MANUFACTURER(S): Harley Davidson - USA
OPERATORS: Canada; Soviet Union; South Africa; United Kingdom; United States
Detailing the development and operational history of the Harley-Davidson WLA Military Motorcycle.
Entry last updated on 10/9/2017.
Authored by JR Potts, AUS 173d AB. Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com.
The Harley Davidson Motorcycle Company started selling bikes in 1904 and, by 1920, it had become the largest motorcycle company in the world. The United States Army was buying some Harley motorcycles in 1940, a military version featuring the company's 45 cubic inch (740 cc) engine and designated the WL model. Motorcycles improved mechanized forces by provided for fast travel of reconnaissance elements and messenger units. When World War 2 broke out, the Army contacted the Harley Company with a list of specifications for an upgraded military-minded motorcycle.
The Harley Davidson Motorcycle Company always used a series of letters to designate all of the motorcycle models they produced and assigned this new military model the letters "WLA". The "W" stood for the 45 cubic inch side valve engine designed in 1937 while the "L" covered its high compression the "A" signified the customer - the US Army. Other bikes assigned to the United States Navy and Marines were only slightly different in form. The new WLA motorcycle model design by Harley was in production from 1942 to 1945 and 70,000 units were produced while these were supplemented by spare parts to essentially cover another full 30,000 bikes produced.
The bikes were utilized for messenger duty between commands when paper correspondence was necessary. The systems also proved useful for Military Police Units for general security and motor convoy escort duties. Their slim profiles allowed operators access to areas or roads where full-sized vehicles could not trek. Under Lend-Lease, thousands were issued to allied forces in Great Britain to the Soviet Union, the latter never truly admitting they received any assistance from the West. Later, a separate production run in 1943 was made for the Canadian Army with these bikes aptly designated as "WLC". This line was different from the WLA design prior in having heavier frame components and "blackout" lights.
Harley-Davidson WLA (Cont'd)
Most all bikes built during the war were equipped with blackout lights at their front and rear. The fenders were large to minimize clogging of vital parts from dirt and mud - these being the faceless "enemies" encountered on the battlefield. On the rear fender was a flat luggage rack which could transport two radios or an ammunition box. On the front tire by the handle bars there was fitted a scabbard to house a M1 Thompson submachine gun for basic defense. Some models were completed with a high windscreen to protect the driver from oncoming wind, rain, road debris and insects. Leg protectors were installed as standard and served to deflect low-lying brush or other obstacles that the bike could side swipe. A skid plate was needed for high rock on road / off road and a heavy duty air cleaner was fitted for dusty or sandy environments.
The WLC was capable of fording up to 16 inches of water and the front forks sported a Springer-based suspension system. The rear of the bike was not suspended, leading its many operators to refer to these bikes as having a "hard tail". The motorcycle could travel out to 120 miles on base fuel while hitting speeds of up to 65 mph on paved roads. The bike weighed 550lbs without any extras being carried, a tough machine to pick up after a spill to say the least. The 45 cid flat-head, side valve, gasoline-fueled engine was robust and reliable and proved generally easy to work on when in-the-field.
Allied mechanics called their Harley Davidson products the "42WLA" while the Canadian model was referred to as the "43WLC", each based on the starting production year. The Harley Davidson Company was awarded two "E" awards for excellence in their production of these war-winning systems, the first in 1943 and the second in 1945. After the war, the remaining production orders were cancelled only to resume during the upcoming Korean War (1950 - 1953) - these being produced from 1949 to 1952. Such high production rates ultimately meant that many of these bikes would survive their given wars and fall into the capable hands of modern-day collectors over the world. Interestingly, many available spare parts today come from the bikes that were provided to the Soviet Union via Lend-Lease during World War 2.