The Harley-Davidson WLA was Harley-Davidson’s contribution to World War II combat efforts, as it was designed specifically to military standards. With a designed based on the civilian Harley-Davidson WL model, featuring a 45 cubic inch engine displacement and single-rider design. This combination is referred to as the 45 solo type. The same engine was also used in the three-wheeled Servi-Car at a lower tuning.
This Harley-Davidson model designation comes from the series designation of “W”, the low compression engine, and it’s army utilization. The military motorcycles created for Canadian troops were known as WLCs and featured slightly heavier, Big Twin parts and blackout lighting.
Production of the Harley-Davidson WLA began in small batches in 1940. When the U.S. entered combat efforts, the company would contribute over 90,000 during wartime production as well as spare parts for repairs. They would also produce the WLC variant in smaller quantities for the UK, South Africa, and other allies. Other models were made available to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Interestingly, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, all Harley-Davidson WLAs were given the production date of 1942 regardless of the actual year. Because of this distinction, this later group of WLAs would be designated the 42WLAs. Most Harley-Davidson WLCs were produced in 1943 and would be called 43WLCs. Serial numbers and casting marks can be used to determine exact production dates on the motors and other key parts, though the frames have no serial numbers.
Under a lend-lease program, Harley-Davidson provided motorcycles to allies, the largest recipient being the Soviet Union with over 30,000 WLAs. Though production of the WLA would cease after World War II, it would be briefly revived for the Korean War between 1949 and 1952. In the United States, most WLAs would be modified into civilian bikes and sold as surplus at low costs. This decision lead to a rise in popularity of chopper and other modified bike designs, as well as increasing general popularity for civilian motorcyclist. Many of the young men returning from war sought out bikes similar to those they’d seen or worked with during combat.
Unfortunately, this interest in military-inspired motorcycles did not translate to the mostly original WLAs produced by Harley-Davidson. Most would remain in the Soviet Union, either sold to private collectors or placed in storage. A lack of interest in the motorcycle culture on the Soviet front lead to a preservation of WLAs during the Cold War. Because of this, Russia and other former Soviet countries are a primary supplier of Harley-Davidson WLAs and parts.