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“Getting Into Sidecars”

Although sidecars and sidecaring have been with us for the past 100 years or so, they have not been given the recognition which is their due. Many people have never seen a sidecar, and if they do, they often can’t understand how this mechanically unstable, eccentric vehicle can possibly be safe. 

I spoke about motorcycles and sidecaring on a radio talk show recently. The host, who appeared quite world-wise on a vast array of subjects, technical, financial and political, was convinced (and tried to convince his listeners) that it was impossible for a motorcycle with a sidecar to turn either right or left at any speed without capsizing! The ignorance of the public at large is, at times, as terrifying as it is appalling. 

Consider, if you will, why insurance companies in the UK, South Africa, and Australia, where sidecars are more common, used to offer up to 50% discounts on premiums if a sidecar was attached to your bike. Or why in England you can drive a motorcycle sidecar outfit having any size engine displacement when only 16 years old yet solo cycle riders are restricted to small machines of only 250 cc if they are less than 21 years of age. 

Perhaps there is a reason sidecars and sidecarists enjoy such a fantastic safety reputation. After all, insurance companies are not known for being overly generous in handing out premium rebates, nor do licensing bureaus capriciously relax their standards. Obviously, they must believe that even a youngster on a heavy three-wheeler is safer to himself and to the public at large then he is on a smaller solo machine. 

The addition of a sidecar to a motorcycle does not in itself transform a motorcycle from a dangerous machine into a safe vehicle. It is the mental attitude of the rider that determines whether the cycle/rider combination or the outfit/rider combination is inherently safer or not. The machinery must be mechanically sound, and the rider must be physically and mentally alert.

The rider also must understand the physical forces involved when various maneuvers are executed, even though he may not be able to write out the mathematical equations involved. For example, A solo rider waiting to turn left at highway speeds will actually turn the handlebar slightly to the right, even though he may or may not consciously be aware of his actions. 

With a sidecar outfit, a rider must understand and realize the limitations of his rig. If he attempts to turn a corner too fast to the right, the sidecar will rise into the air. If he turns too fast to the left while accelerating, the cycle can be lifted over the sidecar. And, if he locks his front wheel at high-speed, the outfit can swap ends as quick as a flash. Basically, the hack driver must acquaint himself with the rules of safe operation. But after all, similar limits apply to every vehicle type. Even solos, cars, and trucks will side slip (slide out) or overturn if driven incorrectly. 

After having learned the fundamentals of sidecar by trial and error or preferably by attending a Sidecars safety clinic or other sidecar safety training school by the dealer the rider is ready to launch his three-wheeled craft up on the highways and byways. 

Let’s compare the skills and performance required of sidecars with those required of the solo motorcyclist. 

Stability: A soloist must choose a machine that is fitted to him. He is uncomfortable if unsure of his footing and at risk if he cannot plant both feet firmly on the ground when stationary, especially if the machine weighs several hundred pounds. This problem isn’t a consideration for sidecars. Even a person of small stature can easily handle the largest outfit if it is set up correctly. 

Parking: A soloist must find a firm and unyielding surface upon which to park. He cannot park on gravel or a sandy surface, or a snowy or clayey surface. He cannot park safely on a steep hill or on a hard surface where the road has a steep side slope. But all that is necessary when parking a sidecar rig is to turn the ignition and gas off, pull the key out, make sure the transmission is in low gear, and walk away. No side or center stand to wrestle; with no worries about the stand sinking into hot asphalt or other soft surfaces. Your outfit will be ready when you are. More recently you may have to lock your parking brake. 

Luggage capacity: Care must be taken when adding camping or other bulky gear to a solo machine, for the optimum balance is easily upset. Not so with a sidecar outfit. Load it up! The more gear in the sidecar, within reason, the better it handles. And if too much spills over the top just attach a trailer behind. (I’ve pulled a car trailer loaded with nearly ¾ of a ton of asphalt behind my 1000 Laverda/ Watsonian sidecar rig. Just try that with a solo cycle! – Not recommended)

Tires: A blown tire, either front or rear, can be a nerve-shattering experience for the soloist. With an outfit, a blown tire is normally just taken in stride. Even a novice should be able to control an outfit with a blown tire – if he has learned the safety basics of sidecaring and has a properly set up rig. I have had the valve stem wrenched out of the front tire – no problem, also have had three sidecar wheels ripped off with no loss of control. Rear wheel blowout rarely gives any problem to a sidecar rig. 

Security: most rip-off artists are delighted to relieve you of your ride – as long as it looks like a motorcycle. With a sidecar attached, the average Joy Rider just does not know how to handle it, and usually knows he’ll have problems. A rig is also more difficult to push away and it’s quite bulky to load quickly into a truck or van. U.S.A. members have lost a few rigs, but far fewer than the national theft average for solo machines. This does not mean your sidecar rig will never be stolen. Unfortunately, as some of our USCA pioneers can testify, Dan Doyle lost his rig and Terry Strasberg also had his rig stolen. So, it can happen. Never allow your insurance to lapse. Or be prepared to lose it. 

Road Conditions: A soloist must exercise extreme caution on loose gravel, soft dry sand on hard surfaces, wet greasy and iced-over roads, chuckholes, obstacles, wet manhole covers, painted highway lines, and so forth. While a sidecarist must exercise due diligence to all of these items, none offers a direct threat to him or her as they do to his or her solo counterpart. The fact that the sidecar wheel is not normally powered, braked, or steered makes it act as if it were glued to a sidecar track. And the sidecar does a lot more than just provide balance… the traction is fantastic! I have traveled across mud surfaces that were so soft I would sink in past my ankles when I got off; the rig always handled the situation with ease. 

Safety Considerations: No longer can a motorist edge you off the road; he must deliberately hit you. He claims he cannot see you. This I frankly dispute. But you now are almost as large as he is. If he cannot see you then he should not be driving. Of course, this is also his excuse when he hits trucks and trains. And, if you do go off the highway, you will usually regain your composure without mishap, unlike the soloist. However, do not antagonize the motorist. 

Once in Chicago, a woman in the passenger side of a pickup began to beat me up by raining blows with an 18-foot bullwhip up on me for some reason. I got out of there in a hurry. I have had: a front wheel axle snap; three sidecar axles break; blown front, rear and sidecar tires, and a broken sidecar frame. All this without the slightest damage to myself. An outfit is not a tank, however, and you can still get clobbered if you’re not on top of things. 

To summarize my feelings on riding with a sidecar, I’d like to restate the following points: You can still enjoy the mobility of a solo machine, yet obtain most of the advantages of a car. Your conspicuity is increased because of the greater frontal area. The third wheel adds confidence and stability, and the added mass affords tremendous protection in the event of a collision. 

Sidecaring, like motorcycling in general, is a safe enjoyable experience if the proper skills and attitudes are learned and maintained. It’s been said before but I firmly believe that if you try it, you’ll like it.

By Hal Kendon
Sidecarist Magazine Vol 30, No 4, July/Aug 2006