I want one, and so do you

After riding motorcycles for a quarter century, I thought I knew how to ride. And then I had to drive around Northern Washington in (on?) a burnt-orange-painted Ural cT sidecar rig. I discovered I’m not as good a rider as I thought I was.

For one thing, it didn’t want to go straight – it needed constant correction. It also didn’t turn like a motorcycle – at least not until the sidecar would come up off the ground in tight turns. Then it would countersteer, but only until the third wheel touched down and turned the great orange contraption back into a … what? It’s not a car. It’s not a motorcycle.

I don’t know what it is, but it’s fun. I want one, and so do you. Here’s why: It’s a conversation piece you can ride.

I was listening to the satellite-radio comedy channel in my car and a comic said, “I knew I was getting old when I started getting interested in WWII.” Maybe you’ve been there, sneaking in views of History Channel clips on YouTube or completely dominating the WWII category in QuizUp (QuizUp calls me the “The Desert Fox,” and if you get the reference, you are old). Anyway, if you know about WWII history, you will love Ural. After all, you can’t buy a new Kubelwagen or a Willys Jeep, but you can buy a Ural, which isn’t exactly a 1938 BMW R71, but is as close as you can get without building a time machine first (and if you do build a time machine, have some class and strangle baby Hitler in his crib before you go buy a motorcycle).

The story gets mangled in the retelling, but the official account is that in 1940, the USSR quietly purchased five BMW R71 sidecars rigs in Sweden and then reverse engineered them to create the Soviet M72, because if you change one number, it’s not copying. Ural’s website hints that BMW may actually have assisted under some terms of the Nazi-Soviet “non-aggression” pact. If that’s true, BMW got the last laugh, as it discontinued the R71 in favor of the improved R75. In any case, before you get all judgey on the Russians for copying the BMW, you should know that Harley-Davidson did it as well.

But the History Channel fun doesn’t stop there. Enraged by the intellectual property infringement, in 1941 BMW invaded the USSR with over four million well-armed patent attorneys, prompting relocation of the Russian sidecar factory to the remote town of Irbit, charmingly known as “the gateway to Siberia” and not the future site of a Sandals resort. The factory has since built 3.2 million Urals. They’ve been exported to dozens of countries since 1952 and have proved their worth – they weren’t exactly reliable, since the design was so antiquated and the quality poor, but they were easy to fix and suited to primitive conditions.

How’s this for a romantic image? By 1992, there were still thousands of state-employed workers in the drafty, cold, mostly unused factory building WWII-vintage motorcycles with ancient tooling.

“They built everything there,” Ural’s Madina Merzhoeva told me, right down to the fasteners and tires. Post Soviet Union, Ural sidecars were a tough sell, as Iron-Curtain buyers, who once waited years for the opportunity to own a Ural, now had the option of buying cheaper, better motorcycles, not to mention cars. The company was reorganized (twice), and by 2000 was much leaner, with a far smaller staff and plans to modernize its products.

So what you get with a Ural isn’t just a mechanical relic of pre-WWII Europe. It’s 75 years of Russian history, from the Great Patriotic War to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the age of oligarchs and Dear Leader Putin. You can talk for hours about it, and some of it is even interesting.

Anyway, the new-for-2015 cT is a far cry from the crude, rickety contraptions the Red Army rode to Berlin. It’s a gateway sidecar, engineered to be affordable and easy to handle for new sidecarists. Ural’s engineers lowered the stance of the rig and made it lighter. It’s also easier to operate, more reliable and safer, with about 70% of the components sourced outside Russia – Irbit is now in the 21st century, or at least the late 20th.

At $12,999 the cT isn’t cheap, but it is as cheap as a turn-key sidecar outfit gets. In fact, as far as I know, Ural is the only maker of turn-key sidecar rigs, though there are still some manufacturers of sidecar kits. You’d think having the monopoly on this market would make Ural a wealthy company, but you’d be wrong – the company only makes a few thousand units a year, and most of them come to North America.

It’s not as hard to operate as you’d think.

If I handed you the keys to a Sherman tank, it would probably take you a while to figure out how to drive it. That’s not the case with the Ural. If you’re an experienced motorcyclist, a few minutes in a parking lot accompanied by a veteran sidecarist may be all you need to start practicing and building confidence on your own – I had the pleasure of learning from Ski Jablonski at TriQuest in Santa Clara, California. It was challenging at first, but I took it slow, and after 10 minutes or so, I was confident enough to drive on the street.

A caveat – driving a sidecar rig is wacky, ironic, authentic fun, but it’s also pretty dangerous. Sidecars do things that will surprise an experienced motorcyclist, so if you have the option, take a sidecar-specific training course and wear all the gear you wear on a motorcycle. Irony is crappy protection.

The Ural has a kickstart lever, but I didn’t need it thanks to the electric starter. Ural now uses fuel injection on all its models, which starts the bike quickly and easily. I found throttle response and fueling remarkably good, which really helped the learning curve; I can’t imagine learning how to manhandle a 700-pound sidecar while trying to manage a balky, cold-blooded carbureted engine. The dual-plate dry clutch was also easy to operate, with a surprisingly light pull and good feel.

The transmission was by far the most awful piece of machinery of any kind I’ve ever encountered, but using it was a good experience, as I will never, ever complain about another transmission again – there is no way any other manufacturer would dare make anything so terrible. It crunches, clanks, pops out of gear and has so many false neutrals that changing gears successfully is like winning $20 at the craps table. All part of the charm. Ural will point out that it gets smoother with age, and hey, it’s all part of the experience.

Riding the Ural is pleasant, yet involving. Unlike a single-track vehicle, sidecars don’t really want to continue in a straight line – you have to keep them headed the right way, like riding a horse with ADHD. It’s easier the faster you go, though over 70 mph things start getting a little wiggly and indistinct. At low speeds, the rig mostly goes where you want, but I found myself struggling in some situations, like steeply cambered roads. Especially steeply cambered roads. Luckily, there’s an easy-to-use reverse gear (that also functions as a neutral finder, which for reasons mentioned above is more useful than the reverse) for when you quite literally find yourself stuck in the weeds. When you do bump the sidecar into things (and you will), there’s a big, heavy crashbar to protect your sheet metal from dings. Sorry, lamp post (bonnnng!). And recycling bin (THUD!). And double-parked delivery van ("Hey, asshole! Watch where you’re going!").

On winding roads, you again have to recalibrate your brain – it’s not a sportbike. Brake early and often, muscle it in corners, learn your limits. Experienced sidecarists are confident railing through turns (and can probably carry a lot more corner speed than a two-wheeler, thanks to the extra wheel and flat tire profiles), but sidecars flip and kill inexperienced riders, so I rode like a grandpa in hopes of someday becoming one. Respect its differences and you’ll be okay.

As you build your skills and learn the rig’s limits, confidence does grow. Slow U-turns are easy, since it balances itself, and the Ural’s triple-disc Brembo brakes won’t stand the rig on its nose but are a huge improvement over whatever antiques Ural used to put on these things. Heidenau tires gave great grip and confidence, even on rain-slick roads. ABS seems like a no-brainer, and I’m sure it’s coming, but the current cT doesn’t have it.

It’s unbelievably fun – and practical.

Plenty of motorcyclists switch to sidecars for the same reason sportbike riders switch to cruisers. They want to enjoy the sensations and sociability of motorcycling without feeling they need to haul ass everywhere to have fun. You also draw so much attention it’s like driving a small parade float. It’s a conversation starter, so be prepared to spend extra time talking about Russian history, posing for photos or giving cute hitchhikers or dogs rides – pack an extra helmet.

In fact, you can pack a lot of extra everything. The cT’s max GVWR is 1,325 pounds, which means you can carry 625 pounds of fuel, passengers (so long as you buy the pillion seat and pegs), cargo or whatever else. The Ural was the pickup truck of rural Russia for decades, so if you can’t get it home, you probably don’t need it. Nobody goes to Ikea until everybody goes to Ikea, comrade.

Of course, performance will suffer, and you don’t have much to start out with. The 749cc OHV Boxer Twin makes a lot more power than I thought it would, keeping up with traffic at least as well as a small, cheap car, but that was just with me and a 50-pound sandbag onboard. It’s slow, but more than adequate for around town and fast expressways, and unlike its predecessors, the cT can comfortably handle interstates, even if they aren’t its preferred environment.

During my test ride and visit to the Ural importers, I had a good time exploring a bit of Washington, checking out the humongous Boeing plant and exploring Whidby Island. Touring would be a blast on the Ural, since it slows you down, makes you take side roads and interact with the locals and has vast luggage capacity. I saw about 35 mpg, so the 5-gallon tank gives you 150 or so miles of range, but strap on a 5-gallon jerrycan and you can double that.

Will I ever own a sidecar? If you had asked me before I rode the cT, I would have asked you to strangle me had I shown such an inclination. I never saw the point. But now, thanks to the fun, practical and distinctive mode of transportainment Ural brings to the world, I’d tell you I’d happily take one home if I won it on “The Price is Right,” and would heartily recommend one to a friend who wants to enjoy motorcycling in a different way.