Contributor: Alan Chanter
ww2dbaseThree years after the American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson unveiled its W Series "Baby Flatheads" in 1937, the Milwaukee-based marque was forced to turn its attention to adapting the motorcycle for military purposes. The military WL motorcycles Harley-Davidson produced would be some of the finest workhorses of World War II. Most were supplied to the US military, with the designation of WLA - officially described as being for "reconnaissance, messenger services and police operations". In addition a large number were supplied to Canada and designated WLC. To convert the civilian WL model to military specification, Harley added a bash plate under the engine, modified the mudguards, and added a gun holster.
ww2dbaseKey to the success of Harley-Davidson's "Flathead" engine was the absence of any moving parts in its cylinder heads, which simplified maintenance under battlefield conditions. Rugged, practical and utterly reliable these 738-cubic-centimeter side-valve powered V-twin engines, mounted within a tubular steel frame, were perfectly suited to the rigours of mechanised warfare. The machines had drum brakes, front and rear, but no rear suspension – this being compensated by providing the rider with a larger than normal saddle. The front mudguard was also raised higher to prevent mud from clogging the wheels. The bikes' reliability was further enhanced by an upgraded lubrication system and an oil-bath air filter to keep out dust, grit and sand.
ww2dbaseThe motorcycles were usually painted in a matte non-reflective olive-drab paint (Canadian models had the maple leaf emblem on the fuel tank). They were fitted with brackets to carry a submachine gun and an ammunition box. A heavy duty luggage rack for a radio or panniers was located over the rear mudguard. The lights were altered to conform to military combat-zone requirements and, in desert conditions the standard 4.00x18 tyres could be replaced by 550x16 sand tyres. Drive was by conventional chain and the three-speed gearbox was hand operated. Special equipment would include a revision to Harley-Davidson's traditional leading-link forks to provide increased ground clearance, as well as footboards and crash bars to protect the rider and machine in an accident. ww2dbaseThe WLC model was produced for the Canadian forces between 1941 and 1944. It differed from the American military model in several respects, including an alternative throttle-lever position, an auxiliary clutch hand lever, and wheels that were interchangeable. They were equipped with a blackout kit which contained shrouds for the front and rear lights to divert light downwards during blackout conditions. To compensate for this, small marker lights were positioned on the front and rear mudguards. From 1941 to 1945 the Harley-Davidson motorcycles would serve with US, Canadian and Free French forces across Europe, including during the Normandy landings and in other war zones.
ww2dbaseBy 1945, Harley-Davidson's WLA and WLC motorcycles were recognized as being extremely useful military vehicles. In the post-war era many war-surplus bikes would continue in use with civilian owners and, by the time production finally ended in 1952, more than 80,000 of these hard working motorcycles had been manufactured.
Ian V. Hogg & John Weeks: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Military Vehicles (Hamlyn, 1980)
Hugo Wilkinson (Senior Editor): Machines of War (DK London, 2019)
Last Major Revision: May 2020
|Machinery||738cc side-valve V-twin engine rated at 23hp at 3000rpm; three-speed gearbox|
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Captain Henry P. Jim Crowe, Guadalcanal, 13 Jan 1943