When Three Wheels Are Better Than Four

Mention ‘Urals’ to most people, and they’ll probably think of the Ural Mountains – a range that runs from north to south through western Russia, from the coast of the Arctic Ocean to the Ural River and north-western Kazakhstan, forming part of the conventional boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia.

Photo of Ural Mountains
Ural Mountains

But for keen motorcyclists and military historians, the name might instead conjure up images of two-cylinder BMW-inspired motorcycle-and-sidecar combinations that helped keep Russia mobile during the Second World War.

In 1940, the Soviet Union acquired the design and production techniques for the BMW R71 motorcycle and sidecar. The result: the first Ural model, the M-72, completed in 1941.

Originally, they were produced in three factories in Moscow, Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and Kharkov, but as the Nazi troops approached, the Moscow facilities were moved to Irbit in the Urals, and the Leningrad and Kharkov facilities to Gorky (now called Nizhny Novgorod).

Photo of Ural Motorcycle
Ural Motorcycle

Joseph Stalin had ordered the Soviet military to prepare for a Nazi invasion. Mobility was a priority, especially in view of the Germans’ blitzkrieg rapid advance tactics used in Poland. So the Soviet Defence Ministry decided to develop a motorcycle for the Red Army to use (their existing models were outdated and their quality was inadequate to endure the harsh Russian climate and terrain).

The solution was based on a late-1930s BMW motorbike and sidecar (the R71), which Nazi Germany provided to the Soviet Union after the countries signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. Five units were purchased and dismantled by Soviet engineers, who reverse-engineered the BMW design in every detail, making moulds and dies to produce engines and gearboxes in Moscow. One of those original BMWs survives to this day, and is on display in the IMZ-Ural factory museum.

As the Nazi invasion drew closer, it was decided to move the Moscow plant east to Irbit in the Ural Mountains. The only building big enough was a brewery outside the town, which was converted into a research and development building to prepare for the construction of a massive new facility to build the M-72 motorcycle.

On 25 October 1942, the first batch went to the front. During the war, a total of 9799 M-72s were delivered for reconnaissance detachments and mobile troops.

After the war, the factory was expanded, and in 1950, the 30 000th motorcycle was produced. Initially, the Ural was built for the military only. In the late 1950s, the KMZ plant in Ukraine took over military supply, while the Irbit Motorcycle Works (IMZ) focused on making bikes for domestic consumers. Exports began in 1953, and between 1973 and 1979, Ural was one of the makes marketed by SATRA in the UK as Cossack motorcycles.

Today, the main products are the heavy-duty Ural sidecar motorcycles with two-wheel-drive designed for rough, rugged terrain, and the cT model for urban commuting and paved road touring. They now have four-stroke, fuel injected air-cooled flat-twin engines, a four-speed gear box with reverse gear, shaft drive, two-disc dry clutch, spring shock absorbers, and disc brakes on all three wheels.

Photo of a new model of Ural motorcycle
A new model of Ural motorcycle

The number sold since the factory was founded exceeds 3.2 million. IMZ-Ural is the only Russian manufacturer of large capacity motorcycles and one of few manufacturers of sidecar motorcycles in the world.