Ural Chronicles

The sidecar body was crushed in shipping. It should have been a sign.

On my first ride, the left muffler exploded. It should have been a sign.

In 1999 I bought a Ural Tourist 650cc from a small, two bay mom and pop motorcycle shop, Timberland Cycles in Farmington, New Hampshire. Ural had recently started importing sidecar and solo motorcycles in to the USA. Most shops that sold them were like Richard’s – small, one person operations. This has since changed. Now, many large dealers sell them. The smaller shops that sell them are more established, bigger than the “garage out back” that Richard had.

I had never driven a sidecar. You don’t ride a sidecar, you drive it, unless you are a passenger along for the ride. Passengers, called monkeys, are friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, spouses, and anyone stupid enough to jump in, hang on, and get a thrill. Dogs love riding in sidecars.

I had taugh myself to ride a motorcycle, which is the stupidest thing a person can do, besides racing on a sidecar as a monkey. I did that too. I taught myself how to ride a solo bike, had three accidents in three months with the worst injury being a broken thumb. I figured I could teach myself how to drive a sidecar rig.

Richard took people out on test drives and on their first drive in a cemetary behind the shop. He said you either figured out how to do it, or they buried you where you crashed. I didn’t crash. My wife had driven me up to get the rig and was headed home when I left on the Ural. The ride was about 80 miles, across southern New Hampshire and in to Massachusetts. The deal was, if I broke down in New Hampshire, it was Richard’s problem. If I crossed the MA/NH line, it was my problem, and therefore my wife’s problem.

A route picked out on a couple of Delorme atlases took me on back roads through small towns. Staying off highways was safer for all involved – me and other drivers.

The rig was amazing! It ran great, tracked straight, brakes worked, it handled curves, revved up freely. Just great. I throttle steered through sweeping left and right sweepers – on throttle drifts you to the right as the weight of the sidecar resists acceleration. Off throttle and you drift left as the sidecar tries to pass the bike. You are able to place the rig anywhere you want on the road with just a turn of your right wrist, without any handlebar input.

Sidecar rigs don’t handle like a motorcycle. Because you cannot lean, there is no counter-steering. This messes up a lot of experienced riders. You want to go left, so without even noticing, you push a solo bikes handlebars right, ever so slightly. Want to go right? Push left.

Push the handlebar right on a sidecar rig, you go right. Push left, you go left. It is second nature to experienced sidecar drivers but not solo bike riders. So many people, driving a sidecar for the first time, end up in a ditch or hit a tree.

I took to it naturally for some reason. Probably because I had bad solo bike habits, or because I was a quick learner, or just dumb and crazy enough to not realize or care.

Sweeping though southern NH, and all of a sudden the engine cut out. Not completely unexpected on a Ural, even a new one. I coasted to the side of the road, turned off the ignition, and sat for a minute. I took a look around the bike and it looked like all the parts were there. Nothing had fallen off – again, not unexpected on a Ural.

Key on, pressed starter and it started right up. I continued on towards home.

The engine cutting out kept happening, so I called Richard. He thought it was because it was a hot day, the engine was new and tight, not yet broken in. He offered to have me come back and he’d look at it. I though he was right about the heat and I really wanted to get home with the rig. I had waited an extra month for a new sidecar body to replace the one that got crushed in shipping. I had a trunk full of tools in a milk crate – even a bottle jack and a dead blow hammer. Why? Because I had the room for them, I like tools, and I would probably need them at some point.

So I continued on. The engine kept cutting out. I kept stopping, key off, key on, restart, drive. Eventually I stopped pulling over and turned the key off and on while dead stick coasting. It got to where I didn’t even use the starter. I just popped the clutch while to rolled along and restarted it.

Popping the clutch restarted it, and every once in a while there would be an afterfire. A little noise – even a loud noise – never hurt anyone so I kept going.

One very loud BANG and the engine was running like crap. Running but seemed like it was on one cyclinder. No power, a lot of noise. Hit the kill switch, coast to a shady spot near a stone wall. Stopped.

I restarted it. It sounded awful. I felt exhaust pulses from the right side and not the left. Turned it off. I started looking for the cause but found nothing. The carbs, the cylinders, the exhaust were all attached. I pulled the plugs and got spark from each side. I smelled gas. I was worried I had holed a piston or busted a valve. I had a compression tester with me – why? because I could – and I had compression.

I was about 3 miles short of the Massachusetts state line.

I called Richard and explained what happened, what I checked, and we couldn’t come up with any solution other than for him coming to get me.

He said it would take him about an hour or two to close up the shop and get the trailer hooked up and come to where I was. I called my wife and she headed up to meet us where I broke down.

By the time Richard go there, I figured out what happened and likely why.

I felt no exhaust from the back, but when I stood beside the bike, I felt pulses ON MY FEET!! The left side exhuast pipe had a 10 inch long, 3 inch wide split along the bottom seam.

This genration Ural had exhausts stamped out of two pieces of steel, welded with seams along the top and bottom. When the engine cut out, the pistons were still pumping gas and it went unburned through the exhaust valve and into the exhaust pipes. When I stopped and waited a bit, the gas evaporated. When I kept coasting and restarting, the gas in the exhaust lit up. Bang-bang-BOOM. Seems enough gas got pooled up in the exhaust pipe that when the engine restarted, there was enough gas built up from frequent engine cut-outs to – BOOM!

By the time Richard and his wife Pam arrived, I had removed the exhaust. Richard looked in my tool crate, got out a roll of duct tape and the dead blow hammer and took the exhaust and beat it into submission against the stone wall. Wrapped it in duct tape, reattached it to the bike and it started right up and sounded great. A perfect example of “What Would Ivan Do?”.

My wife arrived. The bike was running, but needed attention so Richard rode it back with his wife following with their trailer. My wife and I headed home. A few days later Richard had a new pipe on it and it was running great.

Over the next few years, I had many more of this type of experiences and eventually sold the bike.

Almost twenty years later, yesterday, I took delivery of my second Ural motorcycle with a sidecar. I have purchased a new 2021 cT with fuel injection, different exhaust pipes and overall, many, many more improvements. Again, I bought it in New Hampshire and drove it home to Massachusetts, about 80 miles.

I made it home without any issues. It was a great ride.

The next day the speedometer failed.

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