A Century of Motorcycling | The 1940s

By Motorcyclist Staff, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

It was a decade of conflict and change, dominated by the looming shadow of World War II—a “total war” pitting the Allies against the Axis and commandeering most of the world’s economic, industrial and scientific resources. With raw materials such as aluminum, iron and copper in short supply, new motorcycles were few and far between. Gearing up for war pulled America out of the Depression, and returning servicemen bought bikes in unprecedented numbers. In post-war Japan, motorcycling manufacturers began by reverse-engineering American and European machines, but soon developed innovative designs of their own.

1940

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first modern highway in North America, opens to the motoring public.

Japan produces 3000 motorcycles, primarily for military use.

First sealed-beam headlight introduced.

German bombing raids raze Triumph’s Coventry factory, destroying 50 350cc prototypes and all the company’s technical data and records. A BSA factory in Birmingham also incurs major damage.

Bruce “BooBoo” Pearson wins 32 of 36 dirt-track races on a Triumph Tiger 100, the Brit brand’s first racing success in America.

1941

Harley enlarges the OHV “Knucklehead” engine from 61 to 74 cubic inches.

The Empire of Japan bombs Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. on December 7th to prevent U.S. involvement in WWII. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a Declaration of War the next day.

Canadian Billy Mathews wins the Daytona 200 aboard a Manx Norton. WWII ends racing on the beach.

1942

Wartime national speed limit of 35 mph imposed to conserve fuel.

Casablanca premiers at New York’s Hollywood Theatre.

1943

The Motorcyclist separates from the AMA and becomes, simply, Motorcyclist.

Betty Gable’s pin-up poster boosts morale among Allied troops.

The Pentagon is dedicated. With more than 6.5 million square feet of floor area and 17.5 miles of hallways, it’s the world’s largest office building.

1944

Montesa founded in Spain.

The 88,000th Army- model WLA Harley is built.

Ariel Motorcycles sold to BSA.

1945

Germany surrenders on May 7th, effectively ending the war in Europe. Japan surrenders on August 15th after atomic bombs level Hiroshima and Nagasaki. WWII officially ends on September 2nd.

Number of motorcycles registered in the USA: 198,000

The Slinky is invented.

1946

Harley-Davidson shows a 125cc two-stroke, the model 125S, and launches a line of sub-200cc lightweight machines.

The United Nations, formed after WWII to help avert future wars, holds its first General Assembly in London with 51 countries represented.

1947

Jackie Robinson signs with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in professional baseball.

Returning GI’s create the first “bobbers" by paring down heavy fenders and removing unnecessary parts in an attempt to lighten their heavy, overbuilt American motorcycles.

Harley-Davidson buys a new plant to keep up with postwar demand.

The Daytona 200 resumes after a 5-year hiatus.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is formed.

1948

Floyd Emde wins the Daytona 200 on an Indian Scout—the last Daytona win for the Springfield, Massachusetts-based brand.

Honda is founded and begins manufacturing two-stroke auxiliary bicycle engines.

Harley-Davidson introduces the “Panhead” engine with hydraulic valve lifters and lightweight aluminum cylinder heads.

Number of motorcycles registered in the USA: 482,645

The Olympics resume with the Summer Games in London. The ’40 and ’44 events were called off due to WWII.

Vincent’s Black Shadow, with a 125-mph top speed that makes it the fastest production motorcycle built to date, is released.

1949

Honda builds its first complete motorcycle: the Model D.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries begins developing motorcycle engines.

Spanish company OSSA introduces its first mass-produced motorcycle: a proletarian 125cc single.

Harley fits a hydraulic fork to the FL, creating the Hydra-Glide.

Japan produces 1766 motorcycles.

By Motorcyclist Staff
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