The Harley-Davidson WLA motorcycle could well have triggered the bike culture that developed in the wake of the Second World War.

Many a young serviceman returned home hoping to get their hands on a Harley-Davidson like the one they rode during the war.

It led to a growth in popularity of both the motorcycle and the Harley-Davidson company in general.

Known as the bike that won the war the Harley-Davison WLA is a motorcycling icon and instantly recognisable by enthusiasts worldwide.

Shannons has one of the machines which are as rare as hen’s teeth in Australia up for grabs at its next auction on November 11.

The WLA traces its beginnings back to 1940 when Harley-Davidson started producing small numbers as part of a military expansion.

Based on the civilian WL model, it was built to US Army spec and went on to become known as the 42WLA — as we’ll explain shortly.

The Army used the motorcycle for police and escort work, courier duties, and some scouting, as well as limited use to transport radio and radio suppression equipment.

Allied motorcycles were almost never used as combat vehicles or for troop mobility, and so were rarely equipped with sidecars as was common on the German side.

Powered by a 750cc V-Twin with a three-speed transmission, although the model designation suggests high compression, the Army version actually used medium compression for reliability.

Due to this low compression, a WLA will run on 74 octane fuel, due to the poor quality of refining at the time.

Changes that were made to the motorcycle for its military role include:

  • paint and other finishes: painted surfaces were generally painted olive drab or black and chrome- or nickel-plated parts were generally blued or parkerised or painted white. Some parts were left as unfinished aluminium. 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 night time 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.

Production of the WLA was ramped up after the United States entered the conflict, with more than 90,000 produced during the war together with spare parts.

For some reason, however,  all WLAs produced after the attack on Pearl Harbour, regardless of their actual production date, were given serial numbers showing they had been built 1942.

And so it was that the war-time machines came to be known as 42WLAs.

Many of the machines were shipped to Allied countries under the now infamous Lend-Lease program.

The largest recipient of these was the Soviet Union which took more than 30,000 of the motorcycles.

With little access to parts and no ‘chopper’ or modified bike culture to speak of, as well as no way to export them to the West — many WLAs were put into storage during the Cold War.

As such Russia and other former Soviet countries are now a major source of the WLA and parts.

Interestingly, although production of the bike ceased after the war, the WLA was revived for the Korean War from 1949–1952.

Shannons example has been studiously restored to its original specification and has been housed in a private collection until now.

Naturally, it is finished throughout in ‘Army Green’ (Khaki) as it would have been in the period, with light tan (some would say orange) saddle.

Although 90,000 WLAs were ultimately made, they are not a common sight on Australian roads and hold a special place among Harley enthusiasts for their global importance.

This 1942 Harley Davidson WLA is complete, in great condition and ready to ride.

It is being offered for sale unregistered and is expected to sell in the $30,000 – $35,000 price range.


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Chris Riley has been a journalist for 40 years. He has spent half of his career as a writer, editor and production editor in newspapers, the rest of the time driving and writing about cars both in print and online. His love affair with cars began as a teenager with the purchase of an old VW Beetle, followed by another Beetle and a string of other cars on which he has wasted too much time and money. A self-confessed geek, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions - at the risk of sounding silly.
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