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The Russians are here: Longtime Harley-Davidson devotee finds another bike that measures up

By Mark Glover
Bee Auto Editor
(Published Dec. 22, 2000)

 In the world of motorcycles, where brand loyalty runs white-hot, Bob Blackburn has ventured outside the box.

 Blackburn -- owner of Bob's American Motorcycle Sales & Service in Citrus Heights and a longtime rider, seller and repairer of that most-American of bikes, the Harley-Davidson -- recently began selling ... Russian-made motorcycles.

 "Some people think I'm a traitor," Blackburn said with a hearty laugh during a recent visit to his shop at 5948 Auburn Blvd.

 Blackburn, a 54-year-old native of Nevada City, has been selling primarily used Harleys for the past five years, but he recently became one of only a handful of California bike dealers sanctioned to sell Russian-made Ural Motorcycles.

 Bike novices not familiar with the Ural brand typically are surprised to learn that most Ural bikes come with an attached sidecar.

 While the Ural name might not sound familiar, it has been around for quite some time.

 Urals have been produced since 1939 by Irbit Motorcycle Works in the mountainous industrial region of eastern Russia. Urals were used for civilian and military transportation in Russia for decades.

 Company officials said straight up that the Ural was a virtual copy of a BMW motorcycle made in the 1930s. And the Urals that descended from the BMWs did heavy duty in World War II.

 Officials said it was Soviet leader Josef Stalin who ordered the original motorcycle-production factory moved out of Moscow to the Siberian site in the Ural Mountains, the better to keep the facility going full blast and out of reach of German bombers.

 Ural bikes were not introduced to the United States, however, until 1993. The tastes American customers have prompted the manufacturer to build various upgrades and styling touches into the motorcycles. Most significant for Blackburn, Urals met California emission standards on Jan. 1 this year.

 Blackburn conceded that he was not immediately sold on Urals.

 I had seen them at a trade show, and at first, I was not impressed," he said. " ... Then I went back and saw it again. They kind of grow on you."

 Blackburn said he liked the sturdiness of construction (steel is used for most of the main body structure), reliable engines and the roomy, comfortable sidecars. He figured the durable motorcycles and the extra touch of a sidecar would match up nicely with the fraternity of Northern California motorcycle enthusiasts.

 "I've been a motorcycle buff all my life, and I was impressed with what I saw (in the Urals). I decided to expand my horizons," he said.

 Urals come in "Cruiser" models, built primarily for street use, and in "Rugged" models, which can travel over all kinds of terrain and clear snow out of the way.

 Blackburn noted that even the "street" bike is built to endure a lot of punishment.

 "One of the first things I learned was that in Russia, people don't have the luxury of having (repair) shops right down the street. These bikes are built to last; they're very well built," Blackburn said.

 The standard motor on a Ural is a four-stroke, 649cc opposed twin "Boxer" rated at 35 horsepower. Fuel tanks hold five gallons. Sidecars come with assorted accessories geared for comfort and wind reduction.

 Prices range from $5,695 for a base Ural Solo to $10,500 for a two-wheel-drive model with sidecar. Urals also come with a tool kit and tire-repair equipment.

 The Russian bikes are shipped into the United States through Preston, Wash., where they are retrofitted to meet U.S. standards. A 36-month warranty is part of the marketing package.

 Urals generally received favorable ratings from other motorcycle experts.

 Gene Washington, a test-driver and motorcycle columnist in Tampa, Fla., said Urals "are pretty solid, very durable. They hold up well under all conditions.

 "Technically, the design is not complicated. Engine repairs can be done quickly. I think most collectors and avid bikers like them."

 Blackburn conceded that a sidecar-equipped motorcycle is not yet a common site in many areas of Northern California, but then he added: "We're going to remedy that."

 And, of course, there's that whole Harley thing.

 "Believe me, I like (Harleys) as much as anybody," Blackburn said. "I have a '39 Harley that I keep at home, and I sell (used Harleys) here and I repair them.

 "... I just think that (the Urals) are also great, and I think our customers would like them too."

 Blackburn said he has had his hands on virtually every kind of Harley-Davidson motorcycle ever produced. He traces his own motorcycle-riding roots back to 1963, and he worked for years locally maintaining and repairing vehicles used in firefighting.

 Blackburn's interest in foreign-made machinery goes beyond the Ural. His shop also stocks the Chinese-made "Twist N' Go" scooter.

 The scooters come in seven bright colors and are powered by 50cc two-stroke motors. They look decidedly European and are priced at $1,399 -- up to $550 less than a competitive top-level scooter in the same classification.

 More information on Ural Motorcycles, Twist N' Go scooters and Bob's American Motorcycle Sales & Service can be obtained by calling (916) 332-0184.