Rebirth of the sidecar

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Published on 14 June 2019 by Mike Waters

Wildly popular in earlier decades, the sidecar combination experienced a dramatic decline in popularity and only now are they becoming fashionable once again. We look at the rise, fall and rise again of a motorcycling icon.

Sidecars are a rare sight on the UK’s roads these days, but a hardcore following still keeps the flame alight. A new contingent is discovering the joys of riding on three wheels instead of two.

But what happened to cause the rapid rise and equally rapid fall in popularity of the motorcycle and sidecar combination – and what is driving the resurgence of interest?

Surprisingly, the sidecar predates the motorcycle. The concept of the sidecar is usually attributed to M. Bertoux, a French army officer who won a newspaper competition in 1893 designed to find the best way of transporting a passenger on a bicycle. The year of 1893 was the dawn of internal combustion road transport but, within a few years, Bertoux’s concept was being applied to the new motorcycles beginning to appear. In 1903, the first patent for a motorcycle sidecar was granted to W. J. Graham in Enfield, England. Production began immediately.

In the period prior to World War I, a motorcycle was often the only means of transport for the family. It was no surprise that newly formed motorcycle manufacturers quickly saw the appeal in increasing the passenger-carrying capacity of their products too.

Triumph in the UK, Harley-Davidson and Thor in the US, and Europe’s Peugeot were all developing their own sidecars in this period. In 1912, the Patent Collapsible Sidecar Company was formed by Thomas Frederick Watson to cater for brands that didn’t have their own sidecars and it is still producing them to this day under the moniker Watsonian Squire.

Innovations to the original, rather primitive, design quickly materialised. The Flxible Sidecar Company (the spelling is a deliberate attempt to avoid copyright issues) was formed in 1913 with an ingenious flexible coupling that meant the passenger’s movements would no longer affect the balance of the rider. Flxible quickly became the world’s largest manufacturer. On this side of the Atlantic, the Swallow Sidecar Company was formed and eventually went on to become Jaguar Cars.

Motorcycle and sidecar combinations quickly gained traction as practical load-carrying mules. They were especially useful for deliveries – a development which saw them renamed ‘package trucks’ – or as municipal workhorses and breakdown recovery vehicles.

World War I saw a rise in their fortunes as they provided the ideal method for moving Vickers machine guns quickly and easily. The sidecar was employed in World War II as well, particularly by German troops operating BMW and Zündapp motorcycles.

After the war, many family men would buy a cheap ex-military BSAs or Nortons and bolt on a sidecar rather than taking what was widely seen as a daunting test to drive a car. But, by this time, mass production meant cheap cars were becoming widely available and, in many cases, the cost of a motorcycle and sidecar was greater. The decline and extinction of the sidecar as a practical and economical means of transport seemed assured.

A brief revival occurred after more stringent motorcycle licensing laws were introduced in the UK. A legal loophole meant 17-year-olds could ride a motorcycle of unlimited capacity with a sidecar fitted.

This resulted in products like the Sidewinder. This was a clip-on, low-cost version of a sidecar, never intended for passenger use, which allowed a learner to ride a CBX1000 with the attachment rather than a solo 125cc. The DVSA’s direct access riding tests soon closed the loophole and the Sidewinder became a footnote in motorcycling history.

By the 1970s and 1980s motorcycle combinations had become something worthy of satire, appearing as a comedy twist in programmes like On the Buses and George and Mildred, then Last of the Summer Wine, Two Fat Ladies and Wallace and Gromit. A particular comedy staple became the sidecar and passenger staying put while the motorcycle and rider roared away – a joke that dates back to the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup. Truly, the sidecar had reached its lowest ebb.

Today, most modern motorcyclists will have never ridden in a sidecar combination, let alone driven one with a passenger on board. This is a real shame because there is a unique thrill to learning how to power and steer a combination. A new set of skills have to be learned – steering takes place by turning the front wheel, while concepts like lean-out and toe-in need to be grasped.

In fact, there are few common skills between riding a combination and a solo motorcycle. However, the joy of hustling a three-wheeled combination along a twisty country road or ‘lofting’ the sidecar and passenger on corners is not lost on those who have developed the skill.

It has taken decades for sidecar riding to become popular again, but the changing nature of motorcycling means there is a place in the heart of British motorcyclists for the once-derided sidecar. This is partly due to an ageing motorcycling population, with many older riders opting to add a sidecar rather than abandoning riding motorcycles entirely. Meanwhile, an increasing number of younger riders are seeing the benefits and thrills of sidecar riding with new eyes and appreciating the unique pleasures involved.

A sizable number of companies still offer them. Harley-Davidson is one of the few major motorcycle companies still making sidecars for their bikes, as they have done since 1915, and Ural is another. Sidecar companies like Watsonian and Liberty continue to produce sidecars, and even replicas of the iconic Steib sidecars are once more available. The age of electrified transport will produce new opportunities too, as the sidecar provides ideal extra carrying capacity for batteries and electrical ancillaries.

Associations like the Federation of Sidecar Clubs provide a good first point of contact for anyone thinking of taking up a life on three wheels, and practical guidance is available from bespoke training schools. There is even a museum solely devoted to the history of the sidecar: the International Sidecar Museum in Italy. It’s been long time coming, but sidecars are cool once more.

This feature originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the BMF’s magazine, Motorcycle Rider

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