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May 18, 1997|Ed Leibowitz

Doug Bingham may have found an unwitting salvation for the beleaguered American motorcycle sidecar: the hapless insurance industry. As Bingham, the 1969 national sidecar racing champion, past president of the United Sidecar Assn. and owner of Sidestrider Sidecars in Van Nuys (purveyor of the Squire, the Ural and the Sputnik III) points out, insuring a car can cost $4,000 a year. Yet Bingham, his brother and his 82-year-old father managed to purchase minimum coverage for their three 750-cc motorcycles and attached sidecars for less than $80 each annually.

Perching his stout frame upon a Honda Goldwing bolted to a lozenge-shaped Watsonian sidecar, Bingham extrapolates a savings bonanza for struggling young families. "On this particular bike," Bingham says, "truly, you could carry four people legally. Two on the bike, two in the sidecar. Two kids can ride in that very easily, and the advantage you have is that the kids can fall asleep."

Sidecars were not always in need of such a hard sell. During the first two decades of this century, motorcycles and sidecars presented the only cheap version of internal combustion transport for three or more passengers, and boxlike sidecars routinely delivered commercial loads. Though the sidecar continued to flourish in Europe, the Ford Model T led to its undoing here. Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha did not even bother producing sidecars for their conquests of the American market.

Bingham has nevertheless managed to eke out a comfortable livelihood manufacturing sidecars and, lately, importing them. In 1969, he introduced the Bingham Mark I. He has designed custom sidecars from which the L.A. Marathon was videotaped. He helped locate a vintage Wehrmacht sidecar for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." He furnished electric motorcycles and makeshift sidecar platforms to track long-distance medalists for the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympics. With his Olympics proceeds, he bought a one-third interest in Watsonian, a British sidecar company.

In a peak year, Bingham sells about 500 sidecars with an average sticker price of $3,500. Although he still predicts an American resurgence, the greatest sidecar boom now seems to be in toys. Bingham's bottomless collection includes a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle leering from a sidecar garbage can, a dinosaur-themed sidecar from "Jurassic Park," and plastic sidecar miniatures inspired by "Dark Wing Duck," the Batman movies and "The Mask." He also owns quaint throwbacks such as a See's candy delivery sidecar, plus reproductions of postal and police models.

While chauvinism inevitably reigns among Harley aficionados, BMW adherents and upscale connoisseurs of vintage BSAs and Indians, the nostalgic chic of the sidecar can conquer even the fiercest prejudice. "Motorcycle people can be a little brand conscious," Bingham allows. "Like the guys with the British bikes, and the guys with the German bikes, and the guys with the Harleys. But if you pull up with the sidecar, whoever you wave at, they wave back." The sidecar can, Bingham assures, even pacify law enforcement. "I mean, the police wave at you, instead of looking at your license plate.

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