Motorcycle Throwback - The 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Motorcycle Throwback - 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA

Walk into a Harley-Davidson dealership today and you'll find motorcycles for sale in a plethora of colors. The ever-popular chrome and black, clean white or royal blue with the option to customize even down to the grips. But Harley customers weren't always so blessed. Once upon a time, Harley-Davidson only offered their bikes in a lovely drab green. Prime example: the 1925 Harley-Davidson JD. It wasn't until years later that Harley-Davidson jumped on the "what the customer wants, the customer gets" train.

The drab green was always thought to represent the masculine and rough-and-tumble essence that Harley wanted to portray through their bikes; an essence still very much so present in their motorcycles today. So in the early 1940's, when the U.S. plunged head first into WWII, the Army needed vehicles that were capable of quick handling and evasive riding. They called for motorcycles. It surprised no one when Harley-Davidson returned back to their olive drab-green days and answered that call.

Harley-Davidson made a few versions of their wartime motorcycle; one model was based off of BMW's boxer engine that Germany was using on their side of the war. But it was the 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA that found itself on the front lines. These bikes ran off of a 750cc flathead motor that was developed based off of an earlier Harley-Davidson R model. Though it was less efficient, Harley used a side-valve design for these motorcycles because they proved to be more reliable. Though a high compression engine would have been preferable to also increase reliability, this particular model had a 5:1 compression ratio that allowed it to run off of 74 octane petrol due to the poor refining quality of that time. Notably, this was a medium compression ratio for that time but is a very low compression ratio today. And the 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA was no soft tail either. With no rear suspension and only spring front suspension, these bikes warranted a rough ride.

Harley-Davidson ressurected the WLA for the movie Captain America: The First Avenger.   Over 90,000 were produced and shipped world wide during WWII.
Harley-Davidson ressurected the WLA for the movie Captain America: The First Avenger.   Over 90,000 were produced and shipped world wide during WWII.

Production of these rides sky rocketed with over 90,000 being made and shipped world wide. Harley-Davidson even produced a line for the Canadian Army which would be known as the Harley-Davidson WLC. Under the Lend-Lease program, thousands of the bikes were shipped to the allies such as the Soviet Union, which sold over 30,000 WLAs.

Towards the end of the war, the Army found a new war time vehicle that wouldn't tip over, could handle some severe terrain and had a much better carrying capacity: the Jeep. Once Jeeps began to be produce for the wartime effort, the Army turned away from using motorcycles and their main type of transportation and production slowed. After the war, production of the 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA would be abandoned and excess models were made more commercial and sold to civilians. It wouldn't be until the Vietnam War that the production would be revived.

And the life of the 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA didn't stop there. If you happened to hide from the heat this summer in the movie theater and found yourself watching the newest Captain America film, Captain America: The First Avenger, you may have noticed the masked hero was riding on one of these bad boys. Harley-Davidson resurrected the old model to create a slightly modified version of the old war bike for the Captain himself to defend justice on. A total of five of the motorcycles were made for the movie and two are now a permanent part of the Harley-Davidson Museum's collection.

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