Ian Kerr MBE reviews Motorcycles and Motorcycling in the USSR from 1939 – a Social and Technical History, the first English language text on post-war motorcycles produced in the Soviet Union written by Russian enthusiast, Colin Turbett.
Somehow it is easy to forget that other countries have just as an interesting and historic motorcycling past as we do in the UK. No doubt thanks to colonisation, machines from our once-dominant motorcycle manufacturers found their way around the world, and many of the management thought that UK-made machines really did rule the world.
Nowadays, of course, we realise that it is not true, there were other countries with just as diverse range of manufacturers producing machines for the home market, with few finding their way outside their own borders. Trips around museums in Europe show that the likes of Germany, France, Belgium, Italy et al all had, at one stage, a flourishing motorcycle manufacturing base early in the twentieth century as did, of course, the USA, with Japan coming to the party relatively late in the great scheme of things.
Although of late, more information has come out about the eastern European machines and some of the more modern Russian bikes, information has been somewhat scant until now.
Published under the Veloce imprint, it would be easy to pick up this hardback book with its lavish production values and flick through over 120 pages liberally spread with colour and black and white images and quickly dismiss it as just for those with an interest in utilitarian machinery. However, that would be a massive mistake as the Turbett has, by the use of many unseen images and well-written text, linked motorcycling to the social history of the cold war period, when East and West were divided by ideology.
Whilst there are very useful appendices, covering all the technical aspects of the bikes, the various chapters identify the place of motorcycles played in social life in the USSR, helped by the inclusion of rare Russian family photographs never before published. A chapter covers motorcycle sport, and while many of the machines may not have the cache of say a Manx Norton, racing was just as big and competitive.
Speedway, ice speedway, motocross and even motoball all featured and occasionally produced riders who made the transition to European events, especially in the world of Speedway, often standing on the podium.
The well-laid-out pages and logical chapters concentrate on the wartime and post-war period until 1990, prior to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. As you read through, you realise the industry churned out hundreds of thousands of utilitarian and rugged machines that were very different from the more fashion-orientated machines produced in the West.
Some of the reproduced advertising literature in the centre spread shows that they did try and copy more mainstream European manufacturers by using pretty models to try and make the machines more desirable to overseas buyers. Motorcycles produced went under the place names of the producing factories: Izhevsk, Kovrov, Moskva, Minsk and, of course, the large flat twins produced in Irbit and Kiev under the Ural and Dnepr names.
Popular imports like Jawa from Czechoslovakia and Pannonia from Hungary also feature in this fascinating work, although it does not cover scooters, mopeds, and cyclemotors.
Usually one would suggest that this just a book for the Russian enthusiast, but this book is unique in blending motorcycles with social history to include people who are generally interested in the former Soviet Union and its socialist form of production.
This book provides the first accessible English language account of motorcycles in the Soviet Union. It deserves to sit on any enthusiast’s bookshelf no matter what their preferred manufacturer may be and is excellent value at £25 and is highly recommended!
Available from all good bookshops or direct from the publishers Veloce at www.veloce.co.uk