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Wheels on Reels

Classic motorcycle videos selected by the editors of Motorcycle Classics

A Brief History of the Sidecar


1949 Steib sidecar ad made sidecars look sexy. 

Sidecars have never been big on this side of the pond, thanks in large measure to Henry Ford and the immensely popular and incredibly cheap Model T. But they were the default option for many working-class families in Britain, right up through the 1950s. Transportation came down to what you could afford, and powered two-wheelers — autocycles, scooters, mopeds — were the first choice of many. But what to do when the baby comes along? In England more so than the U.S., automobiles were luxury items. Sales tax on a new car was prohibitive, and fuel and road licensing were also expensive. Plus, many motorcyclists had learned to ride before testing was implemented, and for many riders, taking the driving test seemed daunting. In the 1950s, you could buy an ex-military BSA M20 or Norton 16H for peanuts. Bolt on a sidecar, and your family transportation problem was solved.

Licensing laws in Britain also favored sidecars. A learner motorcyclist could drive any engine size of “combination” — sidecar rig — but was limited to 250cc for a “solo.” But that was then and this is now. Most modern motorcyclists have never “driven” a sidecar outfit, and that’s a shame, because it’s a unique experience. The dynamics resulting from adding a third wheel and more than a few dozen pounds to the side of a motorcycle need to be taken seriously. With a conventional right hand mounted sidecar you steer left under acceleration, and right under braking — or the rig will slew across the road. You accelerate through a right turn, yet overrun through a left, or risk going straight on! Forget countersteering: A sidecar counters any kind of steering you’re familiar with! Want to know more about sidecars in the U.S.? Check out Doug “Mr. Sidecar” Bingham’s website or head to the annual Griffith Park Sidecar Rally November 6.