Retro chic of an egg on wheels

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It was always the most British of contraptions, the perfect comic prop. In the classic automotive gag the coupling comes undone at just the wrong moment, sending the rider in one direction, the egg-on-wheels in another, usually down a slope and into a pond.

There was probably something absurd about the motorcycle sidecar even before Herbert Wilson used one to transport his son, Harold, to the football terraces of Huddersfield Town; yet there are signs that it is poised for a comeback.

Leading the way are Jennifer Patterson and Clarissa Dickson-Wright, aka BBC-2's Two Fat Ladies, who are cooks. They putter about the countryside on a Triumph Thunderbird combo, collecting ingredients and helping out in the nation's kitchens. Jennifer and Clarissa are part of the revival begun by Wallace and Gromit, the Oscar-winning animated dog and window- cleaner duo.

Eric Richards, the actor who plays The Bill's Sergeant Cryer, regularly takes his wife and son to France in one. "There's been a resurgence of interest in anything that's seen as old and British," says Peter Rivers- Fletcher, Managing Director at Watsonian Squire, the world's oldest sidecar manufacturer. He estimates that there are now between 10,000 and 20,000 sidecars on Britain's roads; although 70 per cent of their output is exported, mostly to Germany, Holland and Japan.

The sidecar had its heyday in the 1950s. During the week, the working man commuted to the factory on his motorbike (leather coat, buttons to the neck, flat cap jammed resolutely down). Come the weekend it was in theory a simple matter to hitch up the sidecar and head for the beach. For thousands of working class families the sidecar represented affordable freedom, but with the arrival of cheap cars in the early 60s, sidecars went into instant decline. "It's got all the disadvantages of a car and none of the advantages of a motorcycle," says Alan Seeley of Classic Bike magazine.

No wonder they went out of fashion. Tony Carter of Motorcycle News advises anyone thinking of buying a sidecar combo to try it out on private land before taking to the roads. "They steer and handle very differently," he says. "You have to steer into corners, not counter-steer as you do on a solo." Even the doughty Jennifer Patterson complained of the notoriously difficult steering, when she switched to a Triumph from her 90cc moped (which she likes to call "my little fellow.") When pushed, a spokeswoman for Two Fat Ladies admitted that the pair do not actually ride the bike and sidecar from location to location: they transport it on a truck.