What are those crazy three-wheeled contraptions rolling around the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony? Why, nothing less than the result of technology sharing between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The best part? You can still buy one brand-new today.
The vehicles in question are Ural sidecars. Still made in the original (now-ex) Soviet military factory in Siberia. While the machines have received many updates over the years, they're still based on a pre-WWII German military design that was shared with the Russians as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact.
During that brief don't-call-it-an-alliance, much-need raw materials for Germany's war machine were shipped west, while military technology was sent east. Germany got the iron it needed to make tanks and Russia got the know-how necessary to build its own army. Know-how like the blueprints to the BMW R71 motorcycle and sidecar.
So-equipped, Soviet military engineers set about designing their own unique machine that would be better equipped to handle the rigors of local "roads" and which could serve as the workhorse of their military much in the same way that the Willy's Jeep was the workhorse of ours.
The Ural sidecar was the result and, when Germany and the Soviet Union eventually went to war with each other, production was moved east to Siberia, out of reach of Nazi bombers. There, the factory remains today in a town called Irbit which is heated by steam pipes running from the factory to the town's apartment blocks.
While that icon of American military design — Jeep — has grown into a totally contemporary family vehicle, unrecognizable when parked next to the original, Urals have remained largely the same. Sure, materials have been updated over the years, the air-cooled motors have grown larger and more powerful and all three brakes are now discs rather than drums, but the basic layout remains the product of a handshake deal between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
That archaic nature, combined with their unique, three-wheeled design — Ural is the only manufacturer of sidecar vehicles in the world — makes these things totally unique vehicles. Thanks to a locking rear differential and two-wheel drive, combined with their diminutive size and weight (lighter than a Harley), Urals virtually unstoppable off-road and are also at home cruising down a deserted highway at 60mph. That rugged capability has made them popular with adventurers, who ride them on unsupported trips around the world. They're also popular with dog-loving motorcyclists; thanks to Ural, Fido can come along for the ride. Standard equipment on every Ural made includes a shovel, spare tire and a five-gallon Jerry can — another design creatively copied from ze Germans.
That factory in Irbit used to turn out 140,000 of these things a year and they were once a common site on Russian roads; there was a two-year waitlist to purchase one.
The ancient designed faired less well when the end of the Soviet Union's planned economy came in 1991. Suddenly, facing competition in its domestic market from cheaper, imported cars, demand collapsed. For most of the next decade Ural's owners scrambled to keep the company alive any way they could in order to support the workforce and town that depended on the sidecars to survive. During that period, Ural sidecars were traded to the Egyptian military in return for shipment of bouillon cubes and a container load of bikes was swapped for a bakery. Those ovens and other equipment were shipped to Irbit and installed in the factory to bake bread for the local population. Lacking a national currency of any value, Ural began printing its own specie; each one worth six one-kilo loaves of the bread it baked. That propped up the town's economy and fed its citizens until the Russia stabilized.
In 2000, Ural was bought by its current owner, Ilya Khait. He set about on the unenviable task of modernizing the company and making it profitable in the 21st century. Now, most of Ural's 1,200-unit annual production is shipped to America and its bikes come equipped with modern components like Brembo brake calipers and even fuel-injection.
The Sochi Opening Ceremony came as a surprise to Khait. Back in October, the Games' organizers called up and paid sticker price for 20 of the machines, but wouldn't disclose how they would be used. Security? VIP transportation? Chasing stray dogs? It wasn't until he turned on his computer this morning that Khait saw them in the ceremony.
"You've been to the factory yourself, and you should have got an idea of how difficult it was to save this company and the Ural brand," Khait told us. "But, when you see your bikes in the event like this you realize you're not just some motorcycle manufacturer, but a part of the history and the heritage of the huge country and it gives you more reasons to keep going. To be seen by three billion people all over the world? That's one hell of a product placement. I feel very proud."