The Harley-Davidson WLA is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was produced to US Army specifications in the years during and around World War II. It was based on an existing civilian model, the WL, and is of the 45 solo type, so called due to its 45-cubic-inch (740 cm3) engine displacement and single-rider design. The same engine, in a slightly lower state of tune, also powered the three-wheeled Servi-Car (the "G" family), leading to the "solo" distinction.
The model number breaks down as follows:
Pvt Robert J Vance, from Portland, Oregon, riding his bike as a messenger of the33rd Armored Regiment
of the 3rd Armored Division in the fields of Normandy in late July, 1944.
Harley-Davidson began producing the WLA in small numbers in 1940, as part of a general military expansion. The later entry of the United States into World War II saw significantly increased production, with over 90,000 being produced during the war (along with spare parts the equivalent of many more). Harley Davidson would also produce a close WLA variant for the Canadian Army called the WLC and would also supply smaller numbers to the UK, South Africa, and other allies, as well as filling orders for different models from the Navy and Marine Corps.
Unusually, all the WLAs produced after Pearl Harbor, regardless of the actual year, would be given serial numbers indicating 1942 production. Thus, war-time machines would come to be known as 42WLAs. This may have been in recognition of the use of the continued use of the same specification. Most WLCs were produced in 1943, and are marked 43WLC. The precise serial number, as well as casting marks, can be used to date a specific motor accurately, and some other parts bear year and month stamps. Frames and many other parts were not tagged with the serial number, and cannot generally be dated. This is common prior to adoption of the vehicle identification number (VIN).
Many WLAs would be shipped to allies under the Lend-Lease program. The largest recipient was the Soviet Union, which was sold over 30,000 WLAs.
Production of the WLA would cease after the war, but would be revived for the Korean War during the years 1949–1952.
Most WLAs in western hands after the war would be sold as surplus and "civilianized"; the many motorcycles available at very low cost would lead to the rise of the chopper and other modified motorcycle styles, as well as the surrounding biker culture. Many a young soldier would come home hoping to get a Harley-Davidson like he saw or rode in the service, leading to the post-war popularity of both the motorcycle and the company in general.
However, this also ensured that few nearly-original WLAs would survive in the US or even Western Europe. A significant number of WLAs were left in the Soviet Union, and either stored or put in private hands. With little access to parts and no chopper culture, and no export path to the West, many of those WLAs were preserved during the Cold War. Russia and other former Soviet countries are now a major source of WLAs and parts.
Mostly-restored WLA originally sent to Russia
Harley-Davidson WL photographed in Madrid
The WLA is very similar to civilian models, specifically the WL. Among the changes making it a military model:
- paint and other finishes: painted surfaces were generally painted olive drab or black and chrome- or nickel-plated parts were generally blued orparkerized or painted white. Some parts were left as unfinished aluminum. However, Harley Davidson was apparently very practical in its use of existing parts and processes, and many finishes remained in their bright civilian versions for a time, and, in some cases, for the whole production run.
- blackout lights: in order to reduce nighttime visibility, WLAs were fitted with a second set of blackout head and tail lights.
- fenders: to reduce mud clogging, the sides of the standard fenders were removed.
- accessories: a heavy-duty luggage rack (for radios), ammo box, leather Thompson submachine gun scabbard, skid plate, leg protectors, and windshield could be fitted. Most came with at least these accessories less the windshield or leg protectors.
- air cleaner: an oil bath air cleaner, originally used for tractors and other vehicles in dusty environments, was fitted to handle the dust of off-road use and to allow easier field maintenance. Oil bath cleaners require only the addition of standard motor oil rather than replaceable filters.
- fording: changes to the crankcase breather reduced the possibility of water intake into the crankcase.