President Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected to the White House during the 1940 election, partially on a platform that promised to keep America out of the expanding conflict in Europe that would become WWII. Despite this stance, American rearmament had begun in earnest.
Drawn into the conflict, America needed a strong military to support our Allied powers in Europe and build our army and navy into robust defensive forces. When it came to supplying a fast, versatile form of transportation — both for travel during the rearmament phase and after America’s eventual entry into World War II — Harley-Davidson was up to the task.
The American Motorcycle Goes To War
For the war, Harley made simple, no-frills bikes that were easier to navigate through tight spaces and over uneven terrain than four-wheel military vehicles. The bikes’ base design was a flexible platform for land missions, while the relatively small amount of resources needed to produce the bikes allowed production to continue during wartime supply shortages. Harley motorcycles soon became a feature of the American forces throughout the combat theatre.
Five Harley-Davidson War Prototypes
Harley bikes for WWII are valuable classics that have created a Harley-Davidson collector culture around Harley military models. Today, the bikes are primarily displayed for show. If they’re driven, it’s usually for just a short distance to give Harley fans a glimpse of history in action. Below are five of these bikes, which helped America succeed in the last world war.
- The WLA
As a part of the initial military expansion in pre-war 1940, Harley-Davidson took its civilian WL model and created a military variant: the WLA. This motorcycle sported a 45 cubic inch engine and could dependably carry a single rider through conditions associated with the war zone.
Modifications to the civilian design of the bike allowed it to operate better in muddy terrain, forge through deeper water, and handle increased dust that churned up battlefields and back roads. Blackout lights helped reduce the motorcycle’s visibility in the dark, it could carry several ammo cans, and it featured a front-mounted scabbard for a Thompson submachine gun. This bike was made for both field transport and holding one’s own in firefights that happened along the way.
- The TA
While motorcycles proved maneuverable, there was a need for a vehicle that bridged the gap between the WLA and the Jeep Willys that were commonly used for dispatches and small troop maneuvers alongside them. One of Harley’s first efforts at filling the void was the TA model.
This early trike offered several benefits of a motorcycle. However, thanks to its three-wheel design, it required considerably less training to drive. Powered by Harley’s 68 cubic inch Knucklehead motor and driven via shaft rather than chain, the TA had potential, but design flaws and equipment failures sank the program after only 18 units rolled off of the production line.
- The WSR
An offshoot of the already battle-tested WLA, the WSR model was requested near the end of World War II by Russia, as a part of the Lend Lease Program — an American initiative to supply needed arms, equipment, and munitions to America’s Allied countries during the war.
The primary modifications of this design were made to the chassis and forks, allowing for greater ground clearance over the burgeoning ice and snow of harsh Russian winters. In the end, only a single bike, the prototype, was built before the end of the war eliminated the need.
- The XA
The German war machine realized the utility that motorcycles had in a shifting battlefield environment, and had fielded their own BMW R71 motorcycle successfully. This bike had several important design features, including an opposed twin motor and an enclosed shaft drive, which proved superior to the WLA under certain battlefield conditions, including the hot, dusty expanses of North Africa.
Harley responded with the XA model — a bike largely designed around beating the R71 at its own game. The XA offered a lower center of gravity for better maneuverability, a foot shifter for better motor control, and it had opposed twin engines that provided better cooling than the WLA. Over a thousand units were produced for military testing, making this model one of the most successful prototypes of Harley’s World War II efforts.
- The XS
The XS initially looks like nothing more than an XA with an attached sidecar, but it was actually a separate vehicle built for a different purpose. Designed as an all-terrain vehicle, the drivetrain is the same as the XA in many respects. However, the side car’s wheel is driven by a rear-axle.
The XS was Harley-Davidson’s first two-wheel drive vehicle. The use of powered, dual rear wheels created plenty of traction on and off the road, but the Jeep Willys was already firmly entrenched as the vehicle of choice for small transportation missions, leading to only three units of the XA being produced for WWII.
After The War
As U.S. soldiers returned home, many brought a deep respect for Harley-Davidson motorcycles back with them. As motorcycles became a popular ride for weekend adventures and day-to-day transportation in America, many of these servicemen turned to the very motorcycle brand they had learned to trust across the fields of France and the through the dusty heat of the desert.
The new, citizen edition Harleys were dependable, powerful, and could be customized with Harley-Davidson upgrades that significantly boosted performance and aesthetic appeal. Soon, Harley-Davidson became an iconic choice for free-spirited travellers whose boundaries were only defined by how far a tank of gas would take them — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Meet the Author
Earl Baldwin is a long-time car enthusiast with a fledgling collection of classics (‘48 Plymouth, ‘49 Pontiac, ‘55 Chrysler). He also has a passion for writing about exotic cars and motorcycles, aftermarket modifications, and improving car performance. When he’s not writing, he’s cruising around town in one of his classics.