Somewhere in the 1930s was a “golden age” of the motorcycle: form and function, style and technology were mastered as a beautiful craft. The British Norton and Triumph were surpassed by the German BMW, DKV and Zundapp motorbikes. Many of these German bikes then were directly copied by many makers around the world including Harley Davidson. In 1937 a supercharged BMW 500cc set a speed record of 279km/h which stood for another 14 years.
The secret “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” German Russian Non-Aggression Treaty in 1939, facilitated technology transfer and the USSR was licensed to copy the BMW R 71 which had been rejected by the Wehrmacht in favour of the BMW R 75. There was a lot of motorcycle plagiarism in those days – BMW copied from a British Douglas in the early days and later the Harley-Davidson XA was a direct copy of a BMW bike. In fact large amounts of USA motorcycles motorcycles were supplied to the USSR during WWII as part of the Lend-Lease agreement.
Then after the war came post-war consumer-led development, the emergence of Japanese bikes and US vets intent on mutilating their Harleys to match their own cultural perspective.
Russian motorbikes developed differently in their own space-time warp behind the iron curtain – and in my opinion retained the integrity as a raw power machines. Simple for sure, and as reliable as your own ability to fix the next problem brewing within that “old iron”. This turned out to be a formula for survival: the machine remained crude enough for people to repair with a little innovation and essential brute force. Bear in mind that marketing was not much of a consideration. Quality was an ideal discipline, yet reaching a functioning level was enough – scarcity would ensure that the bearings, carburettors or brake pads would sell anyway. Despite years of Soviet “rationalization of production” and disregard for craftsmanship and finish, the underlying DNA of the German motorcycle design persisted. This is especially evident when tracking the pedigree of KMZ “Dnepr” and the IMZ “Ural” motorcycles, but also in several other Soviet marks.
This article is an introduction to a graphic chart tracking the development of the 2 major Russian motorcycle marks.
Product branding did not fit with the Soviet ideology, but there were “Producer Marks” or logos identifying the factory of origin plus a model number. Production was standardized, with a few different factories making the same models and parts interchangeable between different models: it all became confused and the public generally referred to them all as the “M” motorcycles. To try to figure out the parallel evolution of the KMZ “Dnepr” and the IMZ “Ural” motorcycles, I have made a sort of annotated graphic family-tree which maps out the many versions of these motorcycles from 1940 to 2000.
These “heavy motorcycles” typically with 750cc overhead “boxer” engines and crankshaft drive, often have a sidecar and are known for their endurance and longevity. The Ural factory in Irbit has been revived and is gaining export markets offering sidecar motorcycles with reverse gear, sidecar wheel drive and high ground clearance for UN, military and civilian off road use. Many years of standardization, inter- changeability and ongoing production of consumable parts means that a very large (unknown) amount of these old bikes still work the roads where the Soviet sphere held influence. One major element which I have not included in the KMZ “Dnepr”and IMZ “Ural” graphic family tree is the “Chang Jiang” versions. In 1957 the M-72 factory lines were sold to the Chinese military and they continue to produce the same interchangeable bike – during the mid 1980′s the Chinese were still producing the R71 copy from factories which had physically migrated from eastern Europe to eastern Asia. If you bang a BMW logo on to the Made In China version then it looks just like a classic BMW restoration … so, the design and production continues today from motorcycles of the 1903′s.
There is also strong interest in restoration of the antique motorcycles as a hobby. Some bikes are restored to perfect “factory mint condition (or better)”, others are restored to regular working condition in a way which retains their antique character complete with original paintwork still bearing the scars, wear and tear of its history. Many small local flea markets and larger specialised antique motorcycle fairs are sources of “garage find” bikes, donor bikes and parts. In fact, several small producers have specialised in authentic reproductions of part from lights to exhaust pipes, handlebars, and more. In recent years, the internet has become of great help to restorers seeking information and obscure rusty shapes of iron get turned into PayPal credits.
Since 1933 Russian motorcycle makers had been copying German motorcycles. By 1939 they were in a good position to copy the BMW R-71 and after WWII they moved a whole BMW factory from East Germany to Russia. This turned out to have a huge influence on the two largest Russian motorcycle makers – a strong influence which continues today. Shielded by an Iron Curtain the ‘dinosaur of motorcycles’, the Russian Ural still survives and has found new off-road markets especially in northern America.
The Russian Ural story goes that five R-71 motorcycles were covertly purchased through some Swedish intermediaries. Soviet engineers in Moscow then dismantled the BMWs, reverse engineered the design in every detail and made molds and dies to produce their own engines and gearboxes in Moscow. Early in 1941, the first prototypes of the M-72 motorcycle were shown to Stalin who made the decision to enter mass production. (One of the original BMWs still survives and is on display in the IMZ-Ural factory museum.)
Like the BMW, the Russian M-72 motorcycle had a crankshaft drive plus a Wehrmacht style sidecar. Concerned about the effectiveness of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, Soviet strategists decided to move the Moscow factory away from German bomber range to Irbit east of the Ural mountains. A brewery near the railway line was converted to manufacture massive amounts of the M-72 motorcycle. Late in 1942 the first batch of motorcycles arrived on the eastern front for reconnaissance detachments and mobile troops.
After WWII the tables had turned – BMW was prohibited from manufacturing engines, while the Russian had captured the BMW factory in Eisenbach and took the factory (including many engineers) as war repatriations to the IMZ factory in Irbit. Following WWII the factory developed and expanded, with several new versions of the M motorcycle produced and by 1950 the 30,000th motorcycle was produced.
Initially, the “URAL” was built for the military only. In the late 1950s, the KMZ plant in the Ukraine took over the task of supplying the military and the Irbit Motorcycle Works (IMZ) began to concentrate on making bikes for domestic consumers. In the late 1950s the full production of the plant was turned over to non-military production. In 1957 the M-72 production lines were sold to the People’s Republic of China.
In the 1990s the IMZ factory was going through hard times. Following privatization it found itself with zero cash, a huge sprawling industrial complex with a great many employees. In the wild east days of Yeltsin and the Commonwealth of Independent States there was a general roller coaster rouble inflation learning curve. The days of “workers pretending to work and employers pretending to pay” were now limited. There are reports that for a short time, workers salaries were paid with bags of onions. With the last decade, big steps towards modernisation were taken, the 5km production line was shortened to 1km and the Ural brand has subsequently been revived. The Dnepr at KMZ in Kiev, Ukraine has finished production – the overhead production lines have been sold it is now a wholesale grocery warehouse.
Today, IMZ is exporting well with the URAL brand producing 904 motorcycles in 2008 – they now have a decent product range. In addition to a reverse gear, 80% of bikes sold have a drive shaft to the sidecar wheel with high ground clearance models “Ural Patrol” and “Gear Up” being the most popular. Ural is targeting the off-road adventure market, positioning it as the as the original street legal ATV while calling on its military heritage and pulling on the threads of US nostalgia for things Russkie Red.
In 2008 only 16 were sold in Russia and 60% of sales went to north America, the remainder mostly to western Europe and Australia. The basic frame, body and engine and assembly is done in Irbit, but the modern Ural is fitted with reliable OMV carburettors, Bembo front disk brake, Austrian gearing, and of course the catalizer to keep up with the Joneses in California.
So, while this motorcycle has made it through the long muddy rut of post Soviet Union it now may find itself in the tall grass of western motorcycle brand marketing. Ural will surely forge on, using the sidecar element to make a path, but still it needs to find a way of reconciling how it continues the heritage of the BMW, while also finding a way of cleaning up some of the design mistakes it has itself made over the years. Engine, body and modern add- ons are fine at the moment, but the finish and style fixtures (lights, indicators, exhausts, pinstripe paint work) all need improvement. In the last few years, a luxury Ural Retro sidecar and a solo Wolf version have moved in this direction, with a “retro classic style”, yet the small production run could only go so far, constrained by having to use many stock parts, not in keeping with the original specifications. International safety certification has now become a barrier to change here, the old style parts not fulfilling the modern laws. While it may take the factory a while to create the perfect retro classic version, users are going ahead and making their own speculative versions of future retro bikes.
Michael Walsh is a graphic designer from Ireland and has been living in Tartu, Estonia since 1992. An underlying element in his work is a search for a reinterpretation of design classics in a contemporary way which respects aesthetic heritage and craft. A manifesto with some results. Modern is embraced but fashion is avoided. “History has defined the known tricks and only sometimes do we get a chance to add a new one. Old ways have a logic to which new can be fitted (often best fitted) if it carries on the integrity of the old object. Researching the history of whatever is rewarding, while most garbage is modern and there is too much to be sorted yet. Production is a supply and demand result. Value of a thing is based on functional longevity rather than current popularity or scarcity.”
Thanks for the comments and your information. I can not at the moment say that you are incorrect – this is not a Wikipedia entry, but more a popular history story. Some details were summarized to avoid information overload for a casual reader. It is a few years since I did the research – and sources were other web postings. The article does not state that the Russian “stole” the factory from Eisenbach, the article states that “the Russian had captured the BMW factory in Eisenbach and took the factory (including many engineers) as war repatriations”. Weather directly to Kiev, or later to Irbit, may have been part of reducing detail to avoid distraction from the main story.
I do not want to contribute to pseudohistory amd I am very interested in this subject.
I look forward to more information from you (please contact me directly) and I would be happy to make corrections to the text if you could provide me with more details based on your research.
The R71 was not rejected in favour of the R75. The wehrmacht preferred the Zundapp featured in the picture, and told BMW that unless they came up with something better, BMW could begin producing Zundapps. Then BMW developed the R75, which was mainly used by the Africa Corps. BMW was in troubl, they already had an OHV for civilian use, the SV was not wanted by the military, and it was a godsend that it was given to the Russians who neither stole it or copied it. It was produced on the BMW tools set-up by German emgineers, and was de facto a Russian-produced R71 named M72. When the Soviet Union didn’t want it anymore it went to China together with the now unneeded Gorkij plant. In China (NangKang) it became the Chang Jiang 750, of which I own a 1960 model besides my 1965 KMZ K750M. The russians did steal the Eisenach factory and moved it to Kiev, where it became Kievskij Motocykletnij Zavod- KMZ – Kiev’s Motorcycle Factory.
Great website, interesting layout and scrolling pictures. I own a 1981 Dnepr and got it on the road last year after last being Taxed in 1983.
If you want to see it take a look here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wn9U1jFoA4
I’m currently trying to design a suitable Tank logo as surprisingly due to it’s history it never seemed to get a proper one – currently grappling with KMZ and Dnepr to form something. If you are interested I can share the designs I have with you. Have you got any information on logo history?
Beautiful site! Love the bikes and the tyhttp://divedivedive.org/g/1_submit.pngpe!
Enjoyed your site, thanks.
Im just finishing the restoration of my M72 and liked the pictures, good inspiration for another trip to the garage!
Youve captured the ethos perfectly, the bikes are two wheeled tractors and their charm is in their heritage and rugged simplicity
Graig there at Happy Trail:, give us a few links to photos…
Take care, Michael.
I use various old tecnologys that I have found to work well for me.I owned a Dnepr in the 1980′s, & became addicted to driving a combination. My 1994 Ural 650 is like a family member,it will eventually become a 750 with electric start-if my 650 engine breaks. I am able to do all my own work & recommend owning one.