History And Mystery Of The Harley Davidson WLA “Liberator”


Summary

  • The WLA Liberator, based on the WL model, was the first military motorcycle produced by Harley-Davidson for WWII and Korean War use.
  • With high durability and a powerful engine, the Liberator earned its nickname while serving the Allied Forces in liberating cities from German occupation.
  • After the war, many ex-service Liberators were sold to the public, leading to the rise of customizations and motorcycle clubs in the post-war era.



These days, it’s normal to view Harley-Davidson motorcycles as some of the top-shelf bikes on the market, as they’ve been since the company’s inception in 1903. But one particular model that has secured itself a very special place in history, not just with Harley-Davidson, but with the 20th century, is the WLA “Liberator.” Based on the 1939 WL model, the WLA was the first motorcycle produced mainly for military use.

Designed and built during WWII, Harley-Davidson produced approximately 70,000 WLA and WLC military motorcycles for the U.S. Army and Allied forces to repel the Axis powers. These motorcycles were ridden by US troops to deliver messages and transport cargo, as well as to fulfill duties by the Military Police. They had also received the appropriate nickname “Liberator” as they were ridden by Allied Forces who were liberating cities and countries from German occupation throughout Europe. Thanks to its stripped-down design, powerful engine, nimble handling, and high durability, the Liberator was able to quickly ride from Point A to Point B without making itself too big of a target for enemy forces.


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The Liberator Was The First Military Motorcycle

As the world continued to plunge into chaos, it was clear by the late 1930s that a second world war was on the horizon. In response, Harley-Davidson began the development of motorcycles designed strictly for military use, famously known as the WLA. “W” for the sports family of motorcycles, “L” for being high-compression, and “A” obviously stands for army. At first, the U.S. Army used the 1937 WL Model in place of the RL Model that was being used at the time. But it wasn’t until 1939 that the motorcycle was replaced by the WLA. While only a handful of WLAs were outfitted with a Thompson machine gun scabbard, they were seldom used in battle.


The Harley-Davidson Liberator Employed A 45-inch Flathead V-Twin Engine

For a motorcycle designed to handle the rugged and chaotic nature of the battlefield, it only made sense the Liberator was powered by the reliable Flathead V-Twin engine. This high-compression engine efficiently ran on 74-octane fuel–a low-quality option available all around. With supplies always critical during the war, having motorcycles that could run on cheap fuel was essential. Thanks to its well-rounded DNA, this motorcycle fulfilled its duties ranging from escorts, mail couriers, transportation, military police, and radio work.

1942 Harley-Davidson WLA Liberator Engine Specs

Engine

45-Degree V-Twin

Type

Air-Cooled, Side-Valve

Compression Ratio

5:1

Bore & Stroke

2.745 x 3.8125

Displacement

739cc (45 cubic inches)

Carburetion

Linkert

Ignition

Battery, Coil & Points

Horsepower

23.5

Primary

Chain

Transmission

3-Speed


Production During War Time

Because the WLA Liberator was an adaptation based on the civilian WL model, Harley-Davidson made some modifications to make it better suited for service. That included a skid/bash plate underneath the Flathead V-Twin engine for protection, saddle bags, luggage rack, leg shields, crash bars, blackout lights, and wider fenders to help shake off the mud. Also present were 2.5-inch longer forks, an ammunition box, an oil bath air cleaner, and an Army green or black paint job.


With these motorcycles being used by Allied forces under a Lend-Lease program (in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the Soviet Union), it is believed Harley-Davidson produced approximately 100,000 WLAs throughout WW2. The USSR alone received over 30,000 units. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, H-D had cranked up production of a more rugged version of the WLA Liberator to be used by the U.S. military. While the WLA remained the most popular military motorcycle, the company had also experimented with some alternative versions of the bike, including the XA which featured a BMW-sourced flat-twin boxer engine, as well as the very rare TA Knucklehead.

Life After The War


The Harley-Davidson WLA Liberator remained in production from 1940 to 1952, playing a major role in both World War 2 and the Korean War, and then later as privately-owned civilian models. With war finally over and everyone returning home, a significant majority of WLA Liberators used as service motorcycles were sold to the public. Many soldiers who rode the Liberator had an affinity for the wartime motorcycle, so numerous WLAs made their way back into veterans’ hands.

Many of these motorcycles were “civilianized”, which eventually gave way to the first wave of homemade custom bobbers, and then the very popular trend of custom choppers. The increased number of Liberators on U.S. streets eventually led to the formation of motorcycle clubs and gangs, many of which were composed of dissatisfied GIs returning from service aboard customized WLAs. Modifying WLAs was so popular in the post-war era that it is extremely difficult to find an original Liberator today.


1942 Harley-Davidson WLA Liberator Specs

Frame

Steel, Single Down Tube

Suspension

Leadling Link “Springer” Fork, Rigid Rear, Sprung Seat

Brakes

Drum, Front & Rear

Wheelbase

57.5 inches

Dry Weight

576 lbs

Top Speed

65 mph

Fuel Capacity

3.375 gallons

The WLA Liberator Was Technically Harley-Davidson’s First Adventure Bike


Today, the adventure bike market is so big that almost every manufacturer wants in on the action. Even Harley-Davidson’s Pan America 1250 is one of the biggest contenders to rip up occasional dirt tracks. However, given the Liberator’s military and off-roading background, it could be argued that the WLA was unofficially Harley-Davidson’s first adventure bike. Considering it was designed to be as powerful and durable as possible while running through all terrains, the Liberator certainly had some familiar DNA that one would find in a modern adventure bike. Perhaps it could be narrowed down to the fact that the WLA was meant more for service and duty, while your average ADV bike is for fun and pleasure.

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Harley-Davidson’s Tribute Models to the Liberator

In recent years, Harley-Davidson has released many special limited-edition models paying tribute to the legendary motorcycle. The first was the 2016 Softail Slim S, which featured a Mineral Green Denim paint scheme with army font, a large army star graphic on the fuel tank, and a blacked-out cockpit. Next was the 2022 Harley-Davidson G.I. Enthusiast collection, directly inspired by the WLA Liberator, featuring the Tri Glide Ultra and the Pan America 1250 Special.


Brad Richards, Harley-Davidson Vice President of Design said in a press release:

The new Mineral Green Denim Deluxe paint pays homage to the Olive Drab paint, used on Harley-Davidson WLA models. This color features a metallic effect resulting in a subtle gold highlight, allowing the color travel to be more dramatic and show off the shape of the surfacing. The tank graphic celebrates the iconic white five-point star, which was used during WWII on military vehicles. The tank graphic also features a stenciled ‘H-D’ and a location of Milwaukee, Wisconsin abbreviated, inspired from the spec tags found on government-issued military equipment. The stenciled approach is a treatment often found on military vehicles as lettering was frequently done in the field. Here we’re calling out the birthplace of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and the original WLA model.

Harley-Davidson WLA Liberator Key Features

  • 45-inch Flathead V-Twin Engine
  • Skid/Bash Plate under engine
  • Wider, mud-resistant fenders
  • Leg shields
  • Crash bars
  • 2.5-inch longer forks than the standard WL model
  • Ammunition box
  • Thompson machine gun scabbard
  • Olive/Army Green paint scheme



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