HD's 1943 WLA

With American involvement imminent in World War II, the U.S. War Department knew exactly what it wanted in a military motorcycle and the Harley-Davidson WLA wasn't it.

It was however, one of the reliable, robust motorcycles that officials finally decided on as the two-wheeled Jeep of the U.S. Army. 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 cross streams, not overheat at idle or during slow running, and sustain 65 mph indefinitely.

For the major motocycle manufacturers, times were tough and both Harley-Davidson and Indian designed machines in hopes of securing the military contract, thus ensuring their survival.

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 tried and true 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 the key, so in that vein the compression was lowered (hence the "L"in the name) and an oil-bath air filter was added to keep the machine running long and strong.

In the end, with war imminent, the Army approved purchase orders for both Harley and Indian. In the field though, the Harley was the G.I.'s preferred machine and more than 90,000 were produced before war's end in 1945.

Though eventually overshadowed by the multi-use Jeep, military motorcycles found a niche in reconnaissance, traffic control and dispatch duties throughout WWII. They proved to be such a robust, reliable machine that after the war, many returned servicemen and civilians alike picked up surplus models for a song and gained many years faithful service from their olive green mounts

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