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Bike Profile - Posted 16th April 2012

Sidecar Outfits, Part One
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Whatever happened to the motorcycle-and-sidecar combination? Neil Cairns remembers the family motorcycle...

A few years ago I attended a VMCC Banbury run as a spectator on my solo 1953 BSA B31. I was impressed by the number of really ancient machines present that were pulling sidecars. Whilst in the early 20th century motorcycles were still a play-thing of the rich, some owners had begun to want to take the family or girlfriend out on their P&J. The little wicker seat attached to a vintage machine in the photo is said to be the oldest combination still on the road; wicker seats of this type led to the habit of calling a sidecar a 'chair'.

Take a chair...

Yet while veteran, vintage and post-vintage machines seem to be proud to pull a chair about, the scene changes sharply with post-war classics. By now, the motorcycle had become the transport of the working man. It would be the 1960s before the massive explosion of car ownership would push the motorcycle almost off the scene. From the 1920s up until the mid-1950s, motorcycles out-numbered cars on our road. Unlike today, cars were then an expensive luxury. Today motorcyclists are just 2% of road transport, and once again the motorcycle is a (brave) rich man's toy. At motorcycle shows and on runs you hardly ever see a post-WW2 combination. Those you do see are single-seater sports chairs or touring sidecars. It seems the majority of enthusiasts would rather own a solo sports machine of 500 or 650cc, and most often a parallel twin.

Once, the big 'saloon' combination was a popular and cheap method of transport for the 1940s and 1950s family, and there were tens of thousands of them about. Where are they all today? Companies such as Briggs, Busmar, Steib, Canterbury, Blacknell, Garrard, Hillsborough, Nicholson, Rankin, Surrey, Swallow, Watsonian and Squire built sidecars for sports, touring, family and business use. Combos were so common as street furniture in the 50s, their huge numbers meant you just did not notice them.

Slow revving, single-cylinder, high torque bikes were just what a big sidecar needs... BSA M20 and single seat sidecar outfit

In the late 1940s, Mr Average was able to buy an ex-WW2 BSA M20 from firms like Glanfield-Lawrence (having been given a coat of black paint over its army green), and then bolt on a child-adult sidecar. He had probably made the sidecar body himself, fitting it to an ex-WW2 military frame. This gave the family the freedom to get out of their smoky industrial town into the countryside, out on a picnic, or off on holiday to the seaside once a year. The total cost of the secondhand BSA and its chair would be one third of a used car's price, inclusive of road tax and insurance, as well as being much cheaper to run and maintain. Cars were also rationed after the war.

Some keen amateurs even built their own sidecar 'saloon' bodies. As so many men had been in the forces during that war and were technically trained, most were quite capable with a spanner and able to do their own servicing. To these chaps timing a magneto came easy, de-coking an engine was second nature. Spares were cheap as the forces dumped their huge stocks on the markets.

To these chaps timing a magneto came easy...

The motorcycle firms were very busy as well. They were trying hard to fill a massive demand for personal transport. Ancient pre-war designs would go on in production up into the 1960s, management quite happy at not having to invest too much in the factory, blind to the problems this would eventually realise. But slow revving, single-cylinder, high torque bikes were just what a big sidecar needs.

A comparison of wages might help. In 1949 the average weekly wage was just £6, by 1960 this had risen to £15. In 2007 it was £447.

In 1955 a second-hand 1948 500cc Norton motorcycle would have cost £99, a new Swallow two-seater sidecar £85, though a secondhand one might be just £25 (as seen in The Motor Cycle, 10 March 1955, which had two full pages of classified adverts for sidecars alone). Total cost of your combination £175 (or just £124).

A used 1949 Ford Prefect would cost you £315. The combo and the car could both carry four people. If you were on £6 a week, which would you buy?

By 1958 Pride and Clarke were selling ex-WD 500cc sidevalve Norton 16H machines for £39. Claude Rye would sell you a new Watsonian double--adult bolted to a 1952 BSA 600cc sidevalve M21 for just £139.

Today a new Royal Enfield 500cc fitted with a Watsonian-Squire touring chair will cost you well over £3000.

BSA sidecar tugs on now

Since the majority of the working population lived within five miles of their place of work in those days, many young lads either walked or cycled to work. Those who had completed their poorly paid apprenticeships rode solo motorbikes to work, and the more mature family men would arrive on their combination, often giving a lift to a mate. Few would be able to afford a motorcar. The photo of the BSA M20 with the single-seat adult chair fitted, taken at Milton Keynes Museum Rally in 2005, is a typical machine and chair of the 1950s.

Like riding beside a double-decker bus... Panther M120 and Busmar sidecar

The Panther M100 and M120 combinations from that era also show just how hard these machines worked to get their loads about the country. Very few big Panthers were ever seen as solo bikes. Nearly all were hitched to huge 'saloon' sidecars full of children, and even in use by small country businesses with a toolbox on the chassis. In my own case, a 1961 M120 I ran in the 1970s first had a small (heavy mild-steel) single seat sidecar fitted.

As my family grew, so the sidecar body was swapped for a huge double-adult, Busmar Mk2 Astral saloon. I remember it was like riding beside a double-decker bus until I got use to it. I even pulled a small camping trailer behind it on holidays…

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Next time: how to 'drive' a combination; choosing an outfit for modern riding, and more…

More sidecar info:

  • www.sidecars.org.uk

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