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The role of the Military Harley in WW2

The role of the Military Harley in WW2

22 April 2015

Did you know that in America a lot of motorcycle clubs were born out of returning WW2 veterans who wanted to continue riding as a way of life? Let’s see how they caught the bug and what role they played in the military.



Firstly let’s not forget that the men riding these, now, classic motorcycles were a tad on the exposed side plus arduous terrain created by different weather conditions conjured up numerous problems but what the motorcycles lacked was more than made up in other areas.

They were quick and nimble making them ideal for dispatch riding and reconnaissance. They could access areas that larger machinery couldn’t and use less fuel. Due to their size and storage capabilities it meant that numerous units could be in mass volumes in less vehicles.

Designs evolved and the machine most synonymous with the war was the Harley-Davidson, which was sold under license through the Lend-Lease program. A program under which the United States supplied Free France, Great Britain, the Republic of China, and later the USSR and other Allied nations with food, oil, and materiel between 1941 and August 1945.

Harley Davidson engineers took the current civilian model WL and set about making it fit for it military role, in 1940 the WLA was put into production.

The WLA saw several changes.

  • A small but fundamental change is the way the mudguards were shaped which aided with dispersing mud to the side instead of clogging.
  • It was fitted with a heavy duty rack at the rear to support as required ammo boxes (which could also fit to one side of a front wheel), radios and saddlebags at the sides.
  • Leather scabbard fitted to the front big enough to carry a Thompson submachine gun.
  • Secondary set of “blackout lights” were added, which diffused the light to reduce the bike’s nighttime visibility to observers.
  • Paint was olive drab.
Leather scabbard


There were engine changes to.

  • The air filter was replaced with an oil-bath air cleaner—something then used in farm tractors in high-dust environments—for ease of maintenance; rather than having to stock replacement air filters, the rider could “freshen up” his filter by adding regular motor oil.
  • The crankcase was redesigned to reduce water intake, so that the vehicle could reportedly ford 16 inches of water without stalling out.

As mentioned earlier a lot of young soldiers would come home hoping to get a Harley-Davidson like he saw or rode in the service, leading to the popularity after the war. Fortunately for them most WLA’s were sold as army surplus and here began the rise of the Bobber and Chopper culture.

The Harley WLA was nicknamed the “Liberator” due to the use by soldiers liberating occupied Europe. A nickname that still resonates today for freedom of the open road on two wheels.

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