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From WWII Surplus to an American Classic

WWII Harley Davidson MotorcycleThe Story of the Harley Davidson WLA

(Published June 2008)

Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences, but the demands of wartime production in the 1940s would help spawn the post WWII biker culture captured in films such as Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider.

At the onset of WWII, the U.S. government granted a lucrative contract to Harley Davidson, which would produce a total of 90,000 of its WLA motorcycles. Used by the Army, Navy, and America’s allies, these versatile vehicles were used for courier duty, scouting, and small equipment transport.

While prevalent on American bases, Harley Davidson also exported large numbers of bikes for use by the Red Army. In all, 30,000 Harley Davidsons were shipped off for use by Russia, which has become a favorite post-Cold War destination for Harley enthusiasts seeking WLAs in near original condition.

But what about the large number of U.S.-issued Harleys that were eventually surplussed out for post-War civilian purchase? This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak.

During the war, many a G.I. fantasized about owning the kind of motorcycle he rode or saw during his hitch with Uncle Sam. After the war, thousands of Harleys hit the surplus market and could be had for pennies on the dollar. And with many returning servicemen hungry for a thrill, a small investment in a used Harley was a logical choice.

While a first-time owner’s original impulse may have been to own a bike just like the ones he remembered, many bikers got creative and sought to personalize their rides. Just as many 1930s Coupes were modified into Happy Days-style hot rods, thousands of Harleys were transformed into customized motorcycles – a testament to Americans’ penchant for innovation and individualization. Hobby mechanics removed windshields and “bobbed” fenders - or else eliminated them altogether to streamline their bikes. Handle bars got longer and chrome became the color of choice. Call them “after market modifications,” if you will.

The custom motorcycle – whether as a “bobber” or a full out chopper - is a great monument to Americans’ native ingenuity. While the basic WLA was an ideal tableau upon which bikers could express their individual personalities, the chopper phenomenon did significantly shrink the number of near-original WWII vintage Harleys.

The Wright Museum of WWII History in Wolfeboro, N.H. is happy to spare you a trip to the former Soviet Union if you’re interested in seeing some of these American classics restored to their original glory. The museum has on long-term display a collection of Harley Davidsons used during WWII.

Wright Museum

The Wright Museum is a non-profit institution devoted to educating learners of all ages. With its nationally-significant collection of fully-operational military vehicles and vast collections relating to the American Home Front, the Wright Museum is a member-supported national treasure located right here in New Hampshire.

To learn more, call the museum at 603-569-1212 or send an e-mail to