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Dual sport and adventure bikes have seen a major uptick in popularity over the past few years. Between a growing general adventure-seeking customer base and the COVID-19 lockdowns, more people than ever have turned to off-road adventure machines. As with many other things in this (motorcycle) world, we have Harley-Davidson to thank for the adventure bike segment. Zip back to 1939 and feast your eyes on the WW2 Harley-Davidson WLA “Liberator” and meet the great grandpappy of the adventure bike segment. The best part is that this badass motorcycle segment was created to kill Nazis.

the Harley-Davidson WLA, made for WW2, was the first adventure bike
Harley Davidson WLA motorcycle, 1941 | DeAgostini/Getty Images

The WW2 Harley-Davidson WLA was the original adventure bike

As seen on Silodrome, the WLA was created for the military at the beginning of WW2. Over the years of conflict, Harley built tens of thousands of the meanest matte green motorcycles the world has ever known. Harley reworked the WL bike made for citizens to be a tough overland machine meant to tackle the deserts of North Africa and the Forrest of central Europe. 

Silodrome explains that the Harley-Davidson nomenclature that gives the WLA its name works out like this: “W” is the family of motorcycles, “L” means high-compression, and “A” stands for Army. Don’t be fooled by the phrase “high compression.” Back in 1939, the WLA’s high compression ratio was only 5:1. This “high compression” ratio meant that the WLA could burn low-quality fuel such as the low octane, 73. This was necessary to be a successful, go-anywhere vehicle in Europe at this time. 

What engine did the Harley-Davidson WLA use? 

Harley Davidson WLA motorcycle, year 1941 | DeAgostini/Getty Images
Harley Davidson WLA motorcycle, 1941 | DeAgostini/Getty Images

Harley had more powerful (and more complicated) engines at this time. However, given the need for the bike to be as solid and reliable as possible, Harley decided to give the WLA the old tried-and-true side-valve flathead V-twin. Even though it was less powerful than the overhead valve engines, it was far simpler, cheaper, and tougher. 

At 45 cubic inches (740cc), the air-cooled 45-degree V-twin made 25 hp. Power was sent back via a 3-speed transmission with a hand shifter, and there was a chain drive to the rear wheels. 

What makes the WW2 WLA an adventure bike? 

The Harley- Davidson Motor Co. built more than 90,000 motorcycles during World War II for the armed forces. A row of Army Armored Division contingency of mounted soldiers made and impressive sight | Getty Images
The Harley- Davidson Motor Co. built more than 90,000 motorcycles during World War II for the armed forces. A row of Army Armored Division contingency of mounted soldiers made an impressive sight | Getty Images

The WLA wasn’t just a WL with a cool paint job sent off to fight in WW2. Aside from the matte-green or black paint job, Harley-Davidson fitted a variety of accessories and modifications to the WL to make it war-ready. The WLA had a skid/bash plate, crash bars, an oil bath air cleaner, a heavy-duty luggage rack, blackout lights, and modified fenders to shed mud and dirt better. I mean, if that don’t sound like a BMW R1200GS wish list, I don’t know what does. 

Not only did Harley build them for life off-road, but the excess units were also sold cheaply after WW2. This led to many GIs buying the familiar bikes upon their homecoming. These GIs and their cheap military bikes became the foundation of the chopper culture. So, not only were these bikes tough, but they eventually be THE custom bike platform for years. 

Is the WLA the military bike Harley-Davidson made? 

By the end of WW2, Harley built almost 100,000 WLAs, making it the most produced military bike for Harley by a long shot. They experimented with other military motorcycles at the time, including the Harley-Davidson XA with its BMW boxer engine and the far more rare Harley-Davidson TA Knucklehead. 

Though Harley tried other times to get into the military bike business, none of its efforts matched the WLA. Maybe it’s because motorcycles just haven’t been as useful in other wars? Or maybe it’s because WW2 had style and the WLA had to be there to set the tone. 


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