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Bike Profile - Posted 20th June 2012

Sidecar Outfits, Part Three
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Neil Cairns ends his series with a fond farewell to the family conveyance, out of fashion but with much to recommend it...

While a solo bike is the property of its rider, a 'saloon' combination belongs to the family. Children and Mum much preferred riding inside in the dry, where as an older son would ride pillion. Today the laws we have mean those on the bike have to wear a helmet, but the sidecar passengers do not. Back in the 1950s and early 60s there was no law forcing anyone to wear a helmet. Flat caps were the thing to have, worn back to front with goggles. The majority of family sidecar saloons had roofs and a proper door to enter and exit, unlike sports chairs where you jumped into them over the side. Most saloons also had roll-back canvas sun-roofs. These would soon age and leak in heavy rain.

Travelling in a sidecar, especially in summer with the roof open, is very pleasant indeed, once you get use to the bouncy ride, and the engine thumping away next to you. It was far more preferable to sitting on the bike out in the cold and rain. To keep Dad dry he would don an old army great-coat, a pair of huge gauntlets, and possibly fit a Perspex windscreen and leg shields as seen on my old Panther 120. Some purchased helmets, others just a cap, but nearly everyone had ex-RAF flying goggles. I remember a spinning visor being offered in the 1950s, it was meant to throw rain off.

Panther M120 and Busmar sidecar...

The advantage of a combination over a solo machine in the motorcycle's hey-day was its carrying ability. It could be used to commute to and from work, possibly carrying tools and a few mates, very cheaply. It was much safer on icy roads than a solo, and much more manoeuvrable than a car. Then at weekends you could take the family out shopping and on trips, again at very little cost. It was not unknown for four adults and all their luggage to be conveyed about. The combo could be stored in a shed if the doors were wide enough, and it was easily serviced as a DIY project.

Running a small car of the era meant more expensive insurance, most outfits then cost 50% less than a solo to insure; much less mpg; four tyres to renew; more expensive road tax; bigger four cylinder engine to service; in fact the overall 'new' costs would be over treble hence the attraction then of hitching up a sidecar. A motorcar of the era might make 25-30mpg, but a combination would exceed 50-60mpg when driven carefully.

A BSA 650 combo, yesterday...

The large family 'saloon' sidecar has now had its day. The combinations you can buy now invariably have small single-seat sports or touring chairs fitted. A recent VMCC calendar featured seven outfits, all but one were expensive sports chairs. No one seems to want to know about the huge chunk of social history that the family motorcycle combination stands for. They have, but for a very few, been relegated to pictures in a few books and magazines. Even books on the subject are rare, the only one that is currently available is the excellent 'The Sidecar, A History' published privately by Geoff Brazendale at 25.

Restoring a sidecar can be fun, but few remain. Their light build means most have long ago rotted away.

'The demand is terrific'...
BSA sidecar tugs on now

So why on earth run a combination in the 21st century? No longer do you get 50% reduction in insurance, although classic agreed-value is now cheap anyway. Why not buy a classic car instead?

I run both a classic car and a classic combination, and the outfit is far more fun to use. It is still phenomenally cheap to run in comparison. For instance Avon SM Sidecar tyres can still be had for 35 each, whereas my MG tyres are 70 each. Both have free road tax, but the combo is much more user friendly. Insurance is cheaper. It is easy to get out and pop to the shops, parking could not be easier as it will slot into any small space. Tolls over brides are free, whereas the car has to pay.

Driving an outfit is half way between the freedom of a solo machine, and being trapped in a car. Just as on the older solo bike, you have to use hand signals on today's road. Traffic often moves so slowly these days that you will have no trouble keeping up. A mirror is now a vital extra, but the fact you are sitting up high gives you an excellent view all around and over cars in front. You will not be able to filter past traffic queues like a solo. I wear a bright yellow reflective jacket so everyone will see me. Should you 'collect' a queue of cars behind you, good manners suggests you pull over to let them past.

Unapproachable. Unless you're behind it, perhaps :o)

A 'saloon combo' is definitely different, very rare, and attracts attention wherever you go. The difference is, it attracts the attention of people who would not normally give any motorbike a second thought. Children love the sidecar and ask for rides, grandparents tell you of the combination they had years ago, parents of the one they rode in of their granddads.

The classic car takes much more time to service every 3000 miles, and much longer. A service on my classic MG car takes a whole day. The combination takes perhaps two to three hours to do the same, though oil changes are far more often at 1500 miles. If you had to pay a garage to do the service, the car's running costs would soon become astronomical.

In fact the very same reasons why those impecunious family men ran their combinations are still valid today. It is a cheap, fun way to get about. Also, the 'older' rider might find they feel safer on something that will not fall over! Any partially disabled motorcyclists can continue riding with one. Unlike a solo, falling off on slippery roads is difficult. Unlike a car, there is no differential to loose grip on slippery road surfaces.

Price-wise the 1950s combination has now caught up with the cheap car. A good bread-and-butter family saloon combination might fetch 2500-3000, the same price as a small, similar condition 1950s classic car.

If you'd like to learn more, then 'Motor Cycling' magazine for the 23rd October 1958 has quite a bit on family sidecars. It covers Canterbury on page 802-3, Panther on page 806, and Busmar on page 810. It gives a real 'feel' of the times. A good website to visit is [Site not working at the time this page was published], again most on show are touring and sports chairs, with few family saloons.


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