History of the Sidecar

From a simple bicycle to the World Wars to being a classic motorcycle attachment.

Have You Seen a Sidecar Lately?

When was the last time you saw a motorcyclist cruising around with a sidecar? Seeing sidecars attached to motorcycles is very rare these days, but they are still a novelty for some motorcycle enthusiasts. The sidecar has a rich history that goes far beyond what many have called an “extra chair accessory.”

It Started with a Bicycle

The sidecar’s history and creation have been attributed to Mr. Jean Bertoux, a French army officer, who created the sidecar in 1893. At the time, a French newspaper competition aimed to find the best way to have an additional passenger on a bicycle. It was Bertoux’s design that rose to prominence, with tubes connecting to the bicycle to support the cross member with a seat-mounted above it and a footboard below it.

When motorbikes rose to popularity, sidecars were also developed as an additional accessory alongside them. A sidecar appeared as a cartoon in an issue of the British newspaper called Motor Cycling in 1903. A patent was given to W.J. Graham who was working in Enfield and, along with partner, Jonathan A. Kahn, they both began production on the sidecar immediately.

Years before World War I began, other companies began making their own renditions of the sidecar. Among those companies were Frera, Harley-Davidson, Peugeot, Thor, Triumph, and Watsonian.

Watsonian, founded by Fred Watson in 1912, was one of the first sidecar manufacturers at the time. To this day, Watsonian still manufactures a wide variety of sidecar models.

In 1913, an American inventor named Hugo Young redesigned and improved the design of the sidecar. The new design sought to improve the flexibility of the sidecar, which was done by fixing the attachment of the sidecar to the motorbike and not rigidly fixing it to each other. This improvement made the rider and passenger have a much safer riding experience.

Young’s success led him to establish the Flexible Sidecar Company based in Ohio and it went on to become the largest sidecar manufacturer in the whole world.

The World Wars and the Depression

The World Wars saw the utilization of the motorbike sidecar as a means for the British Army to mobilize their Vickers machine guns, which required six to eight men to carry across the battlefield. The sidecar mitigated that problem by having the machine guns mounted on them so the British Army had more speed with mobilizing the machine guns in the field while chasing enemy troops. This special unit was coined the “Motor Machine Gun Service.”

After World War I, the use of sidecars started to decline but due to the Depression, they were used as a cheap means of transport. The Swallow Sidecar Company was founded during this time to fill the demand for the sidecar. The sidecar manufacturing company would go on to become Jaguar Cars.

Sidecars wound then be used again during WWII by the German military who drove BMW and Zundapp motorcycles.

The Decline of Sidecars and Transition into TV

During the 1950s, the general public already had access to cheap cars. As a result, the sidecar wasn’t able to compete with these auto manufacturers and the industry declined.

It was through TV and film that caused a resurgence in the sidecar, with notable shows like On The Buses and Last of the Summer Wine.

On The Buses was a sitcom starring Reg Varney and Bob Grant as a bus driver named Stan Butler and his friend, Jack Harper. The sidecar was used to add comedy to the show since it was made to be wobbly and fell apart easily.

The other show, Last of the Summer Wine, was about the misadventures of three old men. The sidecar was featured in three episodes, which chronicles them buying the motorcycle and sidecar and their succeeding adventures with it either falling off from the bike or rolling down a country road.

Sidecars may not be as popular as they were in the past, but they do have their place in the history of the motorcycle. For any moto enthusiast looking to add a sidecar to their vehicle, Watsonian, Liberty, and Steib design and manufacture sidecars to this day.

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