In honor of all American veterans and those men and women currently serving in the U.S. Military around the world, we are featuring the Harley-Davidson WLA now on display at the National Motorcycle Museum among other military motorcycles. Made to United States Army specifications it is sometimes known as “The Liberator” or “The motorcycle that won the War.”
In 1939 the first WLA prototype went from the Harley-Davidson factory to Fort Knox, Kentucky for testing. Harley-Davidson began producing limited numbers of the WLA for the US Army in 1940. Based on the then current WL model, a 45 cu in (738 cc) flat-head, solo-seat v-twin, the suffix “A” means Army. The “W” series had been developed from the “R” series, produced between 1932 and 1936, and “L” signifies high-compression. High compression then meant 5 to 1, of course very low by today’s standards.
Standard equipment on most WLAs includes a windshield with lower apron, leg shields, special black-out lighting, leather saddlebags, skid plate, luggage carrier, safety bars, an ammunition box, a special oil bath air-cleaner and a left side rear view mirror. The supplied tool kits and operator’s manuals are more complete than civilian versions. If needed the machine gun scabbard was added after the motorcycle went into service. The fenders were of several designs, all wider and more open to clear mud. Forks were about 2.5 inches longer than regular production models offering additional ground clearance. Over the years of production many parts of the motorcycle and its accessories evolved in design.
Production of all munitions accelerated once America had entered World War II in 1941 with over 88,000 WLAs built to go into battle before peace was struck. Some 30,000 units were sent to Russia on the Lend-Lease Program. Production re-started for the Korean War in 1949, to finish again in 1952. Most WLAs produced after Pearl Harbor were serial numbered as 1942, no matter what their actual year of production. Thus this bike is dated as 1942, but unlike other Harleys, this does not necessarily mean it was made in 1942 as this “42” prefix was on all WLAs. Motorcycle historian Bruce Palmer has catalogued seven different WLA versions. In parallel, Harley produced the WLC for Canadian forces to a slightly different specification. Not all WLAs were put into use and for many years after the War were sold as government surplus as were their replacement parts.
Harley’s 45-inch flat-head v-twin was nothing if not reliable. And it could easily run on 74-octane fuel, hence its suitability for war zone police, escort, courier and radio duties. In spite of some being equipped with a Thompson machine gun scabbard, very seldom if ever was the WLA ever used as a fighting machine. Motorcycles in time of war have been primarily used for courier service.
Few WLAs remain in original shape, though some are being carefully restored. Many were bought by returning GIs and “civilianized”, some even fuelling the growing bobber and chopper cult.
- Engine: 45 Degree, V-Twin
- Type: Air-Cooled, Side-Valve
- Compression Ratio: 5:1
- Bore & Stroke: 2.745 x 3.8125
- Displacement: 739cc, 45.12 Cubic Inches
- Carburetion: Linkert
- Ignition: Battery, Coil & Points
- Horsepower: 23.5, Rated
- Primary: Chain
- Transmission: 3-Speed
- Final Drive: Chain
- Frame: Steel, Single Down Tube
- Suspension: Leading Link “Springer” Fork, Rigid Rear, Sprung Seat
- Brakes: Drum, Front & Rear
- Wheelbase: 57.5 Inches
- Dry Weight: 576 Pounds
- Top Speed: 65 MPH