Harley-Davidson’s WLA—The Bike That Won the War | Icon

The Liberator

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Harley-Davidson Archives

Contrary to popular belief, motorcycles never saw direct combat during World War II. Their use was limited to policing, scouting and courier duties, in stark contrast to WWI, when motorcycles were used for actual fighting. But because military convoys were typically led by motorcycle-mounted escorts—including Brigadier General George S. Patton’s 2nd Armored “Hell on Wheels” Division that liberated much of occupied Europe—Harley-Davidson’s WLA became known as “The Liberator.” Motorcycle-mounted reconnaissance officers were usually the first soldiers to enter occupied territory, making theirs one of WWII’s most iconic and enduring images of freedom.

Harley-Davidson manufactured more than 88,000 motorcycles for military use between 1941 and ’45, earning The Motor Company two Army-Navy “E” Awards for production excellence. A small number were “Experimental Army” XA models (see Whatever Happened To…, page 22) and even fewer were Knuckleheads. The vast majority were Army-spec versions of the civilian WL model, powered by the simple, durable, 45-cubic-inch (750cc) flathead V-twin. Specialized for military duty with a skidplate and skirtless fenders for mud clearance, the WLA was further differentiated with service-ready accessories such as a heavy-duty rack, secondary “blackout” lighting and, of course, a fork-mounted machine-gun scabbard.

Just over one-third of WLA production was exported to allied nations under Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act of 1941—30,000 went to the Soviet Union alone, with much smaller numbers to the UK, France, China and the Canadian Armed Forces. The remainder went to the U.S. military. This relationship largely kept Harley-Davidson alive during WWII. Production of civilian vehicles was essentially suspended in ’42 to meet the military’s massive demand for copper, steel, iron and aluminum. Each dealer received just a single new bike that year, and aluminum became so scarce that dealers were forced to send in old, broken pistons to be melted down and re-cast into replacements. Unless you were police, fire or active-duty military, your chances of riding a new Harley were virtually non-existent.

Wartime production experience positioned Harley to deal with the inevitable massive peacetime motorcycle demand, as thousands of soldiers returned home wanting a bike just like they remembered riding in the service. Post-war demand for surplus motorcycles was so great that few original WLAs survive today. Ironically, the best source of complete bikes and parts remains the former Soviet Union, where a perpetually depressed economy and no coherent motorcycle culture left many wartime bikes underused and intact.

Though WWII helped Harley-Davidson survive and thrive, immediate post-war policies sowed the seeds of the company’s eventual difficulties competing against British and European brands. Harley still couldn’t get the raw materials to satisfy product demand throughout the late ’40s, as the U.S. re-routed significant steel and aluminum resources to rebuild European industries and economies under the Marshall Plan. Waiting lists for Harleys were a reality well before the ’90s! This led directly to the flood of inexpensive, lightweight foreign motorcycles that started appearing in America in the ’50s, siphoning sales away from the proud, patriotic American manufacturer.

Click below for more archival images of Harley-Davidson WLAs in action during World War II

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