It's complicated but very interesting!

Maybe, like me, you’ve been riding for a bunch of years, and you think you’ve ridden old bikes. Maybe you have, but how old is old? Have you ridden a really old bike?

I once stood next to a friend’s nineteen-twenty-something Indian motorcycle, and looked very carefully at all the controls. He offered to let me ride it, but I politely declined. The oldest motorcycle I’ve ever ridden was made in the seventies, and this thing might as well have been a small airplane for the similarities to any bike I’ve successfully piloted.

That’s why this video is so much fun. The bike is a 1942 WLA Harley-Davidson. It was produced to US Army specifications for the war effort. It was first built in 1939 as a prototype and went into production in 1940.

The bike has an air-cooled side-valve 45-degree, 45 cubic inch (740cc) v-twin engine, and as you can see from the video, the controls are quite different from today’s production motorcycles. The bikes were seldom used in actual battle, but were often used as courier machines.

You can follow along with how the rider starts and operates this machine, from a few priming kicks to getting it running just right. The bike is in impeccable shape and the rider is, amusingly, dressed in a lovely WWII replica army outfit, to complete the look.

The procedures outlined in the video come from Army Technical Manual 9-879 (“Motorcycle, Solo”), published by the War Department (there's a link to it below, if you're interested). Learning to ride this motorcycle from a book must have been something, back in the day. Hopefully everyone who had this book also had a friend who had already figured the bike out! For instance, and as evidenced, there are nine steps for “starting the bike’s engine” and a completely separate set of steps if the engine is already warm.

Take a trip back in time with Jay Morris as he teaches us all how to operate this very old machine. How many old machines have you ridden? How different were all the controls? Did you struggle to remember what control accomplished what task? The clutch alone on this particular Harley-Davidson looks like a difficult thing to master once it's rolling, let alone starting the thing.

Source: YouTube, National Motorcycle Museum, Archive.org