A Steib story
The story starts one evening in 1972 when I was returning home through some British country lanes, doing a passable imitation of Phil Read on my Ariel Arrow until I missed a gear. The engine started running roughly and cutting out on one cylinder, but we limped home. The post-mortem revealed that one of the big ends had failed and the resulting debris had wrecked that side of the engine. The urgent issue was what would replace it, as I needed transport to get to work; my parents were dead against me getting another solo, so after some heated discussion we finally agreed on a motorcycle and sidecar. After obtaining my first bank loan, I bought a rather second-hand BSA A10 and Watsonian Child Adult Sidecar. Despite some initial teething problems it became one of the best bikes I ever owned. After a few months of getting used to riding/driving an outfit I was becoming very confident until I rear-ended a Cortina at a Tjunction in the middle of Bath. The resulting impact demolished the car’s boot (the sidecar nose rode over the bumper) but appeared to do little damage to the sidecar. Two weeks later riding along a very bumpy cobbled lane in Bath the sidecar door popped open and the whole roof sagged down by a foot. Temporary repairs were made by wrapping a tow rope around the body like a corset but it was clear its days were numbered. I immediately started looking for a replacement, and was eventually pointed towards an Old Grain Barn in the hamlet of Holt where a character called “Tucker” wheeled and dealed in second-hand bikes, spares and sidecars. I acquired a lifelong friend and a 1952 Steib TR500 sidecar. The Steib was not quite in the condition that it left the Nuremburg factory; there seemed to be a lot of filler around the nose and the distinctive mudguard had been replaced with one from a BSA. I undertook a quick cosmetic makeover with filler and Valspar paint and attached it to the A10. After resetting the sidecar connections three
times (I learnt to distrust swan necks and threepoint attachment), the A10 and Steib became a great combo, easily getting to 80mph.
The first real test was a visit to the Isle of Man for the 1972 Manx Grand Prix. A group of us left Holt on this great adventure with Tucker leading the way. Tucker’s route to Liverpool of A&B roads was great for solos but a challenge for an outfit carrying most of the luggage. After some adventures we got to the IoM and had a great time. The return trip was going to be more difficult as I had agreed to carry back a whole Norton ES2 that a friend had blown up and left in the Island the year before. The ES2 was broken down into big bits and stuffed into or tied to the sidecar. The trip home was a real struggle, the overloaded outfit was a pig to control, not helped by the rear sidecar connection pulling out of the frame halfway home. I took my motorcycle test on the outfit, and passed despite the examiner leaping into the sidecar and sitting down in the soaking wet seat. A little later I decided to use the A10 as a solo and transferred the Steib to a 1955 AJS 18MS that I had acquired from Tucker. I used four points of attachment making for a far stronger arrangement. The big problem with the AJS was the awful electrics so I fitted a 12v car battery in the sidecar, welded a car dynamo bracket onto the swan-neck, attached a pulley to the end of the crankshaft, modified the primary chain case and fitted a Lucas car dynamo and control box. The resulting lights
were excellent, and in the winter I used to warm my hands on the headlight sealed beam unit. I did a few rallies on this outfit as it was ideal for winter riding, the most memorable being the 1974 Dragon Rally. We should have gone on Pete Bickerstaff’s vintage HRD outfit but he rode 30miles to my place before realising he had not turned on the oil. The outstanding memory was blasting flat out down the M6 motorway, lying flat on the tank with Pete huddled in the sidecar and the speedo hovering at 75mph. The next incarnation of the Steib was when I attached it to a 1958 Triumph Thunderbird; its first real outing was another trip to the IoM this time carrying a mate’s girlfriend in the sidecar. After the usual Island adventures one of the other bikes was sick and needed its load lightened, so I finished up with another young lady on the back. It soon became clear that she was very uncomfortable on the back so the two girls squeezed themselves into the sidecar. When I was transferred to Portsmouth Dockyard I used the outfit to commute the 160 miles at the weekends (in all winds and weather) so mum could have the privilege of doing my laundry. One of the worst rides I ever had was going across Salisbury Plain in the snow tracks of other vehicles whilst the bottom sidecar connection acted as a snow-plough, spraying ice, salt and snow all over me. After I moved to Portsmouth my parents gradually applied the thumb screws to get their garage back which for some time had been my workshop (how unreasonable). I was able to move most of my bikes to Portsmouth but the sidecar wouldn’t easily fit through the front door of the terrace house I had, so it went for a holiday at Tucker’s market garden. The next incarnation of the sidecar was when my first wife broke her leg in a motorcycle accident. She needed transport and so she told me to build her an outfit. I found a butchered 650 Dneiper (Ural) – a chopper project! in Milton Keynes which I resurrected and attached to the Steib, which was now looking rather shabby with a rusty bottom and cracked filler. The next challenge was teaching Jean how to ride an outfit; the high point was when she put the sidecar wheel on the pavement of the housing estate we lived on and left it there for a quarter mile. I was in the sidecar trying to give instructions. The poor old Steib’s rusty body couldn’t stand up to this punishment for too long, the floor gave way and started dragging along the road whilst I was stuck in the sidecar trying to get Jean to stop. I did make a temporary floor out of a “Maxi” bonnet, but it did not really work, so the body was taken off and a couple of planks and a concrete block were lashed to the chassis. It was about this time that I noticed the sidecar wheel hub was going furry and developing what looked like little cauliflower florets, terminal corrosion. By a stroke of luck I found that a BSA conical hub front wheel fitted perfectly. Jean discovered that she could get to 75mph on the downhill stretch of the motorway towards Portsmouth; the Dneiper stood this for 9 months until a piston gave way taking a big end with it. The Steib was then hidden away in the back of the garage for the next 25 years. A few years later whilst clearing out a friend’s garage I found a proper Steib mudguard and wheel, both had seen better days but were good raw material. In 2007 I collided with a tractor which left me and my old AJS rather bent; we both got rebuilt, but we both suffered from permanent damage, bent frames. I thought the best thing was to put the Steib back on the AJS. The first challenge was refurbishing the chassis and wheel. Trying to get apart very rusty 60-year old nuts, bolts and seized pivot pins can be fun at the best of times but most of them had been soaked in a mixture of water and road salt and left to cook. A combination of an oxyacetylene torch, half a litre of WD40, an air gun and a short scaffolding pole got them all to move eventually. After cleaning up some bad welding I did 30 years ago and making a new front sidecar connection, the whole chassis was epoxy powder coated. The bearings in the sidecar wheel and swinging arm were replaced.
It was in this state that the Steib was put into a shipping container with all my other goods and chattels and shipped to NZ. The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries & Food inspector didn’t like the state of the mudguard (I forgot to clean it) so it was quarantined and steam cleaned. The sidecar body got put to the back of the queue as my first priority was getting all of the roadworthy bikes approved and registered for NZ.
The first part of the restoration was stripping most of the body back to bare metal, chiselling and cutting off all the filler. The whole left hand side of the nose was very badly crumpled with awful welding, the only option was to cut half of the nose away and replace it with new metal, not the easiest thing to do with compound curves and a swage line to match. The temporary floor was removed and about 10cm of the side panels cut away to get back to clean metal, a new floor and patches for the side panels were welded into place. All the rest of the many rust holes, damage, and dented panels were attended to; this seemed to go on for ages. The next stage was filling and rubbing back trying to get the shape right, as usual once one bit looked right it just emphasised how bad some of the other bits were. The final part was painting, a litre of anti-rust primer and a combination of spray cans and brushwork finally produced a fair result. The body was lined with varnished plywood.
“Trying to get apart very rusty 60-year old nuts, bolts and seized pivot pins can be fun at the best of times...”
The mudguard, when blasted clean, resembled a lace doyley, several hours of welding and filling finally produced something that looked like a mudguard again. The wheel rim was very rusty but sound so it was blasted and painted. The sidecar chassis was attached to the AJS, and the body finally reunited with the chassis after nearly 35 years. A quick test ride proved I had far too much lean out and there were a couple of small problems with the bike. Once these were fixed the outfit was inspected and registered at the local testing station. It felt strange, but great to be back on the road with a combination I last rode nearly 35 years ago. Having ridden an outfit with leading link forks, disc brakes and a sidecar brake for the last 15 years, the Steib and AJS feel very “old school” but great fun. The local upholsterer did a great job covering the seat frame, after I rebuilt it, and the ride in the sidecar is very comfortable with two lots of suspension. The only jobs left to do are building a windscreen, and finding a proper Steib sidecar light but these can be done in slow time.
TOP LEFT The Steib chassis on a Ural; my first wife’s transport after an accident. Note the timer and concrete ‘ballast’. LEFT The Steib sidecar on holiday at Tucker’s market garden.
ABOVE The Steib provides a great ride for the passenger with swinging arm spring suspension on the wheel and leaf spring suspension on the tub, while the hinged mudguard gives easy access to the wheel. LEFT Many hands attend to the sidecar body. BELOW The Steib chassis on a Ural in the mid 1980s.
Plenty of room in the boot.
Stout 4 point sidecar connections. ABOVE Well upholstered sidecar seat. RIGHT Cosy sidecar cockpit. LEFT Rubber mounts for the sidecar body. The author at Stirling Point, NZ.