Irbit is an old trading town, where the Asian traders met the European traders. During the winter trading meet, the population rose from around 5,000 to 40,000. When the Trans Siberian rail was built and it bypassed the town, Irbit lost a lot of its significance. WW2 brought a surge of investment with construction of wartime factories way out east where the German bombers were out of range.
The Ural motorcycle factory played a part in Russia defeating the Germans and it went on to reach a production peak of around 13,000 bikes annually in late 70’s early 80’s. The factory has now celebrated 70 years of production.
We flew into Yekaterinburg, the 3rd largest Russian city located half way along the Trans Siberian rail and site of the assassination of the Czar and his family in the Revolution. We stayed in the “Ural Hotel” an unusual looking architectural piece from the communist era and set out for Irbit next day. It was a 180km drive and we travelled through flat areas of forest and cropped farmland.
The first impression of Irbit was of a town which had been left behind as industry and jobs moved elsewhere. It must have been quite impressive with its wartime factories in full production and its relevance prior to the railway taking business elsewhere.
The Irbit Motor Works was a 10 hectare collection of buildings for manufacture and administration of practically every component used in the bikes. Now it is a 2 hectare factory with concrete buildings showing signs of decay which is no doubt hastened by the ravages of a winter freeze. The upkeep of these buildings to our western standards would be prohibitive given the proceeds from an annual turnover of 1200 bikes.
Original front entrance to the factory - no longer in use
Vladimir, Jon and Ilya in front of factory
Ilya and his factory manager Vladimir gave me an unrestricted tour of the factory and then time to go back and watch closely any of the many processes that are still done in the factory. I asked about what I could look at and talk about in their factory, Ilya replied, “there are no secrets here”. This visit was to reveal the reality of producing Ural motorcycles for sale in the more sophisticated economies of the world – a remarkable achievement by some hard working and clever people.
The machine rooms were huge, with over 800 machines still used out of more than 900 the factory owns. There is no production chain and automation like you see in modern car factories. Many of the machines make just one part at a time and require an operator in attendance, while others process maybe 8 pieces before reloading and the operator is in charge of several machines at once. Transporting parts around the factory is done manually and then once they are collected together, with a forklift. There are less than 150 employees now to produce 1200 bikes where it was once some 5,000 to produce 13,000 bikes a year.
There are many thousands of parts that go to make up each sidecar motorcycle and many of them require multiple processes to produce, including casting, drilling, milling, finishing painting etc before assembly. The Russian workers were all beavering away doing this with skills many of them have used for twenty or thirty years in this factory. They are mostly proud of their product, and largely unaware of the lifestyle the end users enjoy in countries like the USA.
An example of the hand-building process - engine studs being screwed in
The machines are mostly from the 60’s I think and the bikes and sidecars are from the same era. It is like a retro factory with retro machines producing retro bikes! Many of my customers say to me “why don’t they put disc brakes all round?”, “Can’t they fit a fuel injection system to improve fuel economy?”, “Surely the brake linkage should be better adjusted when they assemble the bike”, and so on! The answer lies in the fact that probably every other motor vehicle factory from that age is dead and gone. With an annual production of 1200 this factory defies gravity. We are extraordinarily lucky to be able to still purchase one of these virtually hand built unique motorcycles and enjoy a reliable ride on the highways alongside products of our highly regulated motor vehicle industry!
The economics are no doubt razer sharp. The dedication of the team in IMWA is the stuff of legends. This is a passion for them as they survived the 2008 GFC and the daily struggle to manage the factory production and their worldwide marketing and product support. Ilya alone has a huge responsibility as he tries to continually refine the components chosen for the production, search for new and better technology and spend time at Irbit to oversee the production. Keeping the old machines running efficiently is a task not easily fulfilled and the cost of new replacement machines is beyond the scope of the present output.
Ilya tells me the present machinery if pensioned tomorrow would only recover scrap value per tonne versus up to a million dollars for each replacement state of the art machine! The alternative is to source more components elsewhere in the world and this progresses as fast as it can given the constraints of available cash and research time. Every motorcycle part is related to the parts surrounding it and a smart fix for one part can disrupt the surrounding bits without further research and trials!
This Ural outfit is on display in the Irbit Museum - this is in the Guiness Book of World Records for running non-stop for 25,000kms.
As I watched one person assemble a complete motor in quite a short time I marvelled that one man could do so many different processes quickly and accurately and maintain concentration. Maybe it is a measure of the simplicity of these engines.
Ilya puts in the hours, the focus and dedication of the top corporate high flyers, but his world is not about first class accommodation, first class travel and big salaries. As we headed out of Yekaterinburg to Irbit where town shuts down after 8pm, he buys some biscuits and cheese from the supermarket and a bottle or two of potable water so when he leaves the factory at 11pm he can get a feed in his room before turning in for the night. Back in Seattle Madina manages IMWA in Ilya’s absence while raising their two bright young lego lovers who may well be the engineers who can take Urals further into the future.
There is little glamour in the Ural factory, but you can see that I have come away from the Ural factory with great admiration for the people who keep it operating and with gratitude that they produce such a great piece of machinery for us despite the odds!
A few more photos from around the Ural factory
This was a prototype quad bike model, unfortunately it was never released.
This is the very first Ural model ever released - copied from the German BMW during the war.
This is a stack of gearbox casings waiting for the next step in the assembly line.