What a difference an “A” makes.
“A” is for “Army” if you’re Harley Davidson, who took their civilian model WL to war when they refit their process to the specifications of the United States Army.
In 1937, Harley Davidson started rolling its W line of motorcycles off the production line. These motorcycles had forty-five cylinders in their engines and oil recirculating through their system. They were a new window into what modern motorcycles would be, not superbikes and not scooters, but working motorcycles that could be used to move people and fight Nazis.
Workhorse Fit for a Captain
You’re not going to find the Harley Davidson WL in the coveted collection of a movie star or in glamorous ways onscreen. However, its cousin the Harley Davidson WLA is all over film thanks to its wide use during World War II.
The Harley Davidson WLA appears almost canonically in World War II films. Hacksaw Ridge and Captain America: The First Avenger both feature the WLA, though Captain America practically rides a newer bike that’s been outfitted to look like a WLA. The bike also appears in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Remember the WLA is a WL that’s been fitted to meet the specifications of the United States Army for the war. It was first used in World War II, but then brought back into production by Harley for the Korean War.
These motorcycles were produced until 1951. Once the U.S. Army was done with the WLA model, they sold them at a low price to civilians following the war. The WL model ceased production after the war.
These bikes were very similar to the Harley Davidson Big Twin Flatheads that were also produced during the same era. The WL was intended to be a hard and hearty street model. It’s for that reason that Harley based the military version of their motorcycle on the WL.
What’s the WL mean?
The WL was produced with a 45 cubic inch engine, similar to previous Harley models. With the drive chain on the right side of the bike instead of the left, as in the Twin Flathead.
The “W” means the double V-twin side-valve engine. The “L” indicated the high compression. What’s great about this bike and what made it so perfect for military use is that it can go for long periods of time with little maintenance and with lots of endurance. Durability and power always marked the WL model as unique and valuable.
With a three-speed hand shift and a spring fork suspension, the WL was standard for its time. 25 horsepower was more than enough to get anyone where they needed to go.
The end of the WL
After the WL stopped production in 1951, it was replaced with the K-series. The major innovation there was that the motor and transmission were able to go in one case, making the WL obsolete.
These bikes are hard to find these days, and collectors sometimes end up having to build them out of parts scavenged and pieced together. It’s a lot of work, but given the rich history of these motorcycles, there are passionate collectors out there willing to do it.
The WL had a short production time and it seems like it should have nothing more than a tiny footnote in the history of Harley Davidson, however that’s not the case. This motorcycle was the basis for one of the most iconic motorcycles of the most iconic war of the 20th century. For that, the WL deserves to be remembered.