Motorcycle: Work and War - The Second World War
Date: Sunday, October 31 @ 23:15:52 UTC
Topic: Motorcycle, Motorcycles, Motor Cycle
The Second World War
No sooner had Harley sales begun to recover from the Depression of the 1930s than Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered the Second World War. Milwaukee had begun planning in anticipation of military needs as early as the autumn of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe. Early work, in competition with Indian and Deico, focused on a flat twin Servi-Car to meet army proposals for a three-wheeler for rough terrain. Other unfinished projects were even stranger, including an armoured machine-gun carrier and a prototype powerplant for a small tank comprising paired overhead valve engines.
With civilian motorcycle production suspended, by far the bulk of Harley- Davidson's war effort was the production of military versions of the WL side-valve V-twins, the WLA. The equivalent 74-inch (1,207cc) military UA and USA (sidecar) models were built in much smaller numbers. Of almost 90,000 military Harley-Davidsons, around 88,000 were 45-inch WLAs, of which one third served with Soviet forces. The same attributes of rugged simplicity that had brought the side-valve twin such a dependable peacetime reputation made it ideally suited to the harsher demands of war.
With very few Knuckleheads "enlisting" (although a special ELC model was built for the Canadian army), Milwaukee's other major contribution was the oddball Model XA, powered by a horizontally-opposed flathead twin displacing 45cu in (739cc). The XA was expressly designed for use in the North African desert, with its shaft final drive and plunger rear suspension. There was also an XS variant, with sidecar. Less well known was a mission for American intelligence, the stripping and assessment of a Russian motorcycle. Harley-Davidson's contribution was not confined to hardware. John E. Harley, later in charge of the parts and accessories division, rose to the rank of major in the Second World War. Among his various tasks, and one to which he was eminently suited, was the training of army motorcyclists at Fort Knox, Kentucky. WLAs in the hands of raw recruits must have tested Harley's talents to the limit. Even setting off on such a machine was a knack, thanks to its hand gear-change and foot-operated "suicide" clutch.
From late 1941 until the armistice in 1945, Juneau Avenue burned the midnight oil to meet the escalating demands of the forces as almost the whole of American industry was turned over to the war effort. Fittingly, Harley-Davidson's special contribution was recognized by the award of three coveted Army-Navy "E" awards for excellence in wartime production. Milwaukee's factory workers couldn't necessarily go to war with the enemy but they could certainly help those who did.
Some might believe Harley's military career ended with the Second World War but there are two surprising post-scripts.
The first was the 1987 purchase of the rights to the military MT500 motorcycle from the British Armstrong company. The second was a legacy of the AMF takeover: one "sideline" at the former AMF plant in York, Pennsylvania — where Harleys are still assembled — was the manufacture of bomb casings, a practice which continued well into the 1990s. It is likely that some of these found their way into the Gulf War.
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