A Guide by 3 Wheels Better
Often, the best route into sidecars for the uninitiated is to buy a used, already built motorcycle sidecar outfit.
There are various reasons for this.
Cost. In terms of value for money, it can be cheaper to buy a used a outfit than to buy a sidecar and fit it to your motorcycle (or definitely if you buy a motorcycle as well). Used outfits do not command big money in most markets. This is usually because there are so many different combinations of bike and sidecar that each built outfit only appeals to a very small number of people. Buying a new sidecar and the fittings required, plus any subframes etc. is an expensive business. Even used sidecars can be expensive, especially once you factor in the cost of fittings, which can be as much as the sidecar itself.
You don’t know anything about how to do the fitting and setup.Or you don’t want to do it, don’t think you have the necessary skills to do it, or can’t find anyone else to do it in your area. It’s not like there are sidecar shops on every high street.
You are impatient and just want one NOW!
However, there are some pitfalls to be avoided here.
First and most important. Will the used outfit you’ve set your heart on be safe to drive and set up correctly?
A large proportion of used outfits will have been built by an individual rather than a sidecar shop.
Some that have been built by a sidecar shop may have been adapted, changed, refitted, or generally messed around with over a period of years.
Now, I am the last person to suggest that all self fitted or older shop built outfits are bad. A great many people do a fantastic job. But not all.
If you have no experience, you will not know how to tell if it’s any good or not.
You probably know motorcycles, so that part you can do the usual checks and be reasonably confident that all will be ok. If not, take a friend who knows to check that side of things out for you.
Of course, if you are willing to do some work yourself, you might be able to pick up a bargain on a less than great outfit which you can bring back to good working order yourself.
Here’s what you need to know and first, some good questions to ask the owner.
When was the outfit built? If the owner doesn’t know the answer, then it’s likely that they bought it as a used built outfit.
Who built the outfit? If they built it, did they use new fittings? If not, where did the fittings come from? Often, people use old used fittings which in some cases can be decades old, having been used, discarded in a shed or outside for years, then picked up, sold on, given a quick spray can paint job and used again. This is a recipe for disaster.
What is the current setup and when was it last setup? They should be able to quote toe in, wheel lead and bike lean out figures. If they can’t, then you can assume that they have not checked the setup at any time, or set it up since they have owned it. This means you have to at least check the setup and very likely reset it up. Setup can change over time, especially if the outfit has been kerbed hard, or been in any kind of road traffic accident.
When did they last check the fittings? Sidecar fittings need checking on a regular basis. Because they are the only thing holding the whole outfit together. They can become loose, they can crack. They can break.
How does it ride? Explain that you are new to sidecars and see if they can explain how to pilot a sidecar around left and right hand corners. If their answers do not conform to the correct method, this may signal an issue with the outfit.
When did they last check or replace the sidecar wheel bearings, swingarm bearings (if any) and suspension, axle etc?
What tyre pressures do they use? With sidecar outfits, tyres are often non standard on the bike. Tyre pressures can affect how the outfit handles dramatically. A good owner will have, over time, established what pressures work best.
Ask how long the tyres last if the owner has had it a while, they should know.
If there are any red flags from the answers you receive and you are not happy at this stage, it’s best to walk away and find another one. Don’t waste your time looking any deeper.
If all is well, then it’s time to check over the sidecar outfit.
Here’s my list of checks to do (not including the bike, except for sidecar specific modifications).
First, is the sidecar suitable for your intended purpose?
By this I mean will it fit your passenger if you intend to take one? Human or dog!
Will your passenger be able to get in and out ok? Some are considerably easier than others.
Will it carry the items that you want to carry? Maybe you want to go camping with it, etc.
Does it have a tonneau to cover the load?
Take a close look at how the sidecar is fitted to the bike. If it has a subframe on the bike, how is that attached? If any one part is welded to the bike frame, ask who did the welding. Welding to a motorcycle frame should only be done by skilled welders and even then, it’s almost always better avoided.
Does it look generally sturdy and solid? Stand on the side of the bike opposite the sidecar and grab a good hold of the bike. Push it hard towards the sidecar and pull it back hard. The only movement should be in the sidecar suspension. If you feel or hear knocking, something is loose. If there is movement, then the fitting is not solid. This is very bad! Investigate further.
Take a close look at the fittings themselves. How many are there? The usual number is 4. Some sidecars can be fitted with 3, but rarely. You ideally want two upper and two lower fittings, as far apart as possible. If the two lower fittings are too close together, it’s unlikely they will support the sidecar well enough. The same applies to the upper fittings.
Are the fittings connected to the bike with frame clamps or attached to subframes? There is nothing wrong with frame clamps. But ideally, it’s better not to have frame clamps on both lower mounts, one is OK, none is better. As they can end up forming a hinge. Movement is bad.
Are the fitting struts themselves in good order? Be suspicious of shiny new paint on old fittings. It can cover a world of sins. Are any of the fitting arms of the sliding joint type? Unless they are very substantial, these can move in use. Screw threaded arms are much better.
Give all the arms a good pull and see if they move. They should be rock solid.
Is there a complex mess of multiple arms going from the sidecar to the bike for one fitting position? It’s always better to have one arm directly from the sidecar to the bike, to help avoid movement.
Often, amateur sidecar fitters will use more than 4 fittings. This is fine, but it will often make setup much more difficult to adjust.
If the fittings are welded in a fixed position and angle on the sidecar, you will not be able to change the setup.
Lift the sidecar and place an axle stand, jack or something suitable to support the frame, with the wheel off the ground.
Grab hold of the sidecar wheel at the top and bottom and wiggle it to feel for any movement. There should be none. If there is, the wheel bearing either needs adjusting in the case of taper bearings, or replacing if normal bearings. Spin the wheel. It should spin freely and quietly. If it sounds rough, the bearing is worn out. Check the tyre whilst you are there, for tread, type, cracks etc.
Pull the wheel towards you and back in, you are again feeling for movement, this time in the swingarm bearings or bushes. No movement is acceptable.
Put the sidecar back down on the ground and stand on the frame and bounce. Does the suspension work quietly? Is there any damping? Check the shock absorber if it has one for leaks, condition and security of it’s mounting.
If the sidecar has a brake, how is it actuated? By cable, lever or hydraulic? How has this been linked up? There are multiple options. Does it work and release correctly?
Take a good look at the sidecar frame. Does it look sound? Be suspicious of fresh paint on an older sidecar frame. How has it been constructed? Is it the standard frame for the body or has a different body been fitted? Made by a well known manufacturer or by who?
Have a good look at the body, open any compartments such as the boot, if it has one. Is the body securely fitted to the frame? Any cracks in the body, or rust in the seams if it’s steel?
If it has a missing screen, these can be difficult to get, or impossible, or expensive.
Looking at the bike, it may have some sidecar specific items to be checked.
The most obvious might be if it has had any modifications to the steering and suspension.
This can include various trail reduction methods, such as leading links, different forks, leading legs, trail reducing yokes (triple trees) or hub centre steering.
These may also be accompanied by a different front wheel, tyre, brakes and suspension units.
Ask who made these, when they were fitted and by whom. Get as much information as you can as it will be useful in the future if they require any maintenance such as new springs, brake pads etc.
Does the bike have a steering damper fitted? Ask if the owner fitted it and if so why? If it was to prevent uncontrollable steering wobble, this will be masking an underlying issue with the outfit.
Is the steering damper fitted in such a way that it cannot impede the steering angle if it comes loose? Check the damper by turning the handlebars from lock to lock. It should not foul, or come near to fouling anything.
Some bikes will have a modified rear wheel or car wheel and / or be fitted with a car tyre. It may have a different brake setup as well. Get as much information about this as you can.
Is the suspension on the bike standard or has it been upgraded for sidecar work? If so, again, get as much information about this as you can.
Electrics can be problematic. Make sure to have a good look at this area as it is one that can cause lots of problems. In it’s simplest form, sidecar electrics are limited to providing power to lamps on the sidecar itself.
Sometimes there can be a lot more!
Check the wiring from the bike that powers the lights. Has it been done neatly and well with decent connectors. Where have the 12v feeds been taken from? Are there additional fuses? Where are the connections? All these things can cause problems if not done well.
Check that all the lights on the sidecar work correctly. You should only have indicators on one side of the bike and on the sidecar. The bike indicators on the sidecar side should be disconnected, removed or otherwise disabled.
Ideally, you want indicators, a red stop and tail lamp and a white front position lamp on the sidecar.
Often people will have fitted additional driving lamps too. How are these wired up and switched? Is there a relay? Do they work?
Sometimes people change the battery setup as well. Car batteries are sometimes fitted in the sidecar, which provide all the electrics for the bike and sidecar, including starting. This necessitates the routing of heavy amperage cables from the battery to the starting system on the bike. Have a really good look at these if fitted. They can be done well or extremely poorly.
Sometimes on older bikes, the charging system will have been upgraded to cope with additional lighting etc. Ask if this has been done and with what system.
Ask about any other electrical upgrades such as usb ports, chargers, music systems, etc.
In some countries, towbars are allowed on outfits. If the outfit has one and you intend to use it, have a good look at how it has been constructed. They can vary from excellent to dangerous. Ask how the owner has been using it and check the electrical connection if possible on their trailer.
Unless you already have some experience of driving a sidecar outfit, I do not recommend that you perform a test drive. At best, you will not learn anything as you do not know how it should drive. At worst you will scare yourself or have an accident. This is more common than you might think. Driving a sidecar outfit is nothing at all like riding a solo motorcycle and it requires time, knowledge and patience to be able to do it safely.
Of course, ask the owner if they would be willing to take you for a ride with you in the sidecar.
If you go ahead with the purchase, arrange to get the sidecar taken to your home or to a place where you will get some instruction or be able to ride it in an off the public road area where you can become accustomed to it. The owner may be willing to help you with this.
Many people will say that they rode their first outfit home. They won’t always be willing to mention how they almost came to grief along the way.
You can find a full set of sidecar riding lessons, developed over many years by me, as a sidecar instructor, which you can do by yourself, in The Sidecar Guide Book.
The book also contains a wealth of other information useful for new sidecar owners.
You can find it on Amazon in printed form or as an eBook for instant download on my website.
If you decide to fit your own sidecar or even build your own sidecar, you will find The Sidecar Technical Guide book invaluable. You can find this book in the same places as above.
I wish you luck and fun with your new sidecar outfit.
Please feel free to join our sidecar group on Facebook, where we like to help all sidecar drivers with advice and assistance in all matters related to sidecars. The group accompanies the Sidecar Guide Books.