Sidecars on Your BMW Airhead Motorcycle
This article was originally intended to be a series of articles on sidecars and sidecaring. I decided not to do multiple articles. I update this article now and then, date of which is at the end area.
When reading this article, you will see that I have included a considerable amount of my own travails in building my first street-going sidecar rig. I was exceptionally anal about building it to be very strong and reliable with very good handling. YOU can take advantage of all my work, GREATLY simplifying YOUR work, by reading carefully, and referring to the Author's website articles on sidecaring, which have many photos and technical details & descriptions not in what you are now reading. You can save a LOT of time and cost. There are also articles on how to drive a sidecar rig, and many hints and things to know. http://bmwmotorcycletech.info
In my earliest Airhead days, I wrenched-on & raced sidecars: BMW /2 and some on the /5 bikes. I won't go much further here into my track or dirt racing (2 and 3 wheels, BMW, Norton, Vincent). For sidecar racing, during and after my initial position as Wrench, I was often the 'monkey' on the platform. Eventually I became the driver. Back then, I NEVER did any sidecar driving on the street. Over the many years since, I became more interested in street type sidecar rigs, but did nothing, besides attending many sidecar rallies; in particular, the one held in Griffith Park, Los Angeles area. I was always there on 2-wheels....at least until the turn of the century.
In 2000 I drove a few miles in the countryside on Hal Thompson's factory Ural rig and found it lots of fun, although I felt awkward (my lack of recent experience no doubt), and it felt very tall, no doubt due to the fact that a racing sidecar rig is VERY low to the ground. I began thinking more seriously about building a rig to compliment whatever solo bikes I had. There were other reasons too... I'd been suffering for years with back deterioration; and thought then, that the handwriting was on the wall for my dirt riding, let alone solo road riding. I also wanted something 'different.' After 850K or so on motorcycles I was occasionally bored. I had some adventure touring in mind and thought that now might well be the time to have a sidecar outfit for myself. Serious attention to back exercises has since kept the deterioration of my back to a minimum, although still troublesome. I can't see myself giving up two wheel riding, not hardly, not until maybe in my eighties. But the idea of a sidecar rig WAS...and REMAINED... very appealing.
In 2001 I built a sidecar rig for the street, an R100RT-Ural rig. It was very stoutly built. I had it for quite some time. Some years later I purchased a rig and modified it extensively to my particular tasts, and I still have that one, a K1100LT-EML rig, with EZS tug equipment. I used both rigs on the street, occasionally hard-pack dirt roads, and sometimes drove them on ice and snow, and I have put a lot of long distance touring miles on the K bike rig, with my wife sometimes in the chair. Over the years I have worked on a lot of street-going sidecar rigs that belonged to other folks. I have seen some good rigs, and some awful rigs. Sidecars need to be built Hell-For-Stout; and with real thought put into the over-all design. They also absolutely must be aligned correctly, which is easier said than done.
Sidecar rigs are also known as 'Outfits,' 'Combinations,' Gespanne, and 'Hack-Rigs'. The sidecar itself has had many names, including Hack and Chair. Rigs are a lot of fun, & often attract a lot of attention from folks who would never think nice thoughts about motorcycles and motorcyclists. They can also be a PITA to learn to drive. They do NOT handle like cars, nor trikes, nor motorcycles. They change their handling characteristics in accelerating, and in braking, and handle totally differently on right turns than left turns. They are affected seriously by the changing crown of the road. They are more difficult, in some ways, to 'drive' really well, than riding a motorcycle; and can be more physically demanding....or, at least tiring. But, they are a lot of fun! They are also one of the better answers for those who want to be 'in the wind' but have physical limitations. Sidecars are NOT, however, just for 'old guys'. Sidecars allow you to 'motorcycle' even in the Winter. They can carry a LOT, and even a single wheel drive sidecar rig can be usable on ice and snow.
If not set up (aligned) correctly, a sidecar rig can wear you out FAST, and make you wish you had truly huge and exceptionally muscular shoulders. They DO enable you to carry a lot more 'stuff'...whether it be the kitchen sink....or the family dog. Heck, they also will carry your better half AND the dog AND a lot of gear and beer.
There are drawbacks. You will give up white lining (lane-sharing, also known as splitting lanes... that is, riding between stopped cars in a freeway traffic jam). Expect fuel mileage to go downwards a goodly amount, and average speed will likely go down. Costs for maintenance will go up some. Your wallet will be emptier, as rigs are not cheap, and require additional maintenance to be done. USUALLY, the additional maintenance and other costs are mild to quite moderate.
I had reasoned, wrongly, that my back condition was going to get much worse, and my 2-wheel riding days were soon to be over, so why not get into sidecaring right away. These things led to a Senior Moment ....a wrong decision ....to sell my 1983 R100RT.
I did a lot of investigating and chatting with a whole bunch of folks who have street sidecar outfits. I did a lot more than just gawk and talk at the annual Griffith Park Sidecar Rally, which I had attended so often, even with my race rig on a flatbed truck a few times, all for so many years. Some of these folks are very well known in sidecar circles. Doug Bingham, aka Mr. Sidecar, who died in 2016, had been a very strong competitor in my XC sidecar racing days.
Shortening this story, my decision, before doing the 1983 Airhead rig, was to purchase a larger size of used rig capable of covering large mileages in relative comfort. I decided to go first class right off the bat. I also wanted something 'affordable', meaning a price I thought I could live with (Pacts with the Devil were not to be considered). After much frustration, which does bad things to people, even me,....I started thinking of spending REAL MONEY........gads...horrible thought!
The idea was: A good used K1100LT or K1200LT, which have lots of horsepower and torque, always nice to have on a sidecar rig...and a new EML chair. Yes, that was the way to go...with some help from a finance company. I came within $200.00 of a deal on a K1100LT without a sidecar attached. Stubbornness over the $200 kept me from that rather nice K1100LT...which would have meant another $20,000+ to convert it to a full EML. This was just as well...as I did not know the REAL pricing THEN for EML. I procrastinated on that bike long enough for the owner, also stubborn, to find another buyer. The final 'save' from K-whiner ownership (then) came when I found that the price for a NEW completed EML rig, with a good used K, was going to be close to $30,000.00. As I type this update in 2017, the price for a comfortable powerful road rig, with new motorcycle and new sidecar, ready to drive, could reach $50,000. But, just 15 years previously the only place in the United States that imported and put EML rigs together, was BMW of St. Louis. I actually started to do something with them, ...luckily THEY dropped the ball. They went out of business awhile later.
I thought about a brand-new Ural combination, in 2 wheel drive. Couldn't bring myself to do that, the Ural did not have a record of good reliability--it has since improved--STILL not good enough for me, and I wanted much higher cruising capability and comfort. I also really wanted an Airhead for my first street rig, as I knew Airheads quite well.
A lot of thought was put into the possibility of obtaining a R60/2, or /2 frame, with Earles forks, and converting to a later Airhead engine and drivetrain. I even thought of using a Ural, with a late Airhead engine and Ural transmission (which has a reverse gear)....not as simple as it sounds.
Finally, after a lot of soul-searching and looking, testing, & thinking, I gave up all many of my ideas when my old 1983 R100RT came up for sale. I purchased it back from Rand Rasmussen, after it being away from me for 7 months. In late December 2001 I ordered a brand new Ural (Russian) sidecar, properly imported with the U.S.A. specifications and certifications. The sidecar arrived, via truck, in late January 2002, and sat in Salem Oregon until Hal Thompson was kind enough to personally truck it to me in S. Lake Tahoe....what a friend!
I knew that almost no one converts a RT faired Airhead to sidecar use, mainly due to the unsupported anecdotes about the fairing falling apart, and also as a substantial hole in the fairing is needed for the front upper support for the sidecar. I did it MY WAY....(of course!).
I started collecting ideas, and made sketches. I started work on the RT, so that it would be in reasonable condition before actual conversion began. With pressures of my regular work, chores, hardly much of a social life; and, the usual procrastination, things went OK, if slowly overall, but in spurts. There were plenty of serious considerations, lots of pondering, lots of thoughts on how to REALLY DO IT CORRECTLY...Hell 4 Stout too.
Conventional front forks are not very strong for side-forces, which sidecar driving produces, and conventional telescopic forks have a fairly large 'trail' which means a LOT