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URAL 650: The Russian Bomb By Frank Melling
MotorCycleWorld Feb, 1976

"If Russian motorcycles are any 
indication of their missile 
quality, we can all sleep in peace."

Facing the North Atlantic is Liverpool - one of Britain's greatest seaports. Feeding into the mouth of the River Mersey, on whose estuary Liverpool is built, is a canal. Not just a water-filled ditch but a gigantic channel in which ocean-going ships ply their trade as happily as if they were at sea. The canal goes inland to Manchester, which although some thirty miles from the sea, has itself become a major port.

The Manchester Ship Canal is a tribute to the skill of Victorian engineering and the sweat of the men of that day who dug out the billions of tons of rocks largely by hand. It is spanned by bridges big, strong, solid structures of iron girders and massive rivets; huge beams of steel and polished brass fitments. unfailing, these bridges swing open to allow the passage of ships and close at once to let the land-locked cars continue on their journey. They are ruled by the men in dark blue uniforms who, like the bridges, do their job with little show or style but with uncompromising efficiency. Like the bridges, they are creatures almost of another era, quiet, methodical almost dour men. Solid and reliable like the bridges whith which they live.

"Seperate seats have been replaced by dual
seat on newer models, but now there's no
place to tie up your watchdog to discourage

Jock McCormack is a bridge keeper and a motorcyclist. When he wanted a new machine he sought neither speed nor sophistication. Bright chrome and a plethora of insturments were of no interest to him. What Jock wanted was a working machine. Solid, honest and reliable without any frills. A Manchester Ship Canal bridge on wheels. He chose a 650 Ural Twin and its accompanying side car.

One look at the Ural will tell you that it is solid. The frame and the sidecar chassis would hold a Dodge truck engine with no effort whatsoever. The paint-work is black (although brigher hues of red and blue are available). Thick, solid unmoveable paint but unfortunately with a preponderance of runs caused by rather over-enthusiastic application. The mudguards are massive and have mudflaps which defy any water trying to pass them.

Then there is the engine. A flat twin-BMW style with cylinders sticking out in the breeze and not ashamed to show its inner workings. The push-rod tubes there for all to see as is the shaft drive and the 6-volt dynamo hopefully clamped onto the top of the crankcase. It looks what it is--a motorcycle in the old style. Uncompromisingly a motorcycle with no pretensions to the Japanese concept of a two-wheeled car.

I liked the look of it and when I went down to Jock's charming cottage on the banks of the Ship Canal I was in a state of high delight at the thought of getting back to the essence of motorcycling. The Ural is started by a kickstart which is side mounted so it would be essential to have the bike on a centre stand if it were a solo. In side-car trim, there is no problem. Two or three prods will result in a diesel-like chuffing issuing forth from the silencers. Those kicks will also tell you that the compression ratio is very low, only 7:1 in actual fact. This is because the engine is designed to run on Eastern Bloc fuel of very low octane rating and any attempt to feed it Hi-Test gas will result in burnt pistons or valves.

In my youth, I had owned a number of sidecar outfits and at one time even had hopes of racing one so this aspect of the Ural was no problem. What did make life difficult was the fact that the engine misfired on one cylinder. Later, we were to discover a more interesting trait.

"Shaft drive is copy of BMW. Oil
leaks are Russian Improvements."

It soon became apparent that the Ural was not a machine which thrived on revs. At about 2,500-3,000 rpm it was more then ready for the next higher gear in the 4-speed box and this was easily selected with the left-hand footshift -- still retaining the old rocking pedal change. If anything, the gears went in smoother and more quietly then the vintage BMW's to which the bike owe's its origin. This is probably due to the very low engine speeds at which the changes are made. Even so, coming down the box in anything approaching a sporty fashion was not recommended.

On arriving home from Jock's cottage, now more or less accustomed to the Ural's vagaries of handling, which, at the most charitable, might be described as strange, I picked up the rest of our testing team. Since the Ural is specifically designed to transport a full family we decided to make one. In this case, my wife Carolyn, MCW's resident British wrench Colin Wilkinson and Kim the Carin Terrier, a 12 year old canine biker of vast experience and enthusiam.

"Too bad that brake drums are not round.
Braking times were improved noticeably
by roadtester dragging his feet."

Chuffing out on the road we soon reached our optimum cruising speed of 55mph. This was identical to the results obtained riding solo and would no doubt be the same if we were towing a small motorhome. The Ural flat twin motor might only give you 32bhp but it can certianly pull.

It also had a nasty habit of not shutting off on one cylinder when the throttle was closed. Apparently this was due to a leak in the induction manifold which the local Ural dealers had never managed to trace. This can be annoying on a solo outfit but on a sidecar outfit it is positively suicidal. A side-car is steered largely with the throttle and all sorts of odd things can happen if the motor won't respond as required. This, combined with the failure to run on two cylinders coming out of a corner, made life interesting.

When it was running on two cylinders, the ride was plesant and fun. The warm summer breezes were heavily scented with the aromas of the forth coming harvest and the smell of burning oil dripping on the exhaust pipes made for a real authentic mid-1930's ride.  The motor burbled on and we trundled along the twisting Cheshire lanes enjoying the motorcycling in the traditional fasion. Then, quite unexpectedly, we came upon and olde worlde farmer taking his cows from their milking parlour to the pasture across the road. As we slewed to a halt about three thousandths of an inch from one of his price $500 beasts, we got a good selection of deleted expletives and, I think, were quite lucky to escape with our lives since the ancient tiller of the soil was last seen heading for the house in search of his rather more modern automatic shotgun.

The difficulty lay in the Ural's brakes, which seemed to be more of a decorative nature then genuine retarders of the forward motion. Perhaps some of their difficulty lay in their shape--rather more elliptical then round--which led to an interesting on-off on-off action that was very amusing. After some time they did begin to make their presence felt and then problem number 2 arose. The tires. Sadly, on the dreadful bone dry tarmac offering perfect grip, they tended to slide somewhat in the fasion of Dunlops trying to find grip on oily glass.

After an hour on the bike, and with the driver fast developing arms like an athletic orangutan, (you just gotta master these here Russkie bikes) we stopped for a break and a photographic session.  On trying to start up again, we discovered that the Ural just would not re-start. Later, Jock told us that this happened on occasions but not to worry about it. Thus, Colin and myself were faced with the daunting prospect of a push-start--just like the Isle of Man T. T.  After some 50 yards, the big twin did fire and then promptly stuck on full throttle.  "Gee, Mom, look at that big black sidecar outfit dragging those two guys along the road. That's real neat." Yes, you've guessed it, Jock also told me about this little trick later on.

All three wheels of the Ural are interchangeable and a spare tire one is carried on the rear of the sidecar. This is convienent and very useful because judging from the degree of misalignment prevalent in the rear one--litterally discernible from six feet with the naked eye--wheel swapping would be a regular chore on a long journey.

However, the most frightening part of the whole trip was when we came upon a group of walkers in a narrow lane. Slowing down some half-mile from the group (we bike testers learn fast) I gave a precautionary honk on the horn and a stowaway frog appeared from under the frame. This caused Kim the Cairn, who has a pathological hatred of frogs, to lean across and bite pillion riding Cilin who, the dog was sure, was harbouring the reptile. I gave another honk, the frog croaked again and Kim lunged into the attack. Obviously, this was a serious situation since we cannot have frogs hitching lifts indiscriminately on test bikes so we stopped to investigate. Then the light dawned: the frog was in fact the bikes's horn making a dull croaking sound in response to my demand to make a honk. On discovering this, Kim promptly attacked the bike and from then on we shouted out the warnings.

Yet despite all the bike's failings, each one of us was sorry to see it go.  The Ural was like a keen but dull child. It might not have been able to write beautiful essays but it gave of its best all the time. For that reason, the bike and its concept is not beyond redemption.

Jock's bike was a bad one, and now apparently the cause of a lawsuit. That it started out its life on the wrong side of the tracks is the fault of the Russian factory and certainly the quality control, and to a lesser extent, design, needs to be tightened up before these machines will ever make a real impact on the Western world. For sure, they are not a Russian MZ or CZ.

Equally at fault were the dealers who in this case took on the agency when they could not get one of the established marques and then to relieve themselves of the responsibility when they managed to get a Kawasaki franchise. The bike made numerous visits to the dealer's workshop for a whole range of faults to be corrected and little, if any, improvement, was registered.

This attitude is bad enough in the case of the Japanese bike where the motorcycle needs no setting up and will run for extended periods with minimal maintenance. In the case of the specialist machine like the Ural, it is simply suicide for the owner.

We can only report on what we find. Were we to do other then this, then every manufacturer would expect there to be some latitude for his machines. In this case, we took a low-mileage machine, less then four months old, and reported as we found it. This is hard on Satra, the importers, but still fair. Having done that, let us indulge in a little conjecture based on known facts. 

Lets look at another hypothetical Ural and evaluate it.

We would want to keep the chassis of Jock's bike and the large solid sidecar. The interchangeable wheels would be fine provided the wer built true and onto circular hubs which would provide reasonable stopping power. The paint work is good and strong and the big mudguards would suit the prospective Ural owner perfectly. A dual seat is already fitted on later models so this problem has already been overcome. We would like the wiring to be neater and the horn and flashing indicators to function in a resonable fashion.

This leaves us with the handling and the motor. These Ural's can be setup to steer well with a sidecar and the front fork action can be improved to be at least adequate. Private owners have already done this in England. Satra must therefore make the factory do this work or force the dealers in Britian to do it properly, or even have a top-class mechanic wandering about modifying the forks and setting up the sidecars. It can be done with the existing parts, so it should be.

The engine is raced in sidecar motocross by the Russians and is quite competetive up to Grand Prix level. The best units give over 60 hp so there is obviously very little wrong with the basic design. Similarly, they finish races and with Russian drivers at the throttle, that is quite a compliment. This being the case, uprating the motor to say, 40 hp, is not unreasonable and quite feasible without loosing any flexability. Also, it would then be quite happy to run on Western low octane fuel, which at present is almost too rich a brew to be comfortable. In the process, rid the unit of some of the more major oil leaks. Allowing for some price increase, we now have a motorcycle sidecar outfit selling at $1,500 on the dealers's showroom floor.

Cheap to buy, cheap to run and a lot of fun, the hypothetical Ural would be a top seller. However, MCW's Ural is not, at this moment in time. The Ural's are coming into the USA in th enear future and it will be interesting to see in what form they arrive--MCW's test bike, or our dream bike.     [end]