the sidecars. During World War I a lot of sidecar outfits were deployed on the Western Front, but these were mostly used for dispatch service and ferrying officers about, rather than charging enemy lines with machine gun blazing.

Following The War To End All Wars, the presence of sidecars was much less common, as automobiles became quite inexpensive. There was still a thriving trade, and companies like England’s Watsonian (selling sidecars since 1912), Germany’s Steib (started in 1914) and Jim Goulding’s operations in both Australia and the United States were quite active, but limited. The Depression may have helped the industry slightly, as a sidecar outfit was often the cheapest way to get around.

A third wheel can be very useful on a wet dirt road; this car is a Champion Daytona 2+2.
A third wheel can be very useful on a wet dirt road; this car is a Champion Daytona 2+2.

Following World War II the American consumer crowd wanted big cars, not sidecars. In Europe, due to light taxation for two- and three-wheelers and an inadequate supply of automobiles, another flurry of sidecar interest erupted. However, by the late 1950s—thanks to cheap cars like Britain’s Ford Popular and Germany’s VW—the econo-boxes were again winning out against the sidecar rigs.

The industry withdrew, realizing that as a practical unit, the sidecar rig was doomed. The only factories producing them as utilitarian vehicles were Eastern Bloc, like Czecho­slovakia’s Velorex, in conjunction with Jawa motorcycles, the Ural and Dneper factories in the Soviet Union, and the Chinese. And Harley, of course, although mostly for parade use.

But the enthusiasts kept the legend alive. Californian Doug Bingham, aka Mr. Sidecar of Side Strider Inc., started building and selling sidecars in 1969, and he put on the annual Griffith Park sidecar rally in Los Angeles for decades before passing away in 2016. Half a dozen other American companies, like Champion and Motorvation and Texas and California (made in Virginia) are producing sidecars, along with long lists of options and accessories.

Getting Hacked and Lovin’ It: 41st Griffith Park Sidecar Rally

No worries about falling on slippery grass with this Ural rig.
No worries about falling on slippery grass with this Ural rig.

In Europe there is a demand for specialized rigs, with sophisticated suspension systems dedicated to improving the handling of what is usually a cumbersome contraption. I remember well the day I was riding in the Alps, and far ahead I saw a sidecar outfit. I’ll catch him in no time, I thought, but once he had a glimpse of me in his mirror he twisted the throttle and it was all I could do just to keep up with him. It was only when we got into traffic that I actually caught up; he had an EML rig powered by a BMW K100, and a wife and small child in the car.

In this country we now have only one motorcycle company that sells sidecar outfits: the Russian-made Ural. A dozen American companies are either manufacturing or importing sidecars, and costs can vary greatly. (There’s a list of manufacturers below.)

Ural employee Albert Menzi flies the chair, with his wife Ruth inside.
Ural employee Albert Menzi flies the chair, with his wife Ruth inside.

One last note: While many automotive museums have motorcycles with sidecars in their collections, there is only one museum that I know of which is dedicated to the history of sidecars, and that is Constantino Frontalini’s International Sidecar Museum near Cingoli, in Italy’s province of Macerata. Run up his website, sidecar.it, and you won’t be disappointed—a working knowledge of Italian is helpful, although the pictures need little explanation.

Sidecar Rigging
If you are thinking of bolting a third wheel to your motorcycle, you had better learn all about toe-in and lean-out and wheel offset and a lot of other measurements. It is relatively easy to attach the contraption, not so easy to do it right. And done wrong you will wonder why the darned thing is such a surly brute to drive.

In this country we attach a sidecar on the right side of a motorcycle, allowing the driver to pull out from behind a truck and see what is coming. In England, and other left-hand drive countries, the car is on the left side. Pity the poor English lass whose boyfriend wants to take a trip on the continent—as now that the sidecar is on the wrong side, think how far the driver has to pull out to see around a truck….

An Equa-Lean sidecar in Death Valley, California, circa 1981.
An Equa-Lean sidecar in Death Valley, California, circa 1981.

The natural physics of a motorcycle’s handling, involving lean, are canceled when a sidecar is attached—unless, of course, you get a leaner, but I don’t think anybody is manufacturing such an item any more. I put a thousand miles on an Equa-Lean outfit some 20 years ago and loved it. But that is because at heart I am a motorcyclist, rather than a sidecarist.

Once that third wheel is attached, the lean factor is gone, and steering is done by turning the front wheel—which is why a rig is “driven” rather than “ridden.”

Buying or Putting Together a Sidecar
Think seriously. Driving a sidecar rig is very, very different from riding a motorcycle. As a matter of fact, there are probably no similarities whatsoever. Sidecarists are generally a genial and friendly lot, so I would sincerely recommend that a beginner try to find an old hand in his general vicinity, and listen closely to the advice. The biggest collection of hacksters can be found through the United Sidecar Association (USCA), which puts on an annual rally and a publishes a bimonthly newsletter, The Sidecarist. USCA can be contacted via its website, sidecar.com. Get in touch with the USCA and see if any class in driving rigs is being offered within your sphere. I cannot emphasize enough: You should get proper instruction.

A BMW with Steib sidecar motors up California's Big Sur Highway.
A BMW with Steib sidecar motors up California’s Big Sur Highway.

However, since that is rarely possible, ap­preciate that the learning curve is rather slow, and do not overestimate your ability. The single biggest concern is “lifting” the sidecar, which can happen when going around a right corner or curve…simple physics can cause the sidecar to rise up and the motorcycle to lean in the opposite direction of where the driver wants to go. This is all good fun for experienced sidecarists, terrifying for the neophytes—and their passengers.

In 1997 the USCA Sidecar Safety Program published a 120-page manual, written mostly by the genial sidecarist David Hough, called Driving a Sidecar Outfit, 2nd Ed., which is available from Whitehorse Press for $34.95. Such a manual is never out of date.

A sidecar can make an outing in the country so much more pleasant.
A sidecar can make an outing in the country so much more pleasant.

Sidecar Manufacturers

California Sidecars: californiasidecar.com

Champion Sidecars: championsidecars.com

Hannigan Motorsports: hannigantrikes.com

Liberty Sidecars: libertysidecars.com

Motorvation Engineering: motorvation.com

Steib Sidecars: bluemooncycle.com

Ural Motorcycles: ural.com

Velorex USA Inc.: velorexusa.com

9 COMMENTS

  1. We have recently aquired an aproximatly 50 year old Ampico 2 shay double side car. on the plaque it said it was made at Ampico Concord calf. Patent USA & foreign WC Hopkins. This is the only one I have ever seen can you help me out?

    • Hey Garry. I have the same Ampico 2 Shay sidecar, and have never seen one like it. I know absolutely nothing about it, and haven’t been able to find any information. Have you had any success?

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  3. My great grandfather on my mothers side invented the sidecar,he was Irish and his name was Clare, the blue prints were in my mothers family for some time,he sold the patent and was a very popular character in the towns pubs and on regular occasions he would be wheeled home from the boozer in a wheelbarrow,…..which is somewhat ironic!

  4. I have a 2009 Ultra Classic and have been hoping that Harley would bring back their side car addition. I don’t know the best company to buy from nor do i know if my Harley dealer would be willing to add it to the bike. In the daily riding, I see many trikes, all different makes and models, see the Urals and others with their sidecar. Always seems to draw attention….wonder why Harley wouldn’t bring it back: even after market purchases. Oh well, my search continues for the best side car to match up to the perfect bike…..come on Harley……bring it back!

    • Al, I have a H-D 2003 Electra-Glide with sidecar from and installed by Motorvation Engineering — Harley dealers will not install, nor should you. After riding 1000 miles, I am very pleased with the quality of the rig and the motoring experience — I’ve been riding motorcycles for 40+ years. Harley claims it discontinued producing sidecars after 95 years because of steadily declining sales which, in the last years, amounted to less than 150 a year. Due to the popularity of Harley trikes, don’t expect them to revive their sidecars.

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