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Military Vehicles on Two Wheels

A look at historic military motorcycles
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Harley-Davidson WLA

During World War II, both the Allies and the Axis nations used thousands of motorcycles. Although the advent of the Jeep significantly reduced the role of the motorcycle in U.S. military strategy, both Harley-Davidson and Indian produced numerous models of motorcycles for military use.

Harley-Davidson had built motorcycles for the military since World War I, and the famed World War II-era WLA was simply the latest in a long series of government sales. Today, it is the Harley-Davidson WLA that most often comes to mind when the term “Army motorcycle” is heard.

These bikes were based on Harley’s civilian model WL, modified with the addition of military items. The 42-WLA is what most collectors are referring to when they say “WLA.”

The powerplant, the classic 45 cubic-inch Harley-Davidson 45-degree V-twin, could push the bike to speeds up to 70 mph. The motorcycle featured right side chain drive with three-speed gearbox. Included was such military gear as a scabbard for a Thompson submachine gun on the right side of the front fork, blackout lights on the front and rear, a crankcase skidplate and a substantial luggage rack.

Weight: 513 pounds

Size (LxWxH): 88" x 36.25" x 59"

Range: 124 miles

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Harley-Davidson XA

As the Germans waged war in the desert of North Africa, the toll taken by sand and grit was enormous. That, coupled with its experiences in the dust and mud of Russia, convinced the Wehrmacht that shaft drive would be preferable. Both BMW and Zündapp created shaft-drive motorcycles. These developments did not escape the attention of the U.S. War Department, which in turn had both Harley-Davidson and Indian develop similar bikes. Harley-Davidson based its entry, the Model XA, on the BMW design. In 1941, the Quartermaster Corps contracted for 1,000 of the model 42-XA. Not all those built were issued, and the bulk of those that were used were employed only in testing and training functions. Production ceased in 1943.

The 23 horsepower, 45 cubic-inch engine, unlike the classic Harley V-twin design, was used instead of an opposed piston design and featured a carburetor for each cylinder.

While the performance of the XA was adequate, in many people’s opinion, it unnecessarily diverted production facilities and introduced more parts into the supply chain.

Weight: 525 pounds

Wheelbase: 59.5

Horsepower: 23

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Harley-Davidson Big Twin

Much larger than either the WLA or the UA, the Harley-Davidson U, used by the Navy, and the UA, used by the Army, were based on a prewar civilian Harley-Davidson. Powered by Harley’s 74 cubic-inch flathead engine, the additional power was required because of the sidecar that was installed on these bikes.

The Navy procured some of these sidecar-equipped model U bikes and employed them with the Shore Patrol, among other things.

Initially the Quartermaster ordered 335 of the UA, with a further 504 ordered in 1940. However, this was the extent of the Army orders, making this a rare bike today.

Because these machines were not meant for front line or combat use, they are often mistaken for civilian Big Twins.

A spare tire was on the rear of the sidecar. The sidecar’s windshield was hinged, and could be tilted forward to allow the passenger to get in and out.

Weight: 850 pounds

Size (LxWxH): 96” x 69” x 42”

Max Speed: 55 mph

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Indian 340-B

By the early 1930s, Indian and Harley-Davidson were the only two American producers of motorcycles. Indian had suffered through years of bungling management following the departure of founders George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom in 1915 and 1913, respectively. However, in 1929, brothers Francis I. and E. Paul DuPont (yes, that DuPont family) bought large amounts of stock in the struggling company and brought in better management.

As world events turned toward war, Indian struggled to regain market share lost during the previous two decades and military interest in motorcycles was renewed. Once war broke out in Europe, the governments of England and France placed orders for motorcycles, and Indian was the beneficiary.

The 74 cubic-inch 340 and 344 Chiefs were big, powerful bikes, considerably larger than the more familiar Harley-Davidson WLA and Indian 640-B. The additional horsepower and more rugged construction were required to allow the installation of a sidecar without overburdening the chassis, particularly in off-road conditions. The Germans did this on the 45 cubic-inch BMW R75 and KS 750 sidecar bikes by powering the wheel on the sidecar as well as the rear wheel of the bike. Indian addressed this problem in the typical American fashion: it installed a bigger engine.

Prior to the U.S. Army adopting the “Jeep” as the standard light reconnaissance, courier and utility vehicle, large numbers of the Indian Chief, or 340-B, powered by a 74 cubic-inch engine were ordered. In 1944, the government of Australia ordered in quantity a slightly updated model of the Chief, the 344.

Weight: 550 pounds

Wheelbase: 62”

Horsepower: 40

Max Speed: 75 mph

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Indian 741-B

The model produced in greatest numbers for the war effort, the 741, was created for the British. In April 1941, Col. J.H. Smith of the British Purchasing Commission expressed the desire of the Empire to purchase motorbikes lighter in weight and more fuel-efficient than the then-current 45 cubic-inch Indians and Harley-Davidsons. It was decided to create a new machine with a 30.50 cubic-inch engine and use as many parts as possible from the model 640 then in production. Series production of the 741 began in December 1941, even before the testing was completed and, though the war clouds burst into storm for the nation, the future looked bright for Indian.

During the design process of the 741, the size of the engine was changed again, to 30.07 cubic inches, but the 30-50 moniker stuck. With a three-speed transmission and conventional chain drive, the bike could attain 70 mph.

An early complaint from the British about the tires resulted in two-ply tires being installed on vehicles bound for England, with four-ply tires being used on bikes destined for Australia. Four-ply tires were installed on all late production 741s.

At $2,062,000, the first of the Lend-Lease contracts dwarfed the earlier foreign military sales orders, but it was to be by no means the largest.

Legend has it that many of the 5,000 Indians France ordered in October 1939 were lost before delivery when the SS Hanseatic Star was torpedoed. But no documentation has surfaced to support that a ship of this name existed at that time, much less that it took thousands of Indians to an early, watery grave.

Weight: 513 pounds

Size (LxWxH): 88” x 34” x 40”

Horsepower: 15

Max Speed: 65 mph

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Indian 841

This shaft-drive motorcycle was created at the behest of the U.S. Army, and was intended to duplicate the success of BMW’s shaft drive motorcycles in the desert. The dust, grit and sand of North Africa wore heavily on conventional chain drives, whose oil attracted these contaminants and held them in place, wearing the chain. In 1941, the U.S. Army ordered 1,000 shaft-drive bikes each from both Indian and Harley-Davidson. However, Indian records indicate that a handful more than the originally contracted 1,000 bikes were produced.

Indian designed a new engine for its shaft-drive bike. Based on the Scout’s 45 cubic-inch powerplant, but with the angle of the block spread from 45 degrees to 90 degrees, it was mounted sideways in the frame. Its protruding cylinder heads gave the bike a distinctive appearance. A newly designed four-speed foot-shift gearbox was mounted and coupled to a driveshaft. The 841’s tubular, plunger-suspended frame and final drive units were much like the BMW bikes that so ably served the German army in horrible conditions.

A few were used in testing, a few more were used in training, evidently none were used in combat, and most of the unused bikes were sold on the surplus market at the end of the war.

Indian’s 841 shaft-drive model, a personal favorite of company President E. Paul DuPont, held great promise for postwar development in the civilian marketplace. However, when the DuPonts sold their stock and left Indian, the dream of civilian Indian shaft drives left too.

Weight: 550 pounds

Cubic Inch Displacement: 45

Max Speed: 75 mph

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