Among all of the ways to ride on three wheels, I think sidecars are the most fun, and challenge your riding skills in the heart-starting way we used to enjoy before computers began saving us from ourselves. With two wheels in front like the Can-Am Spyder, the ride is fast and sporty; with two wheels in back you can carry lots of gear, even tow a trailer. But with one wheel on the side it makes for something completely different.
I’m not a sidecar expert. I can’t recite the names and colors of every Watsonian or Velorex model ever built (ask guys like Doug Bingham of Sidestrider.com instead), and the 200 miles I racked up on this new Ural T on back roads and quiet highways are the most I’ve put on a sidehack, or “hack,” in more than a decade. But I’ve piloted Harley factory rigs on tour, BMW and Gold Wing sport sidecars and even the original Equalean prototype, which tilts with the motorcycle. And I’ve ridden in several sidecars, including a custom K100 hack briskly driven by the Chief Instructor at the famous 21km Nürburgring Nordschleife track in Germany…while I was facing backwards shooting photos of our group. Urp, sorry about the mess, Hans!
Yet without a doubt (perhaps because I’m a bit older now), the most outright fun I’ve ever had riding a hack was on this Ural T. For a buck under $10K I would seriously consider putting one in my garage for the entertainment factor alone…if I had the 8- by 5.5-foot space. But it’s good for more than novelty value—you can actually use the T, too. Take it on picnics, parts runs, grocery getting, weekend day rides…or just give the kids a thrill. Despite its new-old design and components, it’s a lot of fun! Every time we stopped we were asked countless questions about the rig (Ural calls this the Ural Delay Factor, or “UDF”) and got thumbs-up and waves from riders and non-riders, young and old alike. Though it comes with a two-year, unlimited-mileage warranty, those who bemoan the lack of uncomplicated “hands-on” machines these days will get their fill (perhaps more than bargained for) maintaining and tinkering on the Ural, too. It’s designed to be repaired in the field, and except for modern electricals is no harder to work on than a 1960s BMW. Just make sure you get the optional handle to ease lifting it on the centerstand.
Built in a factory with 1,250 employees in Irbit, a small town in the Ural Mountains of Russia, these rigs got their start in the early 1940s serving the Soviet WWII effort. Today they’re more modernized, but are still built tough and utilitarian—you won’t find any fuel injection, Multi-Controller wheels, riding modes or heated seats. But there is a kickstarter on this improved 750cc copy of the mid-20th century BMW R71 flat twin. Today it has 8.6:1 compression and two overhead valves per cylinder, a dual-plate dry clutch and 4-speed transmission—with reverse! Twin 32mm Keihin CV carburetors are gravity-fed from the 5.0-gallon tank, and an exposed shaft drives the motorcycle’s rear wheel.
While it won’t give the average 650 single much competition in a drag race, requires premium gas and gets lousy fuel economy, a Ural model like the T or “Gear Up” Gobi (see page 76) with a driven sidecar wheel is a lot more useful around the farm, or say for hunting and fishing. And on simple joy rides the smoothness and power output is still enough to put a smile on your face, with a claimed 40 horsepower and 38 lb-ft of torque. The recommended maximum cruising speed is 65 mph (and until the heavily treaded Duro 6-ply tires scrub-in a bit, it’s unnervingly darty at anything over 50 mph), so I wouldn’t take it on a busy Interstate for long, but it’s just the thing for a leisurely ride on back roads.
You can find plenty of aftermarket sidecar kits for existing motorcycle models, and companies like Hannigantrikes.com that focus on high-end sidecar conversions. But specialized rigs like the Ural T aren’t just motorcycles with a sidecar bolted on. Ural side-by-sides had to meet 1940s military requirements with purpose-built, rugged construction and stone-simple, easy-to-fix mechanicals, and needed great load capacity and handling. Decades of reliability and performance improvements since haven’t changed that basic premise. The motorcycle and sidecar frame are made to work together, with a strong, stiff Earles-type leading-link front end. It has steering geometry that’d be too quick on the bike without the sidecar, but makes turning the side-by-side rig a breeze. Identical Sachs shocks with adjustable preload—five in all—suspend each corner of the bike and the sidecar wheel, and the three heavily-spoked wheels and 4- by 19-inch tube-type tires are also identical. Carry one spare shock, one spare wheel, a bunch of tools and maybe some extra fuses and oil, and you’re good for a week in the wilderness.
That 2.9-cubic-foot locking trunk in the sidecar stows a lot of gear, and so does the car itself if you’re riding solo. Load capacity is a remarkable 639 pounds and alternator output a hefty 770 watts, so you could load up the car with, say, an animatronic Santa Claus complete with a full set of blinking Christmas lights and lead the Holiday parade on snow-covered Main Street, without falling over or even putting your feet down.
Well, something should be in the sidecar when you’re moving, whether it’s Kris Kringle, a loved one or just ballast. Unladen, the Ural T sidecar is so light that you can easily lift it off the ground with your hands. Right turns at speed will have a similar effect, called “flying the chair,” without a load to keep it planted. When I didn’t have a willing passenger, I filled the sidecar with 140 pounds of dumbbells and could still easily lift it in the air around right corners, or even with just a purposeful twist of the bars.
These days Ural engines fire up with a single button press, and ours settled into a strong idle right away, its air-cooled heads not even attempting to conceal mechanical noise like clattering valves (Ural enthusiasts nod, wink and say, “Loud valves save lives, eh?”). Carburetors are jetted to start in the cold of a Russian winter so no choke was required for our West Coast test. Crunch the German-made 4-speed down into first and you’re off, or tap the reverse lever with your boot and blow everyone away as you back out of a parking spot or dead-end under engine power.
Rider seating is relaxed and natural, kind of riding-mowerlike with more rearset footpegs, though one boot is awkwardly tucked under the right carb and over the brake pedal. The clown-car rubber-sprung and covered rider’s seat is surprisingly comfortable, but sidecar passengers have it best—it’s so cozy on that thick seat and backrest you’ll have trouble keeping them awake on the boring bits. No problem, just fly the chair!
Underway, the momentum and drag of the sidecar takes a little getting used to, as it tends to push the rig a little left when you roll off the throttle and pull it a little right when you accelerate, but this is quickly gotten used to and can even be used to your advantage. Braking takes a bit of planning, since the linked mechanical rear drum brakes on the bike and sidecar wheel are essentially hill holders—all of the stopping power is in that powerful Brembo 4-piston caliper and enormous floating rotor up front. Once you master the brakes, steering inertia and the tendency of the chair to lift, you can enjoy all the fun and maneuverability of a three-wheeler, but with only two tracks to maneuver over and around obstacles. And it holds itself up at stops. Yee-hah!
Irbit Motorworks of America encourages owners to become proficient at all aspects of operating Ural sidecars—including flying the chair—and even offers a rebate if you take one of the sidecar safety-training courses out there. For a little more than the black Ural T’s $9,999, a number of brilliant paint schemes, extra features and Ural models with driven sidecar wheels for snow and off-road use are available. To me, though, the stripped-down, budget-minded Ural T in black is the perfect lightweight starting point for a custom side-by-side chariot. Tally ho!
2012 Ural T Side-by-Side
Base Price: $9,999
Engine Type: Air-cooled, opposed flat twin, OHV, 2 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 78.0 x 78.0mm
Transmission: 4-speed w/ reverse, cable-actuated dry clutch
Final Drive: Shaft, 4.62:1
Wheelbase: 58.0 in.
Rake/Trail: 23 degrees/2.4 in.
Seat Height: 32.0 in.
Claimed Dry Weight: 705 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 5.0 gals. w/ .5-gal. res.
Average MPG (91 PON min): 23.4
(This article was printed in the June 2012 issue of Rider Magazine.)