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Bike Profile - Posted 11th May 2012

Sidecar Outfits, Part Two
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Neil Cairns talks us through learning to ride a classic combination, and some technical considerations about choosing the right classic bike to match a sidecar...

In the first episode, we looked at some of the history behind motorcycle sidecars. So what of today's scene? The BSA A10 you see here is fitted with a Busmar Astral and is today in use by RC reader JJ Barrett. I run an AJS 18S with a child-adult Briggs Swift 2 saloon body fitted to a Watsonian braked frame. The pictures shown are from Briggs' own manufacturer adverts. A lot of employment was given by the sidecar and motorcycle industry in those days.

JJ Barrett's combo, in current use...

Back in the 1950s if you were able to ride a solo motorcycle, then 'driving' a combination would come as a bit of a shock. Back then a learner could drive a combo with L-plates, but a full licence holder with two years' experience had to be carried. However there was a way round this, the licence holder was not required if the bike and sidecar was constructed to only carry one person; the rider. Removing the pillion seat and sidecar seat was the loophole…

Combinations are not an easy thing to get used to, and the first ride often scares some people away. The fact that the handlebars have to be forcibly turned to get round bends at first seems scary. You feel it is all going to tip over on your first left-hander. Just trying to 'lean' it round bends as you do on a solo bike will send you straight into the ditch or the oncoming traffic. The effort needed to steer a combination at speed, fully loaded, soon expands your upper arm muscles. But once mastered, a combination is a lot safer than any solo machine, as you simply cannot take liberties with it. The 50% reduction for sidecar insurance premiums was because of their excellent accident record.

I'm loving the mudguard... The author's AJS 18S and Briggs 'Swift 2' child/adult chair

'Driving' an outfit is an art. Everything is much slower, and the bike will be working hard slogging away under you. Left hand bends are taken slowly as the chair is liable to lift if you go too fast; right hand bends are fun, as the chair now supports you. Accelerate a little around the chair to turn left, but carefully or the wheel will lift; and conversely let the chair run round you while reducing the throttle to turn right.

Many lads put something heavy in the vacant chair to keep its wheel on the road. With the extra room inside, under its seat, you can carry a decent tool kit, spare inner tube, tyre levers, a small jack and spare clutch plates, throttle and front brake cables. A couple of spare rear wheel spokes were a good idea in the old days when it was best to be prepared. Punctures were far more common with the tyres then in use on the bad pot-holed roads; where as many bikes had a hand-pump on their frame, a more powerful foot pump can be carried now.

Bigger sidecars mean better picnics... Panther 100 and Watsonian chair, Leighton Buzzard Railway show 2006

The steering will need a damper: this is a vital addition. The AJS 18S article in RC24 tells you how to set up the sidecar frame to the bike. If these rules are not followed you will end up with a very dangerous machine. Sidecar frame alignment is now checked on the MoT. As the steering head remains upright all the time, and you steer with the handlebars, a shimmy can set in at low speeds if you hit any irregularity in the road. The damper eliminates this. Tyre pressures are important, and are much higher than a solo. Some bikes have reversible fork legs so the wheel's trail can be altered to reduce shimmy.

The performance today of a 1950's big-single outfit is regarded as pedestrian, but it has to be compared with other cheap vehicles of the time. Most 500cc single cylinder combinations could reach 55mph, and 650 twins would get to 65mph safely. A 1949 Ford Prefect would struggle to get to 55mph. A 1952 Morris Minor, quite an expensive car then, could only make 57mph. Even by 1960 the Ford 100E popular could only get to 60mph. A combination could easily out-accelerate both cars.

Blissfully unaware of the giant hair about to fall out of the sky... RC Facebook group contributor Albert Crackleport (pictured in the middle) on an Ariel 350 combo in the Yorkshire dales in 1963
Norton sidecar tugs on now

Choosing the right chair for your bike is common sense. They are all lightly constructed, but its size will be limited by the bike's power. Not all bikes are suitable for sidecar work, some being too lightly built. Some people put sidecars onto 350cc classic machines which might be OK if you are only going to very carry light loads. A 350-powered outfit will struggle to reach 40-45mph, so today it is not really a viable project if you intend to use it often.

A good long-stroke single-cylinder slogger, providing high torque at low revs, was the most popular machine in the old days, often a side-valve in the early years. 500cc and 600cc singles were the favourites. You would soon get use to charging at hills to be able to get over them. For the better-off owner, the number of parallel twin machines proved ideal. Their power delivery was smoother, but more often they would have a single-seater sports chair fitted. Our working family man stuck to his trusty big single.

'Will accomodate an adult in complete comfort'...

The manoeuvrability of a combination is very good. Should you want to turn round in a road, go round the sidecar, NOT the other way. The outfit will pivot around the chair's wheel, turning the lot on a sixpence. Parking it amongst cars in the High Street is again fun, as it will slip into the tiniest gap. But with no reverse gear, you will need to assist it out if you park nose-in.

Fitting a sidecar to a bike means more maintenance. Things like wheel bearings, rear spokes and swinging arm bushes will suffer. Rigid frames were very popular as the rear 'ball' mounting could be attached near the rear wheel's axle. Steering head bearings need regular checking. All items will need lubricating more often. The rear wheel can break its spokes if you mistreat the outfit. Trying to accelerate hard out of a sharp bend will twist the rear wheel's rim with the side-thrust, and break the spokes at their head. This seems more prevalent on spokes with 'bent' heads.

'Handbuilt by Craftsmen'...

Just as on most solo classics, braking certainly needs more thought and planning ahead. You need to learn to read the road well. Fitting a sidecar frame with its own brake is a luxury you should try to obtain; and one with suspension on its wheel for passenger comfort. Although I ran my 1961 M120 with an un-braked chair, the Panther did have huge drum brakes. The majority of British bikes then had small brakes which only just coped with stopping solo, so fitting a chair means you might find stopping very hard indeed.

Stopping a combination obviously wears out the brake shoes quicker. Carry a spare front brake cable. Use all three brakes to stop, but you will find the sidecar brake very useful to help on slow, tight left turns. The chair's brake lever will be mounted beside the rear brake's lever, so you can put your foot on both or just one. Some people even link them together, although I do not like that arrangement, preferring independent action.

The two items which will certainly suffer when any motorcycle is hitched up to a heavy chair are the clutch plates and drive chains. These most certainly will require renewing a lot more often as they are working twice as hard. Sometimes you can get an extra plate into the clutch if it is one used on a larger model in the same range. The sidecar connections will also need regular checking for security, and crack testing if ancient. The sidecar-to-bike alignment will become an annual check.

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Next time: final hints and tips on buying, running and riding a classic outfit today

More sidecar info:

  • www.sidecars.org.uk

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