From an excerpt by Andria Yu, USA TODAY , March 29, 2015
Irbit MotorWorks of America sells a sidecar motorcycle called the Ural, based on a design from the 1930s. The company has 10 employees, a mix of Russians and Americans, in Redmond, Wash.
(Photo: Andria Yu, USA TODAY)
Ural motorcycles are steeped in so much history, but the company that essentially runs it today is much like a start-up and, coincidentally is headquartered in Redmond, Wash., with Microsoft and Amazon as neighbours.
Ural sidecar motorcycles were built as battle bikes for the Soviet Red Army. At one time, the factories were pumping out more than 100,000 sidecar bikes a year. Today, Irbit MotorWorks of America, the official affiliate of the Irbit MotorWorks Factory in Irbit, Russia, has 10 employees, a mix of Russians and Americans. Irbit MotorWorks of America (IMWA) is the direct importer and global distributor of Urals.
I was invited to IMWA's headquarters to test the newest Ural, the cT. It's Ural's stripped down model, and the least expensive, starting at ($19,300 Aud). Unlike the other models with two-wheel drive, the cT is one-wheel drive and doesn't come with extras such as a spare wheel, knee grips, tool bag, passenger grab handles or spotlight, though they can be added.
The idea behind the cT, according to IMWA's CEO Ilya Khait, is to create a sidecar bike that would attract riders unfamiliar with the brand, and create a motorcycle with more urban riders and commuters in mind. The cT handles easier than traditional Urals, Khait says. "We wanted the experience to be a little bit closer to what riders experience on regular motorcycles, just to make the transition easier from regular bikes to sidecar bikes." It has a lower center of gravity and the steering was made to be as light as possible.
Unlike regular motorcycles, in which the rider counter steers and leans into turns, a sidecar motorcycle is direct-steer, more like four-wheelers or snowmobiles.
"Last year, on our demo tour, a lot of people liked the bike, the concept, the look, the heritage," Khait says, but when they tried it, it was so different from what they knew before that they were sometimes put off by it. "So we got this feeling we need to come up with something more – civilized. Closer to what people expect to feel," Khait says. "So we came up with the cT."
Urals are modeled after a late-model 1930s BMW R71 sidecar motorcycle. Although no one seems to know the actual story of how the Russians got the engineering (not even the folks at Irbit MotorWorks), the going story is that Nazi Germany provided the Soviet Union an R71 after the countries signed a nonaggression pact in 1939. Another story is that the Soviets bought several R71s through an intermediary country and Soviet engineers took the bikes apart and reverse engineered them for production in Russia.Russia has been building Urals since 1941. Originally built for the military during World War II, the motorcycles have been sold as civilian vehicles since the 1950s.
Although the motorcycles today are still manufactured and built in Irbitz, Russia, (with several components such as the alternator and brakes imported from Japan and elsewhere), IMWA is legally an American company.
Irbit MotorWorks of America CEO Ilya Khait in the warehouse area of the Redmond, Wash., headquarters. (Photo: Andria Yu, USA TODAY)
According to Khait, Irbitskiy Mototsikletniy Zavod, or IMZ, was privatized in the early 1990s. Khait and his investors bought it in 2000. He then moved the headquarters and established the company in the United States to more easily attract investors, he says.
North America became Ural's biggest market in 2005, surpassing Europe, although sales are still pretty small. Growth in the U.S. has been modest, but over 10 years they have doubled sales from 300 to about 600 bikes. Asia is also a market of interest, Khait says. Last year, IMWA sold 160 bikes to Asia -- about half of those to China.
Ural probably had one of the largest motorcycle factories in Europe, says Khait. "We used to have almost 10,000 people" working at the factory, producing 132,000 bikes a year. After privatization, "we had to squeeze the company into a size that was sustainable," and today there are about 140 people employed in the Ural factory, producing a little over 1,000 motorcycles per year, Khait says.
Despite the political situation in Russia (sanctions by the U.S. and European Union over the situation in Ukraine and Crimea), there hasn't been too much impact on Ural sales, Khait says, although he admits there were a few months of worry when there were talks of trade embargos and whether they could get spare parts and other supplies from Russia. However, the sanctions only applied to the Russian government and certain officials.
"We have no relations to the government, thank god," Khait says.
When the ruble's value plummeted, it was a gain in a sense because a lot of Ural's expenses were in rubles, "so that helped," Khait says. However, because inflation in Russia is high, "I think by the end of this year, it'll be a wash," he says.
Also helping cushion the effect is that many components used on the bike are imported to Russia, and the components are bought in Euros, so again, the ruble's value has very little impact.
The company is also not dependent on the domestic market, Khait says. "Overall sales (in Russia) are very small. We sold 60 motorcycles in Russia last year." Why?
"For Russians, it's still fairly expensive. Second, we have an image in Russia that the Ural is a bike for people from farms to move potatoes. … People with money go for higher end" vehicles, Khait says. "The battle is with the old image."
"We are probably the only company in Russia that exports 90% of output," says Khait.
Although the bike has been updated since the 40s models, it has the ride and feel of a vintage. Actually, it has the feel of a tank.
The 749 cc cT is not fast (cruising speed is best at around 70 mph), partly because of its weight: 335kgs dry. Much of the bike is constructed of Russian steel and aluminum, unlike many motorcycles today that use lots of plastic for fairings and parts. But speed was not what it was built for, it's built for durability (think rough, unpaved terrain and harsh Siberian winters).
The cT has a gearbox with four forward gears and one reverse. You engage the forward speeds as you would any other motorcycle, but to engage reverse, you use a lever found behind the gearbox. For a bike that size, reverse is useful, especially to manoeuvre into and out of parking spaces. It also has a parking brake, which most motorcycles don't have.
Shifting is clunky due to the straight-cut gears, which make the gearbox very durable, but it requires committed shifting. In other words, sometimes you have to bang your foot on the shifter to make it slip into place.
The Ural cT navigates a potholed Tinkham Road with ease. (Photo: USA TODAY)
The cT is equipped with disc brakes on all three wheels, an upgrade from drum brakes on the rear and sidecar just a few years back. Overall, braking was solid, but you have to take it for what it is. It's not a sportbike with touchy brakes that can stop on a dime. You'll need to be a little more aware of traffic conditions, and, like the shifting, be purposeful in stopping. The stopping sensation can be a bit squirmy, especially on uneven road surfaces. Part of this is because of the physics of having an attached sidecar that also has a braking wheel.
All Urals are now fuel-injected instead of carbureted. The cT still has a kick start, but it also comes with an electric start. As for fuel efficiency, the bike uses about 7.5 ltr to 100km.
Don't expect too much comfort on the cT. The suspension is built to take a beating, so you pay in comfort, both on the bike and in the sidecar, with a harsher ride. But the Ural will happily bounce over potholes that could cripple most other motorcycles and keep chugging .
My passenger and I took turns driving the bike. We took the cT through the streets of downtown Seattle, where it maneuvered easily through traffic. We were a little worried when stopped on steep hills, especially since it's difficult to get moving again without rolling back because the brakes had to be heavily engaged and you must also get the bike into gear. So whenever possible, we'd pull up to stop just over the hill's crest.
We also took the motorcycle up to Snoqualmie Pass, riding along Interstate 90 and through the forest via Tinkham Road, a heavily pot-holed semi-dirt trail with great scenic views.
Although the cT is one-wheel drive, no pothole was big enough to stop it. And it didn't have any issues riding over a snow-packed road when we reached higher elevations. In that sense, the cT was less like a motorcycle and more like a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle.
Ural didn't do much to change the look of the cT, or any of their other models. The retro round headlight style is intact, as is the bike's frame, fender and tractor-style seat (though that can be swapped out for a comfy bench seat). In fact, Ural kept much of the design unchanged since the 40s, but that's what makes the bike stand out as well.
Also very retro is the speedometer, in that the needle bounces during the ride so that you're not sure if you're doing 100kph or 110kph. We used a GPS device to track the speed and compared that with the speedo. It was about 5kph off on average.
An auxiliary fuse panel in the sidecar makes fitting additional electrical devices such as a 12-volt power source or lights fairly easy. A power source really comes in handy for plugging in mobile devices such as a GPS, your smartphone or even heated gear.
The 80ltr trunk space in the sidecar isn't huge, but it easily fit two open-face helmets and a backpack or three large backpacks.
There is a learning curve to operating a motorcycle with a sidecar. Turning to the left too quickly (or in the direction of the sidecar) and physics will lift the sidecar off the ground. The wrong move, such as straightening the steering when the car is lifted, will cause the bike to tip over, as I have done.
The good thing about the bike is that the heavy-duty exhaust bracket is strong enough to hold the weight of the bike and sidecar without bending. Granted, I did not have a passenger in the sidecar when I tipped the bike. The bike has an engine protection bar, as well, for such tipping incidents.
They heavy-duty exhaust bracket can hold the weight of the sidecar. (Photo: Andria Yu, USA TODAY)
It rides like a very primitive bike, but the simplicity makes it more durable for off-road adventures and every day use and abuse. And because it lacks the sophisticated electronics, if something breaks on the Ural, the company says you can likely fix it on the side of the road. It's like old cars that allow just about anyone to tinker with it and replace parts because there are no complicated computers or electronics.
Reliability has come a long way over the past 15 years, though the bikes still have their fair share of issues. If you look on some of the online forums, there number of customer complaints, but Khait says the company tries to work closely with its consumer base.
"We pick up many ideas from customers," and use their input in research and development. For example, Khait says, "We used to use a Russian made alternator which was like a piece of crap. It was a disaster. Twenty percent failure rate." One day, Khait says, a Ural owner he met at a meetup told him: "'I found this alternator, and if you build this kind of adaptor, you can solve this problem.' So we took his advice, went to the manufacturer of the alternator (Denso), built an adaptor and we have been using it ever since."
This was 10 years ago, Khait says. "This is what I love about this project," everything is very grassroots and the motorcycle's design can be tweaked fairly quickly since they don't have to deal with design teams or boards of directors. "We participate in various web forums, such as sovietsteeds.com," Khait says, and he sometimes comments on questions or complaints on the forums himself. "If I feel I need to jump on, I just do it."
Khait admits the bike is not for everyone. If you expect refinement in your ride, or if you tend to want a lot of dealer support and maintenance, it's probably not for you. (There are about 50 dealers in the United States, but many are not Ural specialists and most often there is only one dealer in a state). But during the test ride, the sidecar motorcycle proved to be a real blast. It attracts a lot of attention and questions wherever you go, and you can drive it over any terrain. If you don't have a passenger, the sidecar can be used for additional storage for groceries, books, camping equipment, etc. For adventurous souls, it could be the perfect vehicle to explore the country with, and if you're handy, you can probably fix anything on the bike with parts from any auto or hardware store, which you really can't do with most motorcycles today.
"Ural is about a mindset," Khait says. "It's a combination of utilitarian and fun."