1943 Harley-Davidson WLA
The Motor Company goes to war
With American involvement in World War II on the horizon in the late 1930s, the U.S. War Department knew exactly what it wanted in a military motorcycle.
And this Harley-Davidson WLA wasn’t it.
It was, however, one of the reliable, workhorse machines officials finally decided on as the two-wheeled Jeep of the U.S. Army. And for that, you can thank William Harley, and his insistence that the WLA would be perfect for military duty.
The machine’s story actually started in 1938, when War Department officials asked American motorcycle manufacturers to design a 500cc motorcycle that could ford streams, not overheat at idle or during slow running, and sustain 65 mph.
Times were tough, and both Harley-Davidson and Indian designed machines in hopes of securing the military contract.
Indian followed the military specs perfectly, producing the 500cc Model 741 that was based on its civilian Junior Scout. William Harley at the Motor Company, however, balked at producing a 500cc machine, to the point of confrontation. He was adamant that the military needed a 750cc (45 cubic inch) motorcycle for war, and he based his design on the W-series side-valve motor.
The WLA featured alloy cylinder heads for better cooling, more ground clearance, a cargo rack and saddlebags. Simplicity and reliability were key, so compression was lowered (hence the "L" in the name) and an oil-bath air filter was added.
In the end, with war imminent, the Army approved purchase orders for both the Harley and the Indian. In practice, though, the Harley was the preferred machine, and more than 90,000 were produced before war's end.
Though eventually overshadowed by the multi-use Jeep, military motorcycles found a niche in reconnaissance, traffic control and dispatch duties throughout WWII. And they endured well enough that, after the war, many Americans picked up surplus models, like this 1943 example, now owned by retired U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. George Ogden Jr.