March 02, 2008
THE BEIJING BIKE
Motorbikes with adjacent sidecars fill my mind with the glorious images of two generations; the British open-road sidecars in the 1920’s and the feared WWII German army sidecars. While their reasons for existence may be leagues apart, we live in a world filled with vans and buses, which makes the allure of crossing countries with remnants of our past all the more seductive. Of course, this is not an entirely accurate statement, sidecars are very much alive today Usually as extremely expensive variants, rich with leather and wood, or as cheap commuters put together in developing countries as a mode of transporting goods. Sidecars have always remained a niche interest in our history of transportation, too hefty to compete with motorbikes and outperformed when pitted against cars.
My first trip to Beijing many years ago, I was instantly struck by the crude yet beautiful Beijing Bike (as they are called). Leftover from the mass-produced PLA models of the 1960’s, the horizontal engines have remained unchanged, as have the looks of the bikes: squat like a bulldog, brimming with handles, rivets, and add-ons. Customizing your bike is almost a given, and there are plenty of bags, stow boxes, fuel canisters, spare tires, winches and machine gun variations to choose from. 750 cc engines drearily propel these heavy bikes—probably a good thing as they are quite unstable and require a good deal of reigning in to keep the bike traveling in the direction you intend. The endemic problem that these original engines have is that they do not reliably start and require a good deal of tuning from the driver. Of course, as is the case with many of the army surplus engines, they just lack a good hammering from your wrench. I guess in a world of Toyotas that start on cue, we forget that heavy-duty machinery, while fickle and temperamental, really does last forever. These engines will be wrench beaten and inefficient but running exactly as it does today in 2030 (can you say the same thing about your Matrix?).
The trunk of the bike can easily carry enough gear for a week’s trip or better, a huge cooler of beer and vodka. For the passenger, the sidecar is surprisingly comfortable and with a nice blanket or pillow, can easily weather the elements. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the driver, who is constantly pounded by the heft and rigidity of the frame. Nevertheless, as I traveled the outskirts of Beijing over the weekend, I found myself drunk on the experience. Wind in your face, curious glances and a strangely heavy yet solid driving feel. It was a short trip to test the bike I am now shipping to the Philippines, but as our group of 8 people and 4 bikes, carved through the countryside of Beijing, you remember that it is not the destination that makes it worthwhile, but the journey.
Bikes run from $2000 to $5000 and you will still need to pay for shipping (1.5 cbm) and taxes. The fun is in customizing the bike to suit your preference, so I suggest looking through your history books for the sort of machinery you want attached. For collectors looking for something with a bit more value, you can request for authentic (though most probably in battered condition) PLA bikes. These do have intrinsic value, though it does not yet have a significant buyers market. For my next trip ill be convincing some friends to fly into Ulaan Bator, cruise through the Mongolian deserts in our bikes, then fly back to Beijing (the bikes can be shipped back). Similar trips can be run into Tibet or China.