Bikes & Customs: Workshop

Recreating the spirit of the 50s

Triumph and retro sidecar: a perfect match

The most standout motorcycle accessory at east London’s Bike Shed this year? The sidecar. Not the newest innovation but one that’s been elusive in recent years.

In the early 50s, when the Triumph Bonneville was about to become a twinkle in Triumph’s eye, sidecars were a common sight on the roads of Europe and the UK. Of the 100,000 registered, a staggering half were built by specialist maker Watsonian, who produced 200 a week at a huge Birmingham factory in England’s industrial heartland. So why did the sidecar’s surge in popularity wane and why is the genre making a defiant comeback in the coolest of locations today?

 

It’s partly down to being different and getting noticed, says Director Ben Matthews, who points to the sidecar’s presence at events such as the Malle Rally and Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. Not to mention its acceptance among some of the world’s top customisers – as proof of its revival.

The day the sidecar died

Watsonian was founded, just a few years after Triumph’s launch, by Thomas Watson in 1912 and the sidecar found fame in the First World War as a way of rescuing injured soldiers from the front line.

Watsonian sidecars

The firm remained in the city even after fire devastated the factory in 1930. By then the sidecar was starting to make motorcycling a family affair, allowing people to involve their partners and even the children. Then the Reliant three-wheeler, the first four-seater car that only needed a motorcycle licence, killed the sidecar pretty much stone dead from its launch in the early 60s. The sidecar’s heyday was over before it had properly begun.

21st-century accessory

Today, buoyed by a retro revival and a string of celebrity endorsements, Watsonian sidecars are thriving, with 8 out of 10 customers this year choosing Triumphs to pair with their rigs.

In 1984, the company moved to a workshop in the picture-postcard Cotswolds countryside and merged with indie maker Squire, recreating in fibreglass some of the classic sidecar shapes that were the company’s trademark in the 50s.

Fuel tank cool

One of the most popular in Watsonian Squire’s seven-strong stable today is the iconic bullet-shaped Meteor, with its past firmly rooted in World War II folklore. Director Ben Matthews explains: “After the war there was a shortage of raw materials, but Watsonian found reserve fuel tanks from Mosquito Bombers and used them to build 200 sidecars.

“They were made of plywood and none exist now as they rotted, but fortunately someone made a mould that we use to create our fibreglass Meteor and Zanzara [Italian for mosquito] rigs.”

Artisan craftsmanship

It’s that connection with the past, artisan craftsmanship and bespoke wheels, covers and seats that lies behind the sidecar’s resurgence and new-found cool. It’s also said that Prince William and Kate are admirers and, for a younger generation, it’s been immortalised in the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Watsonian sidecars craftsmanship

“Because Triumph has such a strong reputation for its attention to detail and heritage combined with modern technology, we’re seeing orders from around the world, with 40% of our customers in America,” says Ben.

“Young people, as well as our main demographic of 40-plus riders, want to combine the retro look of a classic sidecar with the same vibe on an old or modern classic Bonneville for a completely different riding experience.”

Watsonian sidecars craftsmanship

The shape and engine-cradling frame of the Bonneville series and new Thunderbird make them perfect for bolting – using four rigid arms – to either a perimeter frame or platform chassis for the bespoke sidecar itself to sit in. Watsonian even makes a subframe so that a sidecar can be attached to a Rocket lll.

Triumph: the perfect sidekick

So why would you want to take a perfectly good two-wheel Triumph, make the whole thing wider and less manoeuvrable with another level of independent suspension? The answer, says Ben, is in trying something new: “Riding a Triumph with a sidecar is a completely different experience and one that’s utterly addictive once you get the hang of it. Driving an outfit isn’t difficult but it is very different to riding a solo bike, for example, you have to steer it through the bars, which is a weird feeling at first but really satisfying once you master it.”

The new old pillion

There’s a science to creating the perfect aerodynamic, comfortable and aesthetically retro sidecar, with the process taking around six weeks at Watsonian where the small team now complete just two a week.

Les Powell, who has been with Watsonian Squire for almost 40 years, says: “The build has to be done professionally or the whole thing won’t handle right.”

Workshop Manager, Ian Bell, who built his own sidecar outfit, adds: “You can’t just bolt a sidecar to a bike because geometry is important – the front of the sidecar needs to point slightly towards the bike, leaning out a little, with the wheel forward of the bike’s rear wheel.”

Watsonian sidecars

Ben sums up: “We’ve had guys in here in their 20s saying their girlfriends won’t ride pillion, so this is the only way to get them interested. We even had a young mum with a newborn who wanted one to take her baby around in. In truth, we’re delighted that the sidecar is making a comeback, whatever the reason.”