The Motorcycle and Sidecar

July 1, 2009
left front of racer 017

Story and photos by Graham Clayton

These days the sight of a motorcycle fitted with a sidecar is somewhat of a rarity, but there was a time when the motorcycle-sidecar ‘combination’ was highly popular with private enthusiasts, as well as with commercial buyers, police departments and the military.

The earliest motorcycle and sidecar ‘combinations’ began appearing from about 1903 onward. These early examples typically employed a tube-steel frame with an out-runner third wheel that bolted to the bike. Often these rigs were designed to be easily separated from the motorcycle with a minimum of time and effort.

The bikes that powered the first combinations were usually belt-drive singles or twins, displacing anywhere from 250 cc and up. The sidecars themselves were either of wood or wicker fabrication, were fairly lightweight and some sidecars came equipped with canvas or other soft material tops for wet weather and protection against the cold.

Back in the early nineteenth century it wasn’t always considered proper for a woman to ride pillion on a motorcycle, so the sidecar was a definite asset for a young rider looking to take his girl for a ride. Motorcycle sidecar outfits also became a popular form of transport for young families.

At that time, the motorcycle and sidecar had numerous advantages that made it ideally suited for use as a light-load commercial vehicle, both in Canada and the United States. Most roads back then left a lot to be desired, and many were little more than cart tracks with unpredictable surfaces.

In this environment the motorcycle-sidecar unit, being light, reasonably powerful and fairly capable of surviving off-road forays, offered a preferable alternative to a horse and cart. It was faster, more fuel efficient and more affordable than either a car or a truck, and was often better suited for use as either a service or light-load delivery vehicle.

As motorcycle engines became more powerful, motorcycles and motorcycle sidecar outfits became increasingly popular with police departments for use as patrol and pursuit vehicles. In the United States, both Harley-Davidson and Indian recognized the market potential of fleet sales to police departments and competed aggressively in the law enforcement niche market. Special police models were developed by both firms in an effort to one-up each other.

The military also recognized the potential of motorcycle sidecar rigs, the first of which appeared in combat roles during the First World War. One early military version was the machine gun-equipped sidecar unit. This sidecar outfit had a two-man crew consisting of a rider plus a gunner who fired the machine gun from a seated position in the sidecar.

By the 1920’s, mass production and assembly techniques employed in the American auto industry had drastically reduced the cost of building cars. This enabled car makers to price their products within reach of more and more ordinary working people. As a result, cars increasingly displaced motorcycles and sidecar outfits as Americans’ primary source of personal transport.

Given this development, motorcycle manufacturers began to market and sell their machines as high-performance sports vehicles or as up-market lifestyle products for the more affluent buyer. In this changing market, classy looking sidecars fitted to large displacement twins and in-line fours became increasingly popular.

This was not the case in Europe where cars remained outside the financial reach of most working people. Consequently sidecars continued to sell exceedingly well in Europe, largely as affordable family transport and were often hauled by an inexpensive side-valve single or some other utility model motorcycle.

Some motorcycle manufacturers built sidecars for use with their own touring models; H-D was one of the firms that did this. Many other sidecars, however, were built as stand-alone products that could be attached to a wide variety of different motorcycle makes and models. Two of the earliest sidecar manufacturers that supplied generations of sidecar enthusiasts were Watsonian and Steib. Watsonian was founded in England in 1912, while Steib was founded in Germany in 1914.

The 1930’s were a period of faltering sales and flagging profits for many motorcycle manufacturers, but it was also a time of significant innovation and product improvement. It was during the 1930’s that sidecar makers began introducing two-wheel drive to some of their sidecars using various arrangements to provide drive to the sidecar wheel.

By this time sidecars had come to be adapted for a variety of different forms of motorcycle competition, including road racing, grass track racing and trials riding. In off-road competition, the added traction provided by two-wheel drive was a distinct advantage. This resulted in considerable debate at the time over the allowed use of two-wheel drive sidecars in such classes.

One area where its use was not questioned was in the development of military models. Here the need for a sidecar unit better able to traverse sand, mud and rugged terrain was readily recognized. This resulted in numerous two-wheel drive variants being developed by different manufacturers, including some with tracked drive and front wheel steering. These were widely employed during the Second World War by combatants on both sides.

The decade following the end of the Second World War was probably the heyday for motorcycle sidecar sales. Firms all over a recovering war torn Europe began building sidecars. The sidecars sold well as options to be fitted to the ever larger machines being built by the resurgent European motorcycle industry. Premier among the sidecar builders at that time was Steib, by then the world’s leading producer and seller of motorcycle sidecars.

Beginning in 1949, the FIM (motorcycling competition’s World body) launched a new World Championship road racing series for motorcycles, the FIM Grand Prix Series. The new GP series included a separate class for 500 cc displacement racing sidecar outfits.

For the first five years of the new FIM sidecar series, Norton Manx-powered racing sidecars dominated the Championship. That dominance came to an end in 1954 when BMW introduced their new RS Boxer racers. These 500 cc horizontally-opposed, air-cooled twins were ideally configured for modern sidecar road racing with a short motor, low centre of gravity, side-projecting cylinder heads and shaft final drive. The result was that BMW won an unprecedented 19 World Riders’ GP Titles and 20 World Constructors’ GP Titles in the sidecar class between 1954 and 1974.

By the late 1950’s, the days of the motorcycle and sidecar had peaked in western Europe as more and more working people could now afford to buy cars. Steib closed its doors in 1958, but in 1960 sold much of its designs and know-how to two Indian businessmen who established the Cozy Sidecar Company. Cozy produced sidecars both for the Indian market, and also for export, and continues producing sidecars very reminiscent of the Steib bullet designs to this very day.

The development of larger and more powerful motorcycles in the late sixties and seventies enabled sidecar producers to produce larger and better-equipped units, but sales continued to falter in the west. This was not the case in the eastern European countries, nor in the USSR or China where many horizontally-opposed twins (often knock offs of earlier BMW designs) continued to be produced and fitted with sidecars.

In the competition sphere, multi-cylinder two-strokes came to dominate in sidecar road racing, and the sidecar units themselves came to more closely resemble open-wheel formula racing cars rather than street-going motorcycle/sidecar combinations. Today sidecar racing is no longer part of the FIM GP series.

For a long time the basic design layout of sidecar outfits was standardized, except for which side of the bike the chair was connected to. Most of the world, including North America and most of Europe, drives on the right side of the road. Consequently, sidecars in these countries are attached to the right side of the motorcycle and are adjacent to the edge of the road when in operation. By contrast, the UK and Australia drive on the wrong (left) side of the road so their sidecars are attached to the left side of the motorcycle.

Traditionally, the wheels of sidecars were located somewhat forward of the rear wheel of the motorcycle, but well back from its front wheel. This necessitated a particular approach to vehicle operation for which normal solo bike riding instincts and reactions could mess you up.

As with a motorcycle trike, one operates a motorcycle-sidecar in many ways differently than one would operate a solo machine. The offset position of the sidecar wheel can require the rider to pick up a little speed in a right-hand corner to sort of go around the rig which travels a slightly shorter distance through the corner. The opposite can be true for left-handers.

Care also has to be taken when it comes to braking, especially in corners, as the rig can move around under braking. This is because there is more stopping power on the bike than on the chair. Most sidecars are equipped with a wheel brake, either a drum or disc unit, but they have less stopping power than the bike.

Then there is the centrifugal force factor, also experienced in corners, which has to be taken into account by the operator of the rig. It’s worth noting that one of the more recent areas of technological advancement in motorcycle-sidecar design is with combinations that allow the sidecar rider to lean into a corner.

ARMEC sidewinder sidecar outfits have a special linkage system that enables the motorcycle unit to lean either left or right as required, while the sidecar goes around the corner in a flat or level plane. By contrast the California-made Flexit sidecar unit is designed to enable both the motorcycle and the sidecar to lean into the corner in a manner similar to a solo bike.

Today there is a very wide range of sidecar outfits to choose from, some very basic, and others both luxurious and exotic. Some of the earliest manufacturers, like Watsonian-Squire in England, are still building chairs. There are sidecar manufacturers located all across Europe, as well as in North America, Asia and Australia. Many of these manufacturers offer units for both motorcycles and scooters.

Prices for motorcycle sidecars can be as low as about $4,000 for units such as the Cozy that can be ordered with a new Indian-made Royal Enfield 500 cc Bullet. At the other end of the spectrum are top-end luxury units that can be fitted to large capacity standard models, super tourers or big-bore cruisers, and can cost as much as $20,000. Units are available for fitment to a huge range of makes and models as can be seen by taking a quick surf on the Internet.

While sidecars may be a far less common sight today than in the past, there is an active community of sidecar enthusiasts that hold road rides and other events. A starting point for readers interested in learning more about this aspect of the sport might be to check out the Canadian Sidecar Owners Club website at www.csoc.20m.com

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