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. They 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. 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.
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.
While motorcycles proved manoeuvrable, 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 manoeuvres 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 the chain, the TA had potential, but design flaws and equipment failures sank the program after only 18 units rolled off of the production line.
An offshoot of the already battle-tested WLA. This particular model was requested by Russia towards the end of World War II. This was 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 first adjustments of this design were made to the chassis and forks. This allowed for greater ground clearance over the burgeoning ice and snow of harsh Russian winters. In the end, just 1 bike was built before the end of the war meant they were no longer needed.
The German war machine realized the utility that motorcycles had in a shifting battlefield environment. They 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. This 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 centre of gravity for better manoeuvrability. A foot shifter for better motor control and it had opposed twin engines. They provided better cooling than the WLA, with over a thousand units produced for military testing. Making this model one of the most successful prototypes of Harley’s World War II efforts.
The XS initially looks like nothing more than an XA with an attached sidecar. Originally, a separate vehicle built for a different purpose. The drivetrain is the same as the XA in many respects. The wheel is on a rear-axle and was constructed to be an all-terrain vehicle.
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. They decided to have Jeep Willy as the vehicle of choice for small transportation missions.
After The War
As U.S. soldiers returned home, many brought a deep respect for Harley-Davidson motorcycles back with them. 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. Over the years, Harley-Davidson soon grew their brand and became an iconic choice for free-spirited travellers. Defined by how far a tank of gas would take them. The rest, as they say, is history.
Meet the Author
Earl Baldwin is a long-time car enthusiast with a fledgeling collection of classics (‘48 Plymouth, ‘49 Pontiac, ‘55 Chrysler). He has a passion for writing about exotic cars and motorcycles. Along with aftermarket modifications and improving car performance.
When Earl isn’t writing, he also enjoys cruising around in one of his classics; be that car or motorcycles.
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