By Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times NYT
Published: May 28, 2011
This is the story of how a dying Soviet-era industry and an aging biker population in the United States met and found happiness together on the streets and highways of America.
Think of it as Easy Rider, the golden years.
It started as a matter of survival for the Irbit Motor Works, which for decades had churned out its signature Ural motorcycle with sidecar attachment, but which discovered that its business was sputtering into the Post-Communist sunset like so many other Soviet enterprises.
Irbit found salvation in an unlikely niche market: older American riders seeking utility, not thrills or spills. Suddenly the sidecar, a seemingly anachronistic product evoking a World War II newsreel, had a new life among the late middle-aged.
The company shifted its sales strategy overseas in the 1990s and today, despite its deep roots in Russia as the purveyor to the Red Army, it sends 60 percent of its output to the United States.
For the target male consumer, the born-to-run ideal of a motorcycle mama on the back has given way to a spouse or girlfriend riding alongside, holding the dog or the groceries.
Irbit and its dealerships say older bikers represent their core market, but the bike-sidecar combination has also begun to catch on with a younger generation of riders, couples who find its retro look appealing.
«In the Soviet Union, our motorcycle was a workhorse,» said Vladimir N. Kurmachev, Irbit’s factory director. «Now it is an expensive toy.»
David Reich, 65, a retired carpenter in Salem, Ore., bought a white Ural Patrol from a dealership there last year.
«It’s something my wife and I can both enjoy,» he said in a telephone interview. They considered buying two bikes, he said, but decided on the sidecar so his wife, Jeanne, would not have to get a motorcycle license. Also, they could chat while touring.
«I am having a ball!» Jeanne Reich wrote in an e-mail. «I enjoy cruising along a few inches off the road with nothing to do but take in the view.»
Peter terHorst, the spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, said the average age of its 230,000 members was 48. As people’s strength and coordination wane, he said, “you see them transitioning to the sidecar.”
«Older couples say it’s just not comfortable to double up,» Mr. Kurmachev said during a tour of the shop floor, where sidecars are polished, painted and installed standard on nearly every bike.
Irbit, known by its Russian acronym IMZ, says it is the only motorcycle manufacturer in the world selling stock sidecars in volume; some BMW and Harley-Davidson dealers have sold them as options, though Harley is discontinuing sidecar production.
Sidecars, while popular with some riders, still account for a fraction of the motorcycle market in the United States, said Ty van Hooydonk, a spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade group. The makers do not disclose sales figures, he said.
Irbit’s factory sits on the rim of a ramshackle town of wooden buildings and rutted dirt roads on the Siberian side of the Urals, with a statue of Lenin still in the main square. It is operating, but at greatly diminished capacity compared with its 1970s heyday, when it produced up to 130,000 vehicles a year. Assembly lines have closed and the motorcycles are now built by hand.
A ride in a sidecar can be either exhilarating or, for those not accustomed to the sensation, terrifying. Set low to the ground, the sidecar tends to rise into the air on right-hand turns. The bike is street legal in all 50 states. But because the entire three-wheel contraption is legally a motorcycle, no seat belt is provided or required. With United States sales rising, Irbit says it is studying an air bag for the sidecar.
The Ural is a heavy, 40-horsepower motorcycle whose two cylinders jut sideways from the frame. It is modeled after a late-1930s BMW sidecar bike called the R71, which Nazi Germany provided to the Soviet Union after the countries signed a nonaggression pact in 1939. When the Nazis broke this pact and invaded, the Russians used the bike to fight them.
Irbit stopped building military models in 1955 and began focusing on a civilian market of hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and owners of summer homes.
With the end of the command economy, subsidized steel and cheap labor, the factory was forced to raise its prices, and sales in Russia fell sharply. Older sidecars can still be seen in Russia carrying hay, heads of lettuce and planks of wood. But Irbit sold only 20 motorcycles in Russia last year, and the owners say that the factory would have died without sales to the United States.
Before the recent recession, Irbit sold 650 Urals a year in the United States, and says it is on track to reach that level again this year, through 48 dealers around the country. A low-end Ural-sidecar combo sells for about $10,000. Over all, the factory plans to build 1,100 units in 2011.
The popularity of the sidecar in America was nurtured by motorcycle enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest, where the bikes were first imported in 1993 in small numbers.
Bikers were mesmerized by the Ural’s highly retro design, and some got a kick out of the machine gun mount on the model exported to America — a feature that had long since disappeared from the Soviet civilian machines.
«We had customers who put on fake machine guns,» Jim Petitti, the owner of Raceway Services in Salem, Ore., a Ural dealership, said by telephone. «It kind of faded because the cops gave them such a hassle.»
Sales of the Ural picked up as dealers identified the bike’s appeal to older couples no longer happy riding on the same seat.
«Husbands and wives have been riding together for years,» said Mr. Petitti, characterizing typical Ural clients. «Finally, the old solo bike becomes too heavy to hold up. The wife doesn’t want to ride behind the husband. She can’t see. Present her with her own cockpit, and she’s ready to rejoin the adventure.»
Irbit says that while older bikers carried it through a difficult spell, younger American couples are also drawn to it.
«They are good-looking bikes,» Elena Gonzalez, 24, a registered nurse, said in a telephone interview from Miami, where she lives with her new husband, John, a firefighter. The couple rode their Ural to their wedding.
«We were going to get a limo, and then we thought, ‘let’s just go on the motorcycle, it will be fun,’» Ms. Gonzalez said.