The Overview

In the late 1930’s the United States Army began looking for a motorcycle to use on the front lines in the impending over-seas battle that was the Second World War. They shopped around and put a number of bikes from various manufacturers through a grueling set of tests that would prove the bikes reliable in the heat of combat. It came down to two motorcycles: The Indian Scout and the Harley Davidson WL. At the end of the testing period, the bike that proved its true grit was the Harley Davidson WL. Reliable, easy to fix, and most importantly, tough as could be, the bike possessed everything the military needed. Starting in 1940, Harley Davidson quickly switched its production almost exclusively to bikes for the U.S. military. The WL, formerly a civilian bike, became the WLA and was strictly intended for military purposes.  Throughout its time in service, the WLA would prove its reliability and toughness over and over again. The WLA was so popular in World War 2 that it earned the nickname “The Liberator” overseas as they were ridden into European towns once occupied by axis forces; and the name has stuck with the bike ever since.


The WLA utilizes Harley Davidsons infamous 45 degree V-Twin flathead engine which was first introduced in 1929 on the Model D. The engine gets its name from the fact that it employs a side valve system rather than the now more common overhead valve system. The valves were placed in recesses at the top of the cylinder walls next to the piston allowing the top of the engine to be flat. This system is considered to be much less complex as well as being more reliable and easier to fix then the more complicated overhead valve system. One of the biggest advantages of the side valve system was its ability to be easily and cheaply manufactured which was vital during the wartime efforts. The WLA’s flathead motor also utilized a recirculating oil system, which was a first for Harley Davidson and allowed for far less maintenance to the engine. The frame of the WLA was borrowed from the civilian version of the motorcycle, the WL, with some slight modifications to allow for the mounting and carrying of additional gear including the Thompson sub machine gun that was standard optioning for each motorcycle. Although the WLA was produced over a period of four years, each and every example bears an engine number starting with 42WLA. It is unclear why this was done but most signs point to ease of paperwork on the army’s end. The frames themselves were not given VIN tags so their engine number, which took the place of the VIN code, was used to register the bikes.


The motorcycle you are looking at here is an excellent running and driving example of the famous WLA. It has been under single-family ownership since 1972 and has regularly been cared for and ridden. The bike was demilitarized sometime after World War 2 ended, much like many of these models, and had its military hardware stripped as well as having a period correct full repaint and rebadging with the infamous Harley Davidson logo. The bike has not seen any additional restoration from its original civilianization in the late 1940’s and shows beautiful patina throughout. All the rubber components including the grips and footpads are in excellent condition. The tires were put on the bike in 1972 and have been superbly preserved since, with plenty of tread and no cracking or rot to be found. The seat was redone in the 1970’s but is completely period correct. The gauge is completely original and extremely captivating with it’s patina. It is absolutely one of the highlights of this motorcycle. Both the horn and headlight are correct to the bike and function flawlessly. The chrome pieces that are left on the bike are in excellent condition. The miles are believed to be entirely original and correct as well.  The motor fires right up and runs smoothly and the transmission shifts through the gears with no issues. The number stamp on the engine displays as 42WLA7838 showing that this was a type II WLA produced sometime between the dates of December 10th 1941 and February 15th 1942. The engine has matching belly pan numbers of 42–6896 showing that both halves of the engine casing are just as they were when mated at the factory in 1942. The neck of the frame displays the casting code ZE-35T A4, indicating that the frame was produced between late 1941 and early 1942, which correlates with the engine number. This bike will make an excellent rider and show piece or even a superb basis for a full military restoration for the more ambitious.


The WLA is heralded as being the motorcycle that helped America and the allies to defeat the axis forces in the Second World War and therefore has a rich history and makes an excellent collectable piece that can still be used and enjoyed. This bike has many stories hidden in its past life and an excellent future ahead of it!