Duty Motorcycles Throughout History

Harleys patrol and defend at home and abroad

By “Panhead Jim” Mahaney
Photos by “Panhead Jim” Mahaney & Harley-Davidson

This full feature appeared in 2016’s American Iron Salute, which is on sale here.

Throughout its history, Harley-Davidson has played a major role in helping to protect the lives of Americans. Whether on US streets or on the frontlines in Europe, H-D motorcycles have been successfully used by both the police and the military to make the world a safer place. The Motor Company’s commitment to this task has sparked many innovations, some of which we still see on the motorcycles of today, and some which we wish had made it out of the R&D department. During the turbulent first half of the 20th century, Harley produced a variety of machines, filling the ever increasing needs of an expanding domestic police force and a military taking on two world wars.

In 1908, Detroit became the first city to officially purchase Harley-Davidson motorcycles for police use. At a time when horses were the primary form of transportation and the automobile was still in its infancy, the motorcycle was the obvious choice for mobile police units. Their speed and maneuverability were key to patrolling not only the city streets, but also the rutted dirt roads of a country that was predominately rural. It wasn’t long before cities and towns across the US started outfitting their police forces with motorcycles and Harley-Davidson began to see the value in building machines for law enforcement.

While the police realized the potential of motorcycles early on, it took the military a few more years to adopt this latest form of transportation. Records indicate that the US Army’s first purchase of motorcycles came in 1913, and within three years, they went from initial testing to supporting military operations in the field. During the Punitive Expedition in 1916, General Jack Pershing famously used Harley-Davidson motorcycles on his mission to capture Pancho Villa. A combination of solo and sidecar-equipped machines was selected, with the sidecars being upgraded to carry machine guns. Although these first military machines were just slightly modified stock motorcycles, this was the start of H-D producing military specific motorcycles that were not meant for civilian use.

After 11 months of chasing Pancho Villa through the harsh desert terrain of Mexico, the Army was convinced that the Harley-Davidson motorcycle was an important tool for warfare. When the United States decided to enter World War I just one year later,  the Army ordered 20,000 additional motorcycles for use in operations overseas. These were based on Harley’s J-series, which featured a 61″ motor mated to a three-speed transmission. For combat use, these were fitted to armored sidecars that carried various caliber machine guns as a mobile gun platform. These units saw action on the front lines as part of the newly formed Motor Mobile Infantry. Not all motorcycles were used in combat, as the Army also recognized that fast, lightweight transportation could be beneficial for other tasks. To that end, some sidecar rigs were modified to carry stretchers, turning the Harleys into field ambulances for transporting the wounded. They also saw service as dispatch vehicles, lead convoys, and even carried pigeon coupes.

The end of World War I saw an increase in production of motorcycles back in the States. Both civilian and police machines rolled off the assembly line in Milwaukee as orders soared with men returning from Europe and wanting to get on two wheels. When the Prohibition Act was passed in 1920, catching bootleggers became the main focus for many police departments across the country. Catching hot-rodded, V-8-powered cars necessitated having faster motorcycles. Harley filled this need by upgrading the J-series to a 74″ motor. In 1926, Harley also established a special sales department to work directly with police departments, which were increasing their motorcycle patrolmen in an attempt to keep the ever increasing number of traffic fatalities in check. By the end of the 1920s, Harley-Davidsons were being used by 3,000 police departments across the United States.

When the Great Depression hit, Harley’s civilian sales plummeted, but they were able to stay viable by increasing sales to police departments and also through exporting machines overseas. Stateside, Harley released a new three-wheeled vehicle called the Servi-Car, which became a mainstay for parking enforcement for the next 40 years. H-D also began offering special police-only options like sirens, speedometers, first aid kits, and fire extinguishers. In 1930, Harley released a new model line known as the V-series, which featured a 74″ side valve motor mated to a three-speed transmission. While these were used by various police departments domestically, a number of these machines were exported. With a few modifications, Harley produced a military-grade V-series motorcycle for the Japanese Imperial Navy. Unlike the US Army, which favored an armored sidecar with a heavy machine gun, the Japanese opted for no armor and two gun tripods (one on the front of the sidecar and one on the rear fender of the motorcycle). These motorcycles were employed by the Japanese Military Police, presumably for shore patrol duties.

Harley continued to produce motorcycles for the US Military during the 1920s and 1930s, but since the US was not involved in any major armed conflicts during that time, the numbers were relatively small, and those which we produced ere used to outfit experimental attack groups. Even though the US was not fighting overseas, The Motor Company found itself in a battle with its old rival, the Indian Motorcycle Company. The prize was the police contract for the NYPD, which had been exclusively using Indian motorcycles since 1911. H-D had been told that its motorcycles would not be considered because the NYPD would have to retrain its patrolmen to ride them, since they used controls that were opposite of Indian. Undaunted, Harley produced the UMG in 1937, which was a powered by a 74″ flathead motor and featured a right-hand shift and left-hand throttle, just like the Indians! They also added a magneto ignition coupled to a generator as specified by the NYPD, and it came in a shade of red that looked like it just rolled out of the Indian factory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Production numbers vary, but perhaps 400 units were built between 1937 and 1939. Obviously, Harley was unable to break Indian’s monopoly with the NYPD, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort.

At the onset of WWII in the late 1930s, Harley-Davidson’s production would see a massive increase and a complete switch to military machines. The predominant model produced during the war was the WLA. Based on the civilian model WL, the WLA (A for Army) received a number of upgrades from its civilian counterpart before being shipped off to the warfront. The drivetrain was altered with a new variation of the 45″ flathead motor, which received aluminum heads and a lower compression ratio for improved cooling ability during convoy work. An improved oil pump and larger bearings were added as well, and the transmission was beefed up with a stronger clutch. Military-specific options like olive drab paint, a gun scabbard, blackout lighting, heavy duty rear rack, skid plates, and skirtless fenders completed the package. By the war’s end, Harley would have produced over 60,000 WLAs and 18,000 WLCs (the Canadian version).

Even with the WLA’s success on the front, H-D engineers continued to develop new prototypes throughout the war. These are by far some of the most interesting machines to come out of Milwaukee and, unfortunately, none of them ever made the transition over to civilian production, although some of the improvements did. Even though the flathead was the predominant power plant of choice for the military, Harley also produced some noteworthy Knucklehead-powered motorcycles. For the Canadian military, it built a small run of 45 Knuckleheads under the model designation ELC. At first glance, these look similar to a WLC, but ELCs were outfitted with a few variations like tandem seats, forward facing air cleaners, and left-side-mounted sidecars with side cutouts for easy entry and exit. The sidecar-equipped models also received three-speed transmissions with reverse. Probably the most unusual prototype requested by the Canadians was a dual Knucklehead power plant that was designed to power a small tank. For the Americans, Harley built several iterations of a Knucklehead-powered trike called the TA. These were powered by a 68″ motor mated to a heavy-duty three-speed transmission with reverse, and it turned the rear wheels using a driveshaft mated to a Dana 44 rear end. These were awesome looking machines and the US Army agreed, although they only ordered 16 units.

The most well-known military prototype was the model XA, which was based on the German military’s BMW R71. The US Army had been impressed with many of the features of the R71, especially the flat-twin engine and shaft-driven rear end. Thinking these improvements would be useful in the upcoming campaigns across Africa, the US Army asked Harley-Davidson to build a totally new machine based on the BMW. The resulting motorcycle didn’t just have a similar drivetrain to the BMW, but also a host of other improvements including a 4.1-gallon fuel tank, a four-speed transmission operated with a hand clutch and footshift, larger capacity battery, radio-shielded ignition system, and a centrally-mounted air cleaner. The XA was easier to handle than the WLA due to its lower center of gravity, and the footshift transmission allowed the rider to keep both hands on the bars at all times. It also ran cooler and needed less maintenance thanks to the enclosed shaftdrive. The Army was impressed and ordered 25,000 units, but as the war shifted out of Africa, the number was lowered to 1,000.

With the XA off the table, Harley’s engineers continued to develop new machines based around the flat cylinder engine design. The first was the model XS, basically an XA with an attached sidecar that had a driven wheel. This setup increased stability, and the upgrade to two wheel drive added to its off-road capability. The Army passed on the XS, but Harley was on the right track, they just needed to add one more wheel. Soon, the Army announced it was looking for a four-wheeled machine that could be dropped by parachute and, once again, The Motor Company stepped up with a new prototype called the WAC. Powered by an overhead valve version of the XA motor (designated XOD), the WAC reassembled a military-grade golf cart. The engine was mounted in the center of the vehicle with the driver’s seat almost directly in front of the motor and two passenger seats flanking the rear of the motor. Of course, Willys beat Harley out of the contract with its Jeep, but eventually H-D was able to find a place for its flat cylinder motors. Instead of using them to power a vehicle, they were converted to the more mundane task of powering various pumps and generators for commercial use.

With the end of the war, Harley settled back into civilian production and refocused its efforts on the development of two-way radio systems for the police models. The next years would see continued success for Harley, and just 50 years after the company’s founding, Harley would be the lone American motorcycle manufacturer left until 1992. This could not have happened without Harley’s commitment to the thousands of police departments across the country and the US military. Its innovations in these markets created a strong company that could weather economic upheavals while building the machines that kept America safe. That’s something worth remembering the next time you head out for a ride on your Harley.