What if the Willys Jeep had remained in production, from 1941 to present, with all the necessary updates to satisfy environmental regulations? Would people today think anachronism or awesome?
Sadly, we’ll never know, as the U.S. military’s WWII workhorse has been relegated to history. But judging from the Soviet equivalent, which still soldiers on, I’m leaning more toward awesome.
For 2014, Ural has updated its entire range of sidecars with modern accouterments like fuel-injection, disc brakes, and a host of other, smaller changes. The result, at least on Gear-Up model I tested, is a more rider-friendly military classic that’ll still chew through whatever terrain you feed it.
A Bumpy History
To put these upgrades in context, it helps to understand at little bit of Ural history. The basic concept employed across all its bikes is based on blueprints for Germany’s BMW R71, shared with the Soviets as part of the 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Soviet engineers took that bike’s basic layout and bulked it up to help deal with the rigors of a working life spent hauling troops and supplies across Asia and Europe in all weather conditions.
In the years following the WWII, the motorcycle maker’s fortunes fluctuated before ultimately drying up completely as foreign automakers started introducing cheaper, more weather-proof products. It wasn’t until 2000, when Ural was purchased by St. Petersburg entrepreneur Ilya Khait, that things started to turn around. Khait began marketing Ural’s sidecars to Western adventurers — basically, guys trading in big BMW motorcycles for something with more off-road ability. The strategy paid off. Today, more than half of its 1,200-unit annual volume is sold in America.
The 2014 Gear-Up is the product of more than a decade of Khait’s reforms. While the bikes are still made in the same Siberian factory, Ural now buys the more common parts — like engine control units and brake calipers — from specialty suppliers around the world. That helps control costs and ensures both quality and performance.
In Soviet Russia Sidecar Steers You
It also helps with performance. The Gear-Up’s 750cc, air-cooled, opposed-twin motor now churns out 41 bhp and 42 lb-ft of torque in a curve that remains flat from 1,800 to 5,600 rpm. Two ECUs manage a cylinder each, working together to balance out a once-rough idle, and meet ever-more-stringent European emission regulations. They also improve fuel economy to 31mpg (city) and 37 (highway) and provide redundancy should one be knocked out.
Modern manufacturing techniques have also allowed Ural to manufacture wheels with bolt-on drive splines. Where before an entire wheel would need to be rebuilt (or replaced) due to inevitable wear, now you can just bolt on a new hub. Disc brakes were a part of that change. The effect is noticeably sharper braking, shorter braking distances, and consistent performance and feel.
Perhaps the most important change, however, is to the steering damper. Out goes the archaic, friction-type unit that was mounted atop the steering stem. It’s replaced by a modern, hydraulic piston-and-rod damper you’ll see on the latest Ducati.
The unique, uneven, three-wheeled layout of sidecars means they turn right when you roll on the throttle and left when you either roll off it or brake. In the past, with the friction damper, this led to incredibly unstable handling; just keeping the contraption going in a straight line required applying the full force of your back muscles as you pushed and pulled on the handlebars. Where the friction damper would eventually calm the weaves, the hydraulic unit prevents them from initializing in the first place. The effect is a bike that will travel in a straight line, even if you take your hands off the bars. That’s a remarkable difference.
Riding the 2014 Gear-Up through the snowed-in cascades alongside an older model, it was immediately apparent how much easier the new model is to ride. Hill climbs that required multiple shifts on the old bike can now be accomplished in a single gear on the new one. Passing trucks on the highway, the sudden windblast would send the old model weaving around its lane, while the new bike tracked straight and true. Off-road, in the snow, the old engine feels asthmatic and peaky next to the generous flexibility of the 2014 version.
This is not to imply that the Ural sidecar is as easy, fast, or safe as other modern bikes. But for something that hails from pre-war Nazi/Soviet technology sharing, it does a remarkable job of offering an analog alternative that’s just friendly enough to feel applicable to the modern world.