Years produced: 1939-present
Total production: 3 million-plus
Claimed power: 40bhp @ 5,600rpm
Top speed: 87mph (est.)
Engine type: 745cc, air-cooled, four-stroke, horizontally opposed two-cylinder
Weight (dry): 240kg (529lb)
Price then: Unwavering allegiance to Soviet doctrine
Price now: $10,495 (with sidecar)
It was love at first sight, but the object of affection was no prom queen.
Bill Morris had taken only a passing interested in motorcycles before he traveled to the former Soviet Union in 2002 and noticed locals riding Cold War-era Urals and Dneprs.
"These aren’t prestige vehicles over there, they’re basic transportation," Morris says. "You could see them on the highway as you were going out of the city; people from the country would be driving into town. You’d see three or four guys hanging off this thing, and the sidecar would be full of watermelons or something that they were bringing into market.
"I just thought they were totally cool. I decided to buy one and drive it around."
By the spring of 2005, Morris was sharing his new hobby with collectors in the United States through a self-operated import business, Red October Motorcycles, which specializes in Ural M72 and Dnepr MV-750 motorcycles.
Morris formed the business after returning from Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he and his wife, Sharon Eicher, spent two years working at a university — he as the director of buildings and grounds, she as a development economics professor.
Morris’ initial stock included 12 complete bikes, components for a 13th and a collection of parts manuals, on-board tools and helmets.
He originally wanted to bring only one bike — his own — back with him. But he hit a wall of expenses when he discovered the only way to send the motorcycle overseas was in a shipping container.
His solution: buy enough bikes, parts and accessories to fill the container, then sell them upon his return to recoup the shipping costs. The plan sounded simple until Morris came face-to-face with the political realities of the region.
"It was so much of a headache," he says. "You don’t do anything without paying bribes there. At one point, one of the customs officials told me all the paperwork I’d done to that point was invalid. What he was saying was he wanted a piece of the action. We went to a higher authority, which cost more money, but at least we cut through some of the layers."
Morris eventually filled enough palms to get the shipment approved, and set up shop in a Midwestern warehouse. He put his collection up for sale at www.redoctobermotorcycles.com and got a good response.
"There’s already a pretty entrenched group for these bikes in the U.S.," he says. "People seem pretty excited that I brought in some of the old bikes."
Morris’ bikes included models built from the Forties to the Seventies. Among them: A Dnepr MV-750 — complete with a machine-gun mount on the front of the sidecar — and a Ural M72M.
The horizontally opposed, two-cylinder bikes are based on the pre-World War II BMW R71 but with uniquely Russian touches, meaning they look like the products of an unholy union between a motorcycle, a T-34 tank and an Industrial Era tractor. The components are rugged and heavy, the workmanship is crude and the finish is barnyard quality, but the things have low-end torque to burn and are so indestructible that Morris had his first bike up and running quickly even though he literally had to dig it out of the buyer’s front yard.
"I’d say their main strength is their robust construction," he says. "If they break down in the field, they’re easy to repair. They’re very simple. One of the weaknesses is that the quality control is not as good as you’d find in the West, so you can run into problems there."
Morris, who had done restoration work on British sports cars before getting interested in Russian bikes, recommends that prospective buyers look for older models.
"When things were produced under Stalin, you could be labeled as an enemy of the people pretty easily if you showed up late for work or did bad work," he says. "So they were a bit more motivated in the earlier days to do quality work, I guess you could say." MC
Soviet bike basics
1939 — Using smuggled BMW R71s, Soviet military designers reverse-engineer the bike that will become known as the M72. Production begins at a plant in Moscow.
1941 — Fearing the Moscow plant will be too susceptible to German bombers, the Soviet government transfers production to Irbit, a small town east of the Ural mountains. Bikes produced by the factory become commonly known as Urals.
Late 1950s — To meet rising popularity among civilians, the Irbit Motorcycle Factory is converted to non-military production. Meanwhile, another factory is built in Kiev to handle manufacturing of the military bike. The bike produced by the Kiev plant will become known as as the Dnepr.
1992 — After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ural enters the free market.