Paul Charman kickstarts Saddam Hussein's motorbike of choice - Russia's gun-toting Ural

Ural Australia has announced two new dealers to sell and support their famous Russian-made bike and sidecar outfits in New Zealand.

The rugged machines, said to be gaining popularity in the US, Europe and Australia, will be sold and serviced by Levin Motorcycle Centre and Motus Scooters and Motorcycles in Christchurch.

The Ural is a modern classic based on a 70-year-old Red Army knock-off of the pre-World War II German BMW R71 motorcycle. Though now substantially modernised, the retro models are dead ringers for those Nazi Blitzkrieg bikes you see in war movies.

Said to be surprisingly at home off-road, or for adventure riding on rough roads, the boxer-engined 750s are unique on a couple of counts.


First, it's relatively difficult to buy a solo bike - the factory in the Ural Mountains regards such an order as a time-wasting pest. To own a Ural is to operate a sidecar as well, a style of riding which - though it requires initial training to perfect - is arguably safer in the long run.

Secondly, military versions of the Ural have long been used as weapons-carriers in Third World armies (Saddam Hussein bought 3000 before the second Gulf War).

Given the permission of Russian authorities, these bikes could still theoretically be wheeled into the container with your choice of machinegun or rocket launcher fitted. I've not seen a gun mount on a Ural in New Zealand, but the retro models do carry gnarley-looking accessories, including fuel cans, shovels and spare tyres. And, of course, these retro Urals come with a reverse and low speed two-wheel drive option.

Previous New Zealand importer, Kurt Nielsen, of Katikati, who is stepping back from day-to-day involvement, has often joked that he wished he'd imported one with a machinegun "for the Auckland traffic".

Semi-retired, the engineer and lifelong sidecar enthusiast remains a celebrity among the Kiwi and Australian fraternity. He's trained customers to handle their bikes and sidecars safely. As well as selling and servicing Urals, he has married hundreds of motorcycles of all makes and sizes to sidecars. Kurt will continue to do this. He remains a committed Ural rider and an enthusiast of the unique brand, who is optimistic about its future.

"Ural ownership seems to be taking off round the West for a number of reasons. Many motorcyclists who already own, say, a Triumph, Harley or BMW, seem to want a Ural as a kind of a collectible. And because they're still regarded as something of an oddity, the big marques don't seem to mind one of their dealers stocking Urals as well."

This accommodating attitude, plus the fashion for adventure riding, has played into the hands of the Russian factory. The bikes have always boasted simple, fix-at-the-side-of-the-road reliability, and come with comprehensive toolkits. They've been expected to perform across the old Soviet Union, from Arctic Siberia to the desert wastes of Kazakhstan.

While they don't seem to like high-speed motorway cruising, they can tough it out in the rough. What's more, because of modern compliance requirements and the need to rectify historic reliability issues, many improved components from outside Russia are now used.

The precision transmission and engine gears are made by Herzog (Germany); Ducati makes the electronic ignition equipment; floating disc brakes are made by Brembo and the alternator is by Denso, of Japan.

The old steel wheels have been replaced by alloys. Sachs makes the shocks, Marzocchi the telescopic forks for solo and retro models. Most bearings are SKF and - until the fuel-injected version takes over - the Keihin carburettors are made in Japan.

I prefer the look of the old drumbrake Urals of the 1970s and 80s, which more resembled low-tech World War II bikes. And those old bikes had another huge advantage: they used to cost about half a Japanese machine's price.

But, despite all this, modern bike enthusiasts can't seem to get enough of the New Millennium Ural. This year 22 new Ural dealers were appointed in the US and Kurt says Ural Australian sales are also on the up.

"Ural Australia owner Jon Taylor has been involved in motorcycling most of his life, so understands what's required to be successful in a tough marketplace. To ride a Ural is sort of like joining a great big family of sidecar enthusiasts."