The lure of motorcycle sidecars: Come on, get happy

A BMW comprised of parts from different bikes, circa 1961–76, with a 10-gallon Heinrich tank. It currently has a Steib delivery box but will eventually get the ADAC road assistance box.

Bob Henig can’t recall exactly when he became addicted to sidecar motorcycles, but he remembers how.

A group of motorcyclists had gathered for a half-day ride, about four decades ago. An older biker offered to take a passenger along in his sidecar, and Henig jumped at the opportunity. “It was like if I had never been in a plane before and you offered me a chance to fly in one,” Henig said. “I’d go.”

And go he did. Henig put his bike on the side stand and climbed aboard. “It took me less than a half hour to be hooked.”

Henig calls the addictive nature of sidecars “the grin factor.” When a sidecar rolls by, people point and wave, cars beep appreciatively, and onlookers smile. “There are a lot of people who don’t care about motorcycles,” Henig quickly realized, “but everybody loves sidecars.”

It would be six or seven years before he paired a bike and sidecar to have what is affectionately known among owners as a rig, hack, or outfit. But that first day propelled him down a path that would send him searching worldwide to gather a collection of seven sidecar rigs and two additional sidecars. Among Henig’s treasures: one of two known surviving 1950s ADAC road assistance sidecars, a WWII BMW complete with machine gun, and the futuristic, Swiss-made GG Duetto, one of perhaps 31 ever built.

Just what is it about sidecars that makes them so beloved? “In North America, a sidecar is a novelty and the lay audience loves to see them,” said Brian Slark of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Leeds, Alabama. “It’s like a custom bike; it’s a statement.”

Bob Henig, proud owner of a rare Duetto GG.
Bob Henig, proud owner of a rare Duetto GG.
Roy Furchgott

That wasn’t always the case, Slark said. In Europe, prior to the 1960s, sidecars served as a low-cost alternative to cars. In fact, Slark said pre-1960s European motorcycles almost universally had lugs on the frame for sidecar mounting. Even the superbike of the day, the Vincent Black Shadow, had a lever that adjusted to front forks for a sidecar, and the rear tire flipped around to offer lower ratio gears to compensate for a sidecar’s added weight.

Sidecars were also a military asset in both world wars. Machine guns too heavy for foot soldiers to carry were mounted to sidecars, where they could be swiftly moved into battle. But Slark said the seeds of the sidecar’s decline were sown as WWII progressed.

While motorcycles were still used by message couriers, a cheap, reliable, more practical alternative to the sidecar had emerged—the Jeep (for Americans) and the Porsche-designed Kubelwagen (for Germans). The Kubelwagen became familiar to Americans in 1973 when it resurfaced here as the Volkswagen Thing.

The death knell for the sidecar’s European mass appeal arrived in the form an economy car from the Austin Motor Company. “What killed sidecars was the Mini,” Slark said. “It had a top, it had a heater, it had a radio, Mother could keep dry, you could take the mother-in-law along, you could take the dog.” Across Europe, small, inexpensive Fiats and Citroëns had a similar effect.

The ornately valanced Stieb delivery sidecar.
A BMW Toaster Tank in Henig’s garage.

Still, the sidecar held an attraction for some. Will Short, president of the 1,000-member United Sidecar Association, breaks fans into four groups.

“We have a large cadre of people who have a sidecar so they can bring their dogs along,” he said. “I have yet to find anyone who has a cat who enjoys it.”

Short said there are also people who want to bring their family along, people with health problems that prevent them from balancing a two-wheeler, and those who are attracted by “just plain weirdness. That’s how I got started.”

If an affection for sidecars requires a certain personality, it also takes specific skills that differ from standard motorcycling. When a rig accelerates, it slides to the right. On decelerating it slides to the left. On an uneven road, if the sidecar’s wheel is raised, the rig goes left; lowered, it goes right. With a right-hand sidecar, left turns can be made sharply—the sidecar acts like an outrigger to ground the vehicle. On right turns, however, the sidecar can lift in prelude to a rollover. Skilled drivers sometimes purposely lift the sidecar—a maneuver called “flying the chair”—and hold it aloft to give the passenger a thrill.

When Henig finally decided to purchase a sidecar of his own, he was already deep into the BMW world as the owner of Bob’s Used Parts, which he said grew to be the largest BMW parts business in the world.

So when he shopped for his first rig, he had done his homework. “I was looking for a very specific sidecar. It was the smallest and lightest. I put it on a 1950 BMW R51/2 that does not have a whole lot of power. I think it made maybe 24 horsepower on its best day.”

Custom front wheel arm of the Duetto.
Custom front wheel arm of the Duetto.
Roy Furchgott

That sidecar was a Steib LS200. Henig used it to take his then-six-month-old son for his first motorcycle ride before driving it from Jessup, Maryland, to Lake Placid, New York, and back—two days in each direction. “I avoided the highway because I could not maintain those kinds of speeds,” he said. A restored version of that rig is on display at The Vintage BMW Museum at Bob’s BMW, across the street from his dealership in Jessup.

The rarest of rare is still being completed, a sidecar used by ADAC, the German equivalent of AAA, to provide roadside service in the 1950s.

Henig was at a flea market in Manheim, Germany, browsing bike parts, when the seller said there was more to see in his barn. Henig noticed a box perched four stories up in the rafters. An anxiety-provoking shimmy out onto a beam revealed a mystery sidecar, enclosed on all sides. “There was an inch of bird shit on it,” Henig said. He had no idea what it was, either. But he bought it anyway. Why? “It just looked cool,” he said, with a shrug.

Months later, Henig sent pictures of the cleaned-up mystery box to Peter Ondrak, a friend who bought and sold used BMW bikes in Munich, Germany. “Peter said, ‘Impossible!’ But clearly, that’s the ADAC logo on the front.”

Impossible because Ondrak thought he had purchased all of the decommissioned ADAC sidecars himself in the 1960s, and sold them to Greek and Turkish businessmen who used them to move people, goods, and even farm animals over narrow, poorly-kept local roads.

The origin of ADAC’s “Yellow Angel” road assistance sidecars is a little sketchy. According to a 2014 story in ADAC’s membership magazine, in 1954 there were 55 road assistance sidecar rigs. They were in service until 1962 when (as history repeats itself) they were outmoded by an inexpensive car: the Volkswagen Beetle.

Henig’s mini sidecars.
Some miniature BMW sidecars are among Henig’s garage showcase of collectibles.

Henig’s ADAC sidecar is primered and awaiting paint and attachment to a BMW. That bike comprised of parts from different bikes (circa 1961 to 1976) and carries a 10-gallon Heinrich tank.

A potentially controversial item in the Henig collection is a 1943 BMW R75 and sidecar in full WWII desert dress, including machine gun. “I’m the third owner,” Henig said. “The Third Reich being the first owner.”

Henig had some misgivings about displaying it, and he said he wouldn’t have if it was the museum’s only sidecar. But as one in a collection, Henig thought people would understand the appeal was strictly the machine, not the intent of its original owners. And, as a machine, it is an achievement. The shaft drive made it impervious to problems that desert sand caused chain-driven bikes. The sidecar wheel was powered, making it a two-wheel drive vehicle. With two reverse gears, two forward gears, and high and low gear settings, the sidecar rig could go almost anywhere. “They put the average SUV to shame,” Henig said, “until you go 50 mph.”

Henig’s favorite sidecar rig isn’t in the museum despite its rarity: a 1997 Swiss-made, canary yellow GG Duetto, whose cleanly swooping bodywork still looks futuristic 20 years on. Henig’s is one of fewer than three dozen. The exact number isn’t known, but what isn’t in question is the slick engineering that went into the outfit.

The Duetto was engineered by Grüter + Gut Motorradtechnik (GG) in Lucerne, Switzerland, a motorcycle repair shop that did customizing and designed its own aftermarket parts. The Duetto was the shop’s first foray into mass producing a complete vehicle, if you can call 30-some vehicles “mass-produced.”

Henig uses the rig often in his fundraising efforts, auctioning the passenger spot during “The Ride for Kids,” supporting The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. He also charges for lessons in driving a sidecar, and he donates the money to charity.

The Duetto is powered by a BMW K1100LT engine and drivetrain. What was unprecedented was the vote of confidence that BMW gave GG, Henig said, by placing a full warranty on its portion of the Duetto.

Instead of front forks, the Duetto’s front suspension uses has a single side arm with hub steering. If that setup looks familiar, it’s probably because it was on Batman’s Batpod in the 2008 film The Dark Knight.

Because the Duetto doesn’t lean (very few sidecar rigs do), it accommodates completely squared-off performance car tires, offering tremendous traction. “I can beat the sports cars through the twisties,” Henig said, which had a lot to do with why he bought it. “I realized that while I liked sidecars, I still liked fast. It’s capable of cruising at 100 [mph] comfortably, loaded.”

One of the clever engineering tricks GG pulled was to remove the gas tank from the motorcycle side of the bike, and put it behind the sidecar wheel for better weight distribution. It also placed the battery there, where it can be easily reached for service.

Stark said that technically, the design may disqualify the Duetto as a sidecar rig. The inability to detach the bike and ride it without the sidecar may actually classify the Duetto as a trike. He doesn’t agree, of course, countering that the position of the sidecar wheel between the bike’s front and rear tires makes it a sidecar outfit.

To onlookers, the argument matters not a whit. The classification might be in question, but the grins are the same.

Bob Henig of Bob's BMW in Jessup, Maryland.
Bob Henig of Bob's BMW in Jessup, Maryland.
Roy Furchgott