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A machine for all reasons

A machine for all reasons

In 1903, two friends in Milwaukee, Wisconsin shared a common interest in motorcycles and decided to go into business for themselves. Their names were William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. The company they established bore their names and within a short time, the reputation of their motorcycles led to contracts to supply the US Army. These were first used during the ‘Punitive Campaign’ along the Mexican Border in 1916. When America entered the First World War in 1917, Harley-Davidson supplied the US Army with 15,000 motorcycles.

Big numbers

Things changed when America entered WW II in December 1941 and the company again stepped up to supply motorcycles to the military. Production numbers grew as the size of the army increased and by the end of the war Harley Davidson had turned out almost 90,000 machines. Most of them were supplied to the US Army, but thousands were also supplied to various Allied nations, including 4,150 to South Africa, some 18,000 to Canada and 150 to Australia, with many thousands more being sent to Russia under the Lend-Lease Programme.

All sorts

Several variants were produced for these different Allied nations, but for the US Army, the model of choice was the 740cc WLA, a modified version based on a civilian design, but produced to specifications as outlined by the army. In August 1939, two prototype models of this machine were sent to Fort Knox in Kentucky for field trials, where they were put through their paces in front of the Mechanized Cavalry Board. Heavy, rugged and capable of reaching speeds up to 65 mph, the design was declared a great success and led to the US Army placing an initial order for 400 machines in January 1940.

The letter ‘W’ in the model specification identified it as being fitted with a 45-cubicinch flathead engine developed from the ‘R’ range of machines produced between 1932 and 1936. The letter ‘L’ indicated high compression and the letter ‘A’ indicated Army. A similar letter system was applied to those machines supplied to Canada, which carried the initials ‘WLC’, with the ‘C’ identifying them for use by the Canadian army.

Like the US Army, the Canadian army would use its machines in North West Europe, from France through to the end of the war, passing through Belgium and Holland on the way. The machines built in the years 1942 and 1943 had the numbers ‘42’ and ‘43’ prefixing the initials WLA, respectively.

The specifications

Nicknamed the ‘Liberator’, the WLA was fitted with an air-cooled, V2, four-stroke, 45 cid, flat-head, side-valve petrol engine with a threespeed gearbox. As a result, the motorcycle could reach speeds of up to 65 mph on prepared road surfaces. It had good crosscountry abilities, at reduced speeds, and was capable of fording water obstacles up to depths of 16”. The machine was heavy, weighing around 540 lbs, making it almost twice as heavy as some motorcycles used by the British army. The fuel tank had a capacity of over three gallons to allow an operational range of 120 miles.

The motorcycle measured 7ft-2 in length, 3ft-5 in width across the handlebars and stood just over 3ft in height. It was used in various roles, including liaison duties, for despatch riders delivering messages or special orders, and by Military Police for traffic control or while escorting convoys.

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The WLA was a robust design and proved to be well-suited to the rigours of combat, but it was never used in the reconnaissance role, unlike other armies, which used motorcycles for this purpose. They were used in all theatres of war, including Italy, and with several thousand supplied to the US Navy and the US Marine Corps, this durable machine saw use in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

Other additions

Only a single saddle was fitted for the rider, with no provision for a pillion rider. Behind the rider, leather panniers or saddlebags were secured, which draped on either side of the rear wheel. These were used to carry various items of equipment, such as tools, the rider’s personal kit or packages to be delivered. A large leather holster or ‘boot’ was attached to the frame by the handlebars, placing it within easy reach for use, and held the rider’s personal weapon, such as an M1 carbine or M1 Thompson sub-machine gun.

Some WLA motorcycles were fitted with sidecars, but this was never a standard feature and very few were ever used. Those that were fitted out like this, often served in the medical role to evacuate wounded troops. Others could be used to transport officers between units.

In 1942, Harley-Davidson produced a new design based on captured versions of the German BMW R71. Known as the ‘XA’ model, it proved too expensive to produce and only around 1,000 were ever built. After the war, Harley-Davidson suspended production for the military. However, on the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the company returned to making the WLA for the army.


Today, it is the WLA model which is most often seen at vehicle shows or re-enactment events, where the owners participate in presenting either a static display or show their machines during an arena mobility drive past. Another version to make an appearance is the Canadian WLC. These are opportunities for military enthusiasts, especially vehicle owners, to see the machines up close and ask questions, which pleases modellers no end.

Owners sometimes wear a uniform for authenticity, which can be either the smart convoy uniform, complete with white leggings and gloves for escorting senior officers, or a combat uniform. This last dress code would show them in the roles close to the fighting, directing traffic or escorting prisoners of war.

Owners of motorcycles who attend shows in the correct uniform are also militaria collectors, as they add weapons and other items to complete the look. They do very well when acting as escort riders for other vehicle owners driving trucks during convoy road runs.

Being small in size, motorcycles are unobtrusive and can fit into a static display at a re-enactment event and form part of a scenario. If there is to be an arena display, because of their speed, motorcycles such as Harley-Davidson add a special excitement to the action in a way that is different from the tanks. In effect, they are the perfect, all-round vehicle for any military enthusiast.