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Ural 10,000 km Review

Discussion in 'Bike Reviews, Questions and Suggestions' started by PatB, Jan 10, 2010.

  1. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, and a couple of new posts on the Transcontinental thread and the fact that I just gave the Ural its 10,000 km service a couple of weeks ago have prompted me to sit down and do a bit of a write up on a year and a half of Ural ownership.

    I have to be honest that it has been a bit of a mixed bag in some ways, but the bike still comes out well on the credit side of the ledger.

    Continued use has confirmed most of my first impressions. The machine is still a big, solid motorcycle, generally well made, with good handling and enough performance to keep up with traffic pretty much anywhere and sufficient brakes to stop safely when necessary.

    With the engine fully run in, she tops out at about an indicated 120 km/h and will cruise comfortably at up to 100 with some ability to accelerate with reasonable urgency if required. Acceleration from a standstill is limited not by the available power, but by the fact that, if you’re not 110% smooth with the clutch, the impressive torque and huge flywheels will pick the front wheel up and let the whole outfit skip energetically to the left. Not dangerous in the slightest, but a reminder that this isn’t about standing quarter mile times.

    The gearbox shows both the age of its design and its BMW origins. Shifting has to be slow and deliberate and the engagement of each gear is accompanied by a solid thwack as the dogs go home. It doesn’t feel unpleasant, just very mechanical. As a long time BMW owner I didn’t find it to be a problem - It was very similar to the 2000 R1100RT I had – but someone used to lightswitch Japanese boxes might take a while to acclimatise. Note for the younger generation; the Japanese have made some shocking gearboxes too, in their time, though you wouldn’t know it from much of what is said and written these days.

    The handling is, compared to my previous, rather vicious, tele-forked outfit, very safe and secure. Steering is precise and free of Razorback’s nasty tendency to tankslap violently over potholes. On rough surfaces you can screw down the big steering damper knob to take out the worst of the feedback, as long as you remember to unscrew it a bit to lighten the steering when the going gets smooth again. The whole outfit tends to move around on its springs all the time. I got used to this quite quickly, Razorback having been decidedly undersprung. MrsB, having cut her combo teeth on a plunger sprung BSA A10 with a rigid sidecar, found it a bit more disturbing, but with the better part of 6,000 km behind her has come to terms with it quite happily. The sidecar is heavy enough that it takes quite a deliberate effort to fly under most circumstances. I also have better things to do than play musical spokes more than I have to, so apart from a bit of showboating at T-junctions, the third wheel stays down most of the time. On left handers at speed, if things get lighter than is comfortable, there is enough torque that a good handful of throttle will settle everything back down. With a passenger, I’ve yet to experience any lift at all. It’s tremendous fun.

    When out and about, it still draws attention. Small crowds gather wherever it’s parked. This is rather flattering, but it can cause problems if you just want to get going without having to play 20 questions. Both MrsB and I have perfected the technique of hanging around inconspicuously, waiting for a break in the crowd before employing the sprint-leap-start-go move, assisted by the reverse gear which eliminates the slow, tedious pushing phase that attends the carelessly parked reverseless outfit. Just on the subject of reverse, with practice it’s possible to select reverse, back up, drop reverse, engage first and take off entirely with foot movements and without stopping for more than the briefest moment. Another mildly amusing party trick.

    Servicing, every 2,500 km has continued to be easy. I bought a sackful of oil and air filters with the bike and am still working through the stock. When I start having to buy them, oil filters will be ~$10 a pop, and I’ll probably stick a K & N in the air filter housing. Otherwise it’s just fluids, tappets and a general check of bolt and spoke tightness. The tappets seem to have settled down now, and haven’t needed adjustment since 5000 km. Similarly, the spokes don’t need tweaking as often, retaining their musical ping indefinitely. I have to confess to having been a bit ham-fisted in trying to get the gearbox and engine drain plugs fully oil tight and I’ve stripped both threads. Fortunately, they’re the same as a 14mm spark plug, for which I already had a Helicoil kit, so I now have superior steel threads in both units. As a matter of interest, I found that Recoil inserts (available from Malz and, I think, SuperCrap) work perfectly well with Helicoil insertion tools. I intend to fit a deep sump kit shortly anyway, and might Helicoil the plug thread as a matter of course before I fit it.

    I’ve invested in a small hand pump that fits to the top of a 5L oil can and makes filling the engine and gearbox easy and mess free. Trouble is, it only delivers a teaspoonful of oil with each stroke so it’s still quite time consuming. I need to look for something of similar convenience but greater capacity.

    The engine does show its 1940s origins by its oil tightness, or lack of it. It doesn’t leak as such, but casing joints sort of sweat a residue of oil, which then collects road dust and coats the outside of the engine. The actual quantities involved are negligible though. It doesn’t particularly bother either of us, as we regard grubby bikes as being an effective anti-theft measure, but obsessive polishers will need to apply the degreaser on a weekly basis. Mind you, it probably doesn’t help that neither of us babys the machine either. Once warmed up, it is ridden hard in modern traffic. Gentle Sunday pottering might not provoke such incontinence.

    Peripherally, I was astounded at how quickly the exposed bodies of the Russian NGK spark plugs rusted away. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The locally bought replacement plugs now in there are much more normal. I need to think about changing the HT leads as well.

    Tyre life seems to be about 5000 km for a rear (uncertain because there’s been some chopping and changing), 12,500 on the front (estimating that’ll be when the scalloped wear pattern gets too deep to ignore) and infinite on the sidecar. Life might improve with non-Russian tyres. I’m expecting to pay less than $100 a tyre for Mitas or Cheng Shin rubber. Outfits don’t need grip. Indeed, I consider a lack of it to be a safety feature, at least on the drive wheel. The original Russian tubes do lose pressure more rapidly than I’m used to and don’t do it uniformly. They can stay inflated for weeks on end, only to lose 15 psi overnight. I’ll be replacing them with Asian or European tubes as tyre changes occur.

    Chrome is a joke, which is one of the reasons we chose a model without much of it. The mufflers have gone brown and the downpipes are now entirely blue and purple. The exhausts are also rather crude in design. The balance pipe is connected to the downpipes by loose slip joints with no sealant or clamps and the mid pipes go into the muffler via a gland, tightened with a castellated nut that loosens off of its own accord and requires regular application of the C-spanner. I might splash out on a pair of short megas or Gold Star replicas to both improve the exhaust note and motivate me to improve the whole system.

    There have only been two significant reliability issues with the bike, one merely an irritant, but the other was a doozy.

    The biggy happened shortly after the 5000 km service when returning from a day out with the daughter in the sidecar. I was pottering slowly through the forecourt of a roadhouse about 10 km from home when there were a couple of clanks from the back end and the back wheel locked up solid. At first I thought the back wheel had collapsed, but a look behind showed it to be intact. Closer examination showed that part of the edge of the final drive housing, which forms the brake backplate, had broken away around the brake cam spindle. Looking through the resultant hole into the brake drum showed lots of broken metal, indicating a fairly serious failure. However, a lack of oil gave me some hope that the final drive itself was still intact.

    I managed to manhandle the disabled outfit out of the way of traffic, hoicked it onto its stand and started to pull out the back wheel. The spindle was jammed and the comprehensive toolkit lacks a hammer, so a rock from the side of the road was employed to knock it out. That done, the wheel came away without problems, revealing a brake drum full of shards and powder. Both brake shoes were smashed, the brake cam spindle had been broken out of the backplate (which is what I’d been able to see from outside) and some of the debris had made its way between backplate and drum, bending the edge of the drum itself. Fortunately, the final drive itself wasn't holed or otherwise damaged. Having got the wheel and the remains of the brake mechanism off and collected the debris in a carrier bag as evidence for the warranty claim, I was able to fit the spare wheel and continue home sans rear brake within 40 minutes of grinding to a halt. It would have been half that without the usual interest of passersby delaying things somewhat. Still having the sidecar anchor, riding home wasn’t as hazardous and irresponsible as it might sound.

    Once home, I rang Ural Australia, who were most helpful. I emailed photos of all the broken bits, despatched final drive and bent wheel via their chosen carriers and, in due course, received shiny new replacements for everything damaged in the incident, with no fuss whatsoever. The only pain was the time it takes to ship parts across the country, which meant the bike was off the road for a couple of weeks of good riding weather.

    As to the cause of the failure, I’m pretty certain it was a broken brake pull off spring that started it. A couple of US owners had already experienced spring failures, according to accounts on the Net, although theirs remained fairly trivial. It appears that, in my own case, the broken spring allowed one or both of the brake shoes to move away from the backplate and contact the radial ribs cast into the inside face of the brake drum, where they became jammed, precipitating the mechanical holocaust that followed as the wheel continued to rotate. Messy. Apparently late ’07 and early ’08 bikes got a rogue batch of springs and the fault has now been corrected. However, not wishing to take chances, I sourced some replacement springs of similar dimensions and non-Russian manufacture, replacing both rear and sidecar brake units. Ironically they’re from a 1950s Case tractor. I find it pleasing that two products with their roots firmly in the Cold War are now working in harmony on MrsB’s hack.

    It’s unfortunate that the failure of a 50c spring could cause so much damage, but, as I noted, the warranty claim was dealt with quickly and efficiently and the bike is back on the road with all new parts, so no complaints there.
    The other issue was that of an unstable idle. It would intermittently soar to astronomical levels, making riding in traffic very unpleasant. I fiddled with idle screws and carb balance for quite a while before finding the fault. The problem appeared to stem from the engine breather arrangement. To meet modern emission requirements, the engine breather was piped into the air filter housing adjacent to the inlet for the left hand carb. Being an older engine design, when used hard, the engine spits a certain amount of oil from the breather and this was both soaking the air filter and also going down the LH carby in sufficient quantities to bung up the air bleed jets in the carb mouth and put a sticky coating on the slide, preventing it from moving freely. Solution was easy. 10 minutes to strip the carb and apply carb cleaner to all drillings, followed by plugging the breather spigot on the air filter and piping the breather to discharge overboard aft of the rear wheel. A quick carb balance with my patent crap-o-matic balancer and the bike is running smoother and stronger than ever.
    Oh yes, one other fault has been the rubber donut universal joint behind the gearbox developing cracks. I finally got around to replacing it at the 10,000 km service, having noticed the issue at the 7,500 km service. Not sure why it went. I suspect crappy Russian rubber. I’m intending to use the original as a pattern to make up a polyurethane replacement if I can get an offcut of suitable PU. Changing it involves taking the final drive off the swingarm (not hard) and removing the swingarm from the bike, which is awkward. However, to be fair, the latter would not be necessary if it weren’t for the ADR mandated and wholly unnecessary parking brake mechanism getting in the way of access, so it’s not the fault of the bike. It did, however, prompt me to coat the driveshaft splines in the same grease I use for the purpose on my K100.

    So, all in all, a sound machine with a few faults that stem from the archaic design and still sub-Japanese quality control. Warranty support is very good, considering the distance issue, and, so far, parts availability is no problem, not that I’ve needed many so far. If parts aren’t available in Australia, I can source them from the UK or US without difficulty. It’s not a low maintenance proposition, being more like bikes were 50 years ago. Doing 25,000 kms a year on one would require more of my time that I’m currently prepared to give, but as a second vehicle it’s fantastic. It’s huge fun, is a relatively safe way of transporting kids, turns more heads than almost anything else I’ve ever driven or ridden, costs peanuts to run in cash terms and has massive potential for personalisation and improvement. In addition, I defy anyone to obtain an all-new, professionally built, comparably equipped outfit that performs as well (and before anyone says anything, an Enfield with a Cozy isn’t and doesn’t), for less than the $18,000 OTR that a base model Ural will cost. If the Ural offers what you want in a bike, there really aren’t a whole lot of choices out there.

    MrsB and I are still very happy indeed with our choice of chariot.

  2. Thanks for the update Pat.
    I've been following your Ural exploits with great interest.
    Best wishes mate.

  3. Fantastic! Great to see a review of the Urinal on here.

    It gets to be a pain riding something unusual. My bike is by no means as different as that, but after a while you get sick of the person meandering quickly towards you at the servo with a grin on their face. D'you get asked "What year model is that?" or "How old is she?"?

    Is Australia ever going to get the 2wd version?
  4. Good report, Pat, I always enjoy your writing.
  5. Thanks people :grin:.

    QW, yes, the standard question from 90% of onlookers is about the age of the bike and/or about its "restoration". I don't particularly mind the atention but MrsB gets quite antsy about it. Mind you, it seems to work. MrsB getting antsy sends even the least perceptive running for cover :grin:.

    No, we'll never see the 2WD imported. There is no way of getting it complianced for road use with a right hand chair and it's too expensive to compete with quads for off-road use only. Ain't gonna happen. Once again, I find myself irritated by Australia's irrational terror of LHD vehicles. As a Pom, I'm used to a country that's absolutely crawling with such things and, guess what, I've never seen it noted as a factor in road accidents.
  6. Thanks I was wondering how she went.
    Wish they imported the bikes not just outfits.
  7. Supply of solo bikes seems to have been intermittent or non-existent worldwide for some time now, regardless of what the catalogues might say, so I don't think it's just our importers.

    That said, I would be interested to have a go on a solo. Not the Wolf though. Apparently the publicity photos are very flattering. I have it on reliable authority that, in the metal, it's appearance has been known to make blind people vomit.
  8. They have been working on a new (or at least, seriously updated) solo model... we had a thread on that subject somewhere. Actually I think it was I who started it :)

    Edit: yeah, here it is

    But who knows, with the current economic situation etc etc, they might have postponed that project.
  9. Yeah, I remember that.

    I would expect the solo to handle much like a 1950s swingarm BSA. That is, predictable and goes where you point it, aided by a low CG, but limited by ground clearance, rather crude suspension and skinny 19" tyres (unless they stick 18 inchers on). The frame certainly bears strong resemblance to the gas-pipe efforts of the British factories of the time. That said, in the right hands, a 1950s Brit is still far from slow through the twistery.
  10. Furthermore, it's said they didn't even run their hands over it; just poked it with a stick!
  11. Thanks for the review - very interesting and takes me back to my Niva days in some ways. My dogs also seem to get more excited at all the possibilities with every Ural story told.