Motorcycles have featured strongly in theatres of war. In fact, they still are. Let’s look at a bunch of the significant military bikes that have left their knobby prints in some pretty famous places.
1942 Harley-Davidson WLA
So, what’s the ‘WLA’ designation all about? Glad you asked.
Pretty simple really. The W-series represented H-D’s 45 cubic-inch flathead (side valve) single seater aimed as an entry-level V-twin, taking the place of earlier R-series of 1932-1936.
The ‘L’ designated the high-compression engine of the time, although the 5:1 being squeezed by the old beast seems a little light by today’s standards.
The ‘A’ tells us Harley built it for the US Army. The model ‘WLC’ were Harley-Davidson supplied military bikes for the Canadian Army.
Good news here is that bikes are easily identified for the collector. The frames were not numbered, but the engines were sequentially-numbered, and even though they all use the same 42WLA designation, it is possible to accurately identify the year, and even the month of manufacture of the engine.
In a move that set Harley on a massive production binge, the US government awarded it the contract to make all its wartime motorcycles. In fact, Harley built some 90,000 WLAs during World War II.
The bike proved to be tough indeed. The 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA was reputed to be almost unstoppable. While we reckon that might be a little nostalgically optimistic, it did have a deserved strong reputation for reliability.
The Norton WD Big 4 (Model 1)
To make things easy for us, the ‘WD’ designation from the WD Big 4 meant ‘War Department’. Differing from the standard civilian model via the addition of a sidecar the WD was unarmoured, and the metal work wasn’t particularly robust.
Despite that shortcoming, it was the first motorcycle specifically outfitted for military use, with first testing taking place as early as 1907.
Powered by a 673cc, side-valve, air-cooled, single-cylinder donk, the Big 4 was capable of lugging three fully armed military men around the field of battle, or two along with a mounted Bren gun or three-inch mortar unit in the cart.
4700 Big 4s were produced, though very few have lasted, mainly because they were thrashed to a standstill. Jeeps superseded the big 4 and the bike’s useful production life was over by the early 1950s.
At the start of WWII, production of heavy German motorcycles was pretty much held by two makers, BMW and Zundapp.
When it became clear that a high-quality, sidecar-equipped military motorcycle was required, BMW developed a new model known as the R75 – which really set a new standard for the category.
Both the BMW R75 and the similar Zundapp KS750 were powered by horizontally-opposed, 19kW, four-stroke twin cylinder engines of 746 and 751cc respectively, and both had shaft drive with gearboxes providing four forward and one reverse gears plus a “cross-country” low ratio.
The technically advanced R75 was equipped with hydraulic brakes and a pretty special hand-lever operated lockable differential between the sidecar and the rear cycle wheel.
With all this good gear fitted by the factory, there can be no doubt that the R75 represented the high-end of motorcycle manufacturing during WWII, and was rightly delivered of a reputation unmatched by anything the Allies could come up with.
Adding to the impressive componentry list were features like telescopic forks and torsion bars springing on the sidecar. Pretty nifty gear for that time.
It wasn’t without its issues however. The 750s were costly to produce and needed reasonably specialist expertise to service them. All that was fine when things were singing along nicely in the Munich factory, but, as Allied bombing and other pressures strangled large sections of German industry, the bikes suffered, along with many other types of military machinery. Indeed, losing wars is not a great help to maintaining hard-working motorcycles.
Type 97 Motorcycle
The Type 97 Motorcycle was used by Japan during World War II. Unashamedly stealing its inspiration from Harley-Davidson, the Type 97 had an air-cooled, 1274cc engine that was capable of propelling the outfit to a pretty heady 70kmh.
The 97 was fairly capable, but rough terrain found it out pretty quickly and many didn’t see the war out.
The bike was a bit piecemeal, with some crude modifications carried out by in-the-field mechanics. Often a mobile weapon was added to the sidecar.
The Type 97 was first developed in 1933 and the original developmental model was designated the Type 95 Motorcycle, however its performance was pretty ordinary.
Improving upon its predecessor, the Type 97 entered full-scale production by the Rikuo Nainen Company in 1937.
The first examples were sent to China where they performed better than expected. However, due to the poor performance in rough terrain, very few were actually sent to any Pacific islands, the few that were sent though were used in ‘less strenuous’ roles. In other words, this one was a bit of a dud when the going got fierce.
British bike maker Excelsior came up with the Welbike, a very small motorcycle designed to be dropped into combat situations via parachute-equipped containers. Smart word suggested a talented paratrooper could unpack the tiny beastie and have it ready in 11 seconds.
3461 Welbikes came off the prodcuation line, but not many featured in combat zones. Due to the small container, the damned things had no suspension, lights or front brake. Mere details huh?
The Welbike showed its design flaws at the very worst time. You see, the weight difference between a man and the wretched Welbike meant they typically did not come to Earth anywhere near each other. Doh!
But wait. There’s more. The bike was hopeless in rough terrain because of the minimal power and tiny tires. No wonder many Welbikes were either captured by the enemy before they were even used or abandoned on the battlefield by soldiers who worked out walking was easier.
Cushman Airborne Motor Scooter
Cushman scooters were adopted early in World War II for messengers and employees at large U.S. military bases. Because of their usefulness, a new version was made in 1944 for use by airborne troops. No-brainer huh…
Like the Excelsior Welbike, the Cushman Airborne could be parachuted into action and assembled on the ground to make paratroopers more mobile.
It had limited fixtures – including no lights – so good luck to anyone hitting the paddocks at night. It was better than the Welbike, although from what we can gather, that wouldn’t take a whole lot.
Men were tougher then, for sure.
Electric bikes are increasingly being considered by military and law enforcement agencies around the world due to the category laying claim to possessing a desirable attribute. Silence.
The Zero MMX dirtbike is an all-electric, silent motorcycle already in use by some law enforcement agencies. It is claimed that be bike is capable of run up to 150 kilometres on a single charge and keep going with a battery “hot swap.”
Special Operations Forces have been working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop the light, silent dirtbike for ‘operations’.
Not allowing the yanks to grab a march on them, the Russians have been busy in the electric military motorcycle space. Some things never change huh.
Where have you word of the word ‘Kalashnikov’ before?
Hmmm. Of course. The Russian defence giant Kalashnikov is best known for manufacturing the AK-47 assault rifle and other military and civilian weaponry. Yes, the hardcore gun crew recently unveiled an electric motorcycle for Russian military and police forces.
Revealed at the Army 2017 International Military-Technical Forum in the Moscow area, the new motorcycle is available in a dirt bike model for the military and a supermoto-style bike for urban police forces.
The police model has a range of 150 kilometres, according to Kalashnikov, and the bikes are being built by Russian motorcycle manufacturer IZH, a subsidiary of Kalashnikov.
Who are we to argue with anything Kalashnikov says? Time will tell.
Snag’s career in motoring journalism spans 29 years with stints at major bike mags Australian Road Rider, Motorcycle Trader and AMCN along with contributions to just about every other outlet worth a hill of beans. He was editor of Unique Cars magazine and hosts his legendary podcast ‘Snag Says’ when he gets off his date.