When you think of motorcycle sidecars, you might think of the dangerous sport of sidecar racing, or a mustached hipster riding around town on a Ural sidecar motorcycle, but it’s more likely that you imagine a military motorcycle with a sidecar charging around Europe during World War II with a big machine gun strapped to it. Most motorcycle sidecar combinations you see on the road today are either Ural motorcycles, odd movie props, or bespoke custom built machines, and they’re few and far between. However, there was a time when the motorcycle sidecar ruled supreme. During World War II, both the Allied and Axis forces heavily relied on the might and maneuverability of the sidecar, with the three-wheelers being used as anything from troop transportation and all-terrain pursuit vehicles to munitions conveyance and mobile gun emplacements.
The Second World War was really the golden age of the sidecar outfit, largely because of the availability of conventional motorcycles. At the time, Germany produced far more motorcycles than they did automobiles, and far more Germans knew how to ride a sidecar than could drive cars. Adding a machine gun to an already practical mode of transport just made sense. And considering that most military-adapted sidecar rigs came equipped with a differential lock helped to make the humble sidecar one of the most important tools on the battlefield: a lightly armored, weaponized vehicle that was able to traverse rough terrain with ease. It’s easy to see why every nation involved had their own fighting sidecar machines at the front.
In fact, there were more sidecar attack vehicles in play than you’d think. If you had to guess a manufacturer from the time, it’s easy to guess that there were BMW, Harley-Davidson and BSA models thrashing around the battlefields but there were a hell of a lot more that are easily overlooked. In the military sidecar world, there were Benelli machines, Moto Guzzis, Ariels, FNs, Gileras, Gnome-Rhônes, Matchless bikes, Motosacoche sidecars, Terrots, Rikuos, Royal-Enfields…and more! If you were a motorcycle manufacturer during World War Two, you can bet that you were contributing something towards the war effort, and nine times out of ten, your offering would be a sidecar.
While the lowly sidecar combination doesn’t have the same kind of romance as the likes of the formidable M4 Sherman tank, the fierce Tiger I, the iconic Spitfire, or the ill-fated A6M Zero, the sidecar was one of the key weapons used on all sides in the Second World War and deserves its place in history alongside those other icons. So, with that in mind we’ve decided to put together a list of some of our favorite sidecar rigs from World War Two. Some you’ll know, but hopefully there’ll be a fair few that you won’t.
10 Combat Ready WW2 Motorcycle Sidecar Rigs
The Indian Model 340 B
While Harley-Davidson are more associated with military motorcycles, let’s not forget Indian. This particular example, the Indian Model 340 B, was a smart air-cooled v-twin sidecar outfit manufactured between 1940 and 1942. Based around the old-school Big Chief, this 1206cc behemoth was capable of 30 hp at 4,000 rpm, and was a force to be reckoned with. Originally, the machines were fitted with a sidecar on the right hand side, but most people remember them without a sidecar, which is a shame.
While Indian Motorcycles obviously made bikes for the USA, they also manufactured 5,000 of these for the French military too. In total, there were 9,374 of these models made, but since they were such a favorite for solo riders, most people forget that they were originally built with a sidecar in mind.
The Kurogane Type 95
In the years before World War II, Japan had formed an agreement with Harley-Davidson to produce their motorcycles under license, and we’ve all heard of the Sankyo Company’s Type 97 before, right? However, by 1937 when Japan had entered the Sino-Japanese War the landscape had changed somewhat, and Japan needed more motorcycles than could be supplied. To keep up with demand, the army asked the Nihon Nai-Enki Company (under Sankyo) to produce a series of 1200cc flathead powered sidecar rigs to satisfy the demand.
These 1260cc v-twin sidecar units were dubbed the “Kurogane” or Black Iron in English. Only producing 12 hp, these motorcycles were actually quite big for what they were, and required some muscle to ride. Although this one pictured is equipped with a weapon, the Kurogane Type 95 was more commonly used to move officers from place to place. Only manufactured for a brief period between 1937 and 1945, the Kurogane Type 95 is actually one of the rarer sidecar units in the world, and seldom seen in the flesh.
The Norton Big Four 633
The Norton Model 1 “Big Four” was in constant production in one guise or another between the years 1907 to 1954, and for the most part is was used as a full on motorcycle sidecar rig. Powered by a 633cc side valve, air-cooled, single cylinder lump, the Big Four was one of Great Britain’s most famous sidecar machines. During World War II, the sidecar was often reinforced for passenger protection and equipped with a Bren gun or a more devastating 3 inch mortar arrangement.
In any case, this 14.5 hp machine might not have the highest power output but it was certainly more than capable of transporting up to three soldiers and a good load of equipment and munitions too. During the war, over 4,700 models were produced and were worked to death around the battlefields of Europe. Since the Norton Big Four was one of the most effective sidecar outfits in use, very few survived the end of the war – making genuine models a bit of rarity these days. The Big Four was eventually phased out after Norton began manufacturing twin engines from the mid-50s onward.
The Gillet Herstal 720 AF
Early on in the war, it was clear that the French military needed more sidecar machines than their existing factories could produce. The Societe des Moteurs Gnome motorcycle factory that normally built France’s military motorcycles was stretched to maximum output and couldn’t fill the amount of orders coming in. In response to this, the French top brass decided to look outside of their own borders for help.
After extensive testing, the Belgian manufacturer Ateliers Gillet was tasked with building sidecar rigs, with sidecars supplied by France’s Bernadet Porte Dragon. In total, 1,500 of these Gillet Herstal 720 AF motorcycles were ordered, powered by a 728cc twin-cylinder two stroke engine capable of 22 hp at 4,000 rpm, mated to a six speed gearbox, with an all-important reverse gear. Despite the 1,500 ordered, only 784 were ever completed thanks to a small component manufactured by Bosch…and with Germany declaring war on France in 1940, it made further production impossible.
The BSA G14
While the BSA G-designated motorcycles had been in production in one form or another since 1924, it’s the post-1936 G14 series that saw the most action in World War II. The BSA G14 was essentially a 986cc v-twin powered motorcycle that came in a solo or motorcycle sidecar configuration. While it was a popular solo choice, it was actually designed as a working motorcycle sidecar arrangement for transporting loads and human personnel. With its powerful engine, smooth ride experience, and off-road prowess, the G14 sidecar became a popular military vehicle.
In fact, the Dutch were rather taken with it, and after abandoning supply deal from BMW in 1937, the country turned to BSA to meet their military motorcycle sidecar needs. Germany obviously invaded Holland in 1939, but before the occupation BSA provided Holland with 1,750 models. Holland weren’t the only country who were impressed with the G14, since India, South Africa, Sweden, and Ireland, were supplied with them in the years preceding World War II. Of course, it was also a firm favorite for the British army too – however, the G14 sidecar model was discontinued in 1940.
The BMW R75
The BMW R75 is arguably one of the most iconic motorcycle sidecar outfits from the Second World War. Originally commissioned by the German Army, BMW got to work developing the R75 in 1938, producing their first units in 1940, producing over 16,000 of them before the model was discontinued in 1944. The BMW R75 was powered by an impressive 750cc boxer engine which would go on to be a major engine configuration for BMW Motorrad’s post-war range. The R75 was also a shaft-driven model, with a locking differential, selectable on and off-road gear ratios, and reverse gears.
The R75 was one of the most celebrated sidecar combinations of the war thanks to its maneuverability and off-road abilities, as well as its practical versatility – as you can see here, it was capable of being both an armored attack vehicle and a transport machine at the same time, complete with a motorcycle trailer! Interestingly, the successful nature of this sidecar machine was noted by the US Army who appreciated the shaft-drive, and it was subsequently copied on the XA Harley Davidson motorcycle model. The Russian’s also copied the R75 and borrowed many of its best parts.
The MMZ/IMZ/GAZ/Dnepr M-72
The M-72 was the Soviet Union’s reaction to the BMW R-71. With Germany’s power rising in the pre-war years, Russia took notice and began developing weapons for the Red Army to try and keep Hitler’s ambitions in check. Noting the superiority of Germany’s heavy motorcycles, the Soviet Union literally stole the BMW R-71 concept and built their own version, adapting an already successful idea to save time. While the M-72 sidecar was built by numerous manufacturers under orders from the Red army, the IMZ Irbit factory is probably the manufacturer best associated with the model.
Featuring a 746cc boxer engine capable of 22 hp, this motorcycle side car rig was one of the most heavily produced motorcycles of the time, with over 330,000 units produced between 1941 and 1956. During the war, it was capable of transporting soldiers and munitions over tough terrain. M-72s were often equipped with Degtyaryov machine guns with revolving mounts too, for easy combat maneuvers.
The Moto Guzzi Trialce
Alright, we know, this one isn’t a sidecar – but since no-one is going to be compiling a list of military motorcycle trike models anytime soon, we decided to lump it in with military motorcycle sidecar units instead. This is the first Italian motorcycle on our list, and this one was made by Moto Guzzi in 1940. The Trialce is a strange breed of trike that was a variation of the Alce motorcycle. Unlike a lot of motorcycles on this list, the Trialce is purely a military model and as a military machine it’s quite impressive.
Built to be a versatile trike that can be used as a transport for soldiers, cargo and weapons, as a freestanding gun emplacement, and it even had a collapsible version that could be dropped with paratroopers. The version here comes equipped with a powerful 22mm anti-aircraft cannon standing tall on the bed, and it was a fairly useful weapon – particularly in North Africa where air attacks would regularly harass Italian troop movements. Mechanically, the Trialce was powered by a 500cc singe cylinder engine capable of 13.2 hp at 4,000 rpm, hitting speeds of up to 45 mph and carrying up to 1,763 lbs of goods. Only 1741 of these amazing motorcycles were ever made between the years 1941 and 1943.
The Rikuo Type 97
The Rikuo Type 97 is not only one of the most incredible military motorcycle sidecar units ever manufactured, it’s actually the product of one of the most interesting motorcycle stories in history. What effectively began as a Harley-Davidson factory being transported to Japan for the purposes of producing licensed Harley machines for the Japanese, it all got rather embarrassing when Japan would go to war with the USA a few years later. Thanks to the success of the civilian model Rikuo models, the company would go on to produce an approximate 16,000 Type 97 models built purely for war – particularly to help the Japanese Imperial Army tackle rough terrain during their invasion of China.
Each model was capable of transporting up to three soldiers, could be equipped with a mounted machine gun, and these highly maneuverable were critical to Japan’s war effort. Powered by a 1274cc v-twin engine capable of 22 hp, this sidecar rig was one of the most iconic of the Second World War. Despite the large production volume, very few still exist today. In an interesting twist of fate, however, Rikuo would go on to produce motorcycles after the way, before eventually being bought by a brand named Showa…who we all know today as a suspension manufacturer, who often provide the suspension for Harley-Davidson motorcycles…funny old world, isn’t it?
The Zündapp KS 750
While BMW (and the BMW R71 in particular) are usually the go-to stock answer for German sidecar combos from World War II, let’s not forget Zündapp, a manufacturer that was equal to, if not more important than BMW in terms of the Axis war effort. The model we’re looking at here is the Zündapp KS 750 which was manufactured between the years 1940 and 1944. Powered by a beastly 751cc four-stroke boxer twin engine with a maximum power output of 26 hp at 4,000 rpm that could hit top speeds of around 57 mph, the Zündapp KS 750 was quite a formidable machine.
It also came equipped with a useful front and rear wheel suspension control system that could be adjusted to compensate for differing road conditions, a cool feature that allowed it to continue being ridden with a punctured fuel tank, a clever fuel saving system that kept the engine from overheating, and it could also water with the engine submerged. This impressive motorcycle sidecar rig also came equipped with ammunition pouches and a forward facing machine gun.
Coming in two paint schemes, dark grey for European deployment and dark yellow for the North African theater, over 18,600 models were produced during the war years. Unfortunately it was discontinued in 1944, because the Zündapp KS 750 was such an advanced motorcycle sidecar combination, it wasn’t cost effective to manufacture. In fact, one Zündapp KS 750 cost as much as two Volkswagen Kübelwagens to produce, which were infinitely more useful.
Photos courtesy of the incredible Motorworld vintage motorcycle collection by Vyacheslav Sheyanov.
Motorcycle Sidecar Manufacturers: Who Still Makes Sidecars?
If you’re inspired by these legendary WW2 motorcycle and sidecar rigs and want an unusual mode of transport for yourself, where do you turn these days? Where can you find a motorcycle with sidecar for sale?
Unfortunately, the golden age of the sidecar has been and gone. However, there are still a few places that you can turn to if you’re looking for a bike with sidecar combination.
If you’re looking for a factory made machine from a known brand then there is only one place to turn: Ural. Ural are a Russian manufacturer of sidecar motorcycles, using BMW-inspired boxer engines and chassis design, with a Russian twist. If you’re looking for a WW2 German motorcycle but don’t feel like paying German prices, then the humble Ural is a fine alternative.
Harley-Davidson was one of the last bastions of sidecar manufacture, but unfortunately the company ceased production of all sidecar models in 2011. They do still provide support and parts for their older sidecar models, but today if you’re looking for a Harley Davidson sidecar for sale, you’ll have to buy second hand.
Don’t be disheartened though! There are plenty of sidecar specialists who can custom built and attach a sidecar to almost any kind of motorcycle, whether they’re American, British, Japanese, Italian, or German motorcycles. Companies such as DMC Sidecars, Champion Sidecars, Motorvation Engineering, and EZS Sidecar are specialist sidecar builders that service clients in the USA, and for remarkably reasonable prices too.
However, if you’re looking for a more DIY approach, try searching online for “sidecar kits” because there are plenty of engineering firms who have designed and built easy to bolt-on sidecar rigs that fit a number of popular chassis types.