A Very Brief History of Motorcycles in the United States Military

It's the 4th of July! That's the day when here in the colonies we celebrate that time we told King George to get bent, threw a load of tea into Boston Harbor, fought a bunch of half-starved, largely unsupported Royal Army redcoats, and declared ourselves free from the tyranny of The Crown. What that means for you, dear readers, is a little Independence Day patriotism RideApart style. Today, before the wife and I drag the tsarinas around to various Detroit-area parades and festivals, I want to tell you a little about the glorious history of motorcycles in the United States Military.

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Starting before World War I, the U.S. Army expressed interest in all the new-fangled motorcycles running around at the time. Army brass saw great possibility in their speed, size, and agility, and began procuring Harleys and Indians in small batches for testing. Up until the end of World War II, motorcycles filled a number of important military roles, including reconnaissance, courier duties, and even light combat. After the war, improvements in communications technology largely put an end to large-scale use of bikes in the military save for small scout/recon and special operations roles.

With that said, let's have a look at the various bikes that have served proudly in the U.S. military for the past century.

Harley-Davidson J and JD Series

The modern cavalryman.

In the lead-up to World War I, America got involved in the Mexican Revolution. Tired of Pancho Villa's shenanigans along the U.S./Mexico border, specifically the raid on Columbus, New Mexico, President Wilson sent General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing and a few U.S. Army cavalry units down to Mexico to capture Villa. This, uh, this didn't really go well for the Army and, after chasing ghosts for a few months, the Army lost Villa and withdrew from Mexican territory. That's a necessarily extremely abbreviated version of events, since discussing the whole operation is well outside the scope of this article, but you get the gist of it.

Despite the general failure of the mission, the Army did learn an important lesson regarding the value of motorcycles in combat. Before the Mexico expedition, the Army was already experimenting with using motorcycles in various combat and support roles. For the Pershing mission, Army Brass ordered up a handful of new Harley J and JD models.

An extremely robust motorcycle, the J model featured Harley's 61 cubic inch, air-cooled, V-twin F-head mill mated to a three-speed transmission. For the expedition, the Army ordered the bikes in four general configurations - solo bikes for troop transport, sidecar rigs for command transport, gun carriers mounted with machineguns, and sidecar-equipped cargo bikes for carrying ammo and other materiel. Some were configured in the field to carry stretchers for the transport of wounded troopers.

These bikes did extremely well in the rough terrain along the border, and their success set the stage for a mass mobilization of motorcycle troops in future conflicts.

Indian Powerplus Big Twin

The Powerplus Big Twin featured Indian's first flathead engine.

Not long after the Pancho Villa debacle, America got embroiled in World War I and once again America's motorcycle producers were called upon to serve their country. At the time, Indian was the leading motorcycle manufacturer, and with the country's entry into the Great War, they threw all their production power into military bikes. Their primary offering, and the most common bike on the battlefield during the war, was the Powerplus Big Twin.

Predecessor to the Indian Chief, the Powerplus was a fast, powerful bike powered by Indian's very first flathead engine - a 61-cubic inch, sixteen horsepower, air-cooled V-twin. The big flathead was mated to a three-speed trans with clutch and kick starter (cutting-edge tech for those days), and was faster than the competing Harley models. The Powerplus als featured an advanced sprung rear swingarm suspension that allowed it to traverse broken ground and weave around obstacles with remarkable ease.

As was common with military bikes at the time, the milspec Powerplus bikes were configured both as solo bikes and as sidecar rigs to carry machineguns, ammo and materiel, and wounded troopers across the battlefield. Indian produced somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 bikes for the war effort - my sources stated both numbers - and put entire infantry and cavalry regiments on two wheels.

Unfortunately for Indian, their dedication to wartime production and their inability to ingratiate themselves with the military like Harley did set the stage for the brand's long, slow decline and it's ultimate mid-century demise.

Harley-Davidson Model 17F/J

During World War I, Harley motorcycles were definitely the underdog. They were, on the whole, slower, less powerful, less agile, and less advanced than their Indian competitors. This didn't stop the Army from buying tens of thousands of them though, and they soldiered along beside the bigger and better Indians throughout the war.

Harley's dedicated military model during the war was the Model 17F/J. Similar to the bikes that Black Jack Pershing's men rode into battle against Pancho Villa, the Model 17 featured Harley's tried and true 61 cubic inch, air-cooled, V-twin F-head engine mated, once again, to a three-speed gear box. As far as I can tell - for some reason source material on these bikes is hilariously vague - a majority of the 20,000 model 17s were equipped as sidecar rigs for carrying guns, ammo, and various materiel.

The Model 17 also allowed Harley to finally surpass Indian as America's most popular motorcycle. During the war, Harley trained army mechanics through the Motor Company's "Quartermaster School", a program that eventually evolved into Harley-Davidson University. Mechanics who trained to work on Harleys during the war came home to purchase their own Harleys, which created a powerful and loyal following for Milwaukee's Finest.

Harley-Davidson WLA

By the late 30s, Harley-Davidson had overtaken Indian as America's premier motorcycle manufacturer. As war loomed in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, America began a slow buildup of military vehicles and equipment, and Harley-Davidson was called on once again to serve the country. To answer that call of duty, Harley produced the WLA.

Introduced in 1940, the WLA was a militarized version of Harley's popular WL model. Like the base civilian model, the WLA was powered by Harley's bullet proof 45-cubic inch, air-cooled, flathead mill. It was a simple, durable, and versatile machine that was designed for ease of maintenance and battlefield reliability. Once the U.S. entered the war, WLA production skyrocketed. Eventually more than 90,000 WLAs were built, with many shipped off to our allies through the lend-lease program.

These guys are either scouts or dispatch riders. Maybe both.

WLAs underwent a number of modifications to prepare them for military life. They were painted in olive drab with black accents, and most of the brightwork was either parkerized or blued to reduce visibility. Blackout lights were fitted fore and aft in addition to the bike's standard head and tail lights, the fender valences were removed to prevent mud clogging, the crankcase breather was modified to prevent water incursion during fording, and the bikes were equipped with an oil bath air cleaner to keep sand and grit out of the cylinders.

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In addition, a host of modular accessories were provided to customize the bikes for different missions. Saddlebags, weapon scabbards, ammo boxes, and tool carriers were standard equipment along with skid plates and leg protectors. Heavy duty luggage racks were mounted to the rear fender to carry radio transmitting and mobile jamming equipment. Harley even produced a large, detachable windshield for the WLA, but they were rarely used in the field.

Unlike the bikes fielded during WWI, Allied motorcycles were never used in combat or for troop mobility. Instead, WLAs and other WWII bikes filled scout, courier, military police, and reconnaissance roles. They were also occasionally used as mobile radio outposts or for moving signal jamming equipment around the battlefield to interdict enemy communications.

Bikes didn't see front-line combat during the war, but that doesn't mean the riders couldn't defend themselves.

After the war, the thousands of WLAs in the Army's inventory were declared surplus and sold for pennies at government auctions. Demobbed American servicemen who had ridden or worked on the bikes during the war snatched them up wholesale. Since they didn't need things like rifle scabbards, radio racks, and fancy oil bath air cleaners, the new owners chopped those pieces off, giving rise to both the post-war chopper scene and the rise of mid-century motorcycle culture.

Harley-Davidson XA and Indian 841

During World War II, the U.S. Army got their hands on some captured German BMW R71 motorcycles and were suitably impressed by these high-tech, ruthlessly efficient machines. Seeing the benefits in the Beemer's various systems, especially their shaft drive and telescopic forks which were largely unknown among American bike makers, Army brass went to both Harley and Indian, tossed them a bunch of money, and asked them to build an American version. The requirements were simple - build a limited run of 1,000 bikes with two cylinders, shaft drive, full suspension front and rear, and more efficient controls that were as rugged and easy to maintain as the R71s. The companies returned to their respective design houses, and soon started cranking out their Beemer clones.

A boxer and a drive shaft? In my Harley?

Harley's answer to the Army's call was the XA. Essentially a bolt for bolt copy of the R71,the XA was powered by a 45-cubic inch, two-cylinder, air-cooled, flathead boxer engine that produced around 23 horsepower. Those horses were transported to the rear wheel via a four-speed transmission and shaft drive system. XAs had a rear plunger suspension, front telescopic forks - the first ever used by Harley - a radically modern foot shifter instead of a tank-mounted jockey shifter, and a handful of other modern amenities courtesy of BMW.

Unfortunately, even as the XAs were being produced it became clear that they were unnecessary. They were more expensive and complex than the current WLA bikes the Army already had, and the newly introduced Jeep was quickly becoming the Army's general purpose vehicle of choice. After the first run of 1,000 bikes, the Army didn't order any more XAs and the bikes slowly faded into obscurity.

The Indian 841 was pretty radical for its time. At least for an American bike.

Indian's response to the Army's challenge was to take one look at the R71 and say, "Eh, we can do better." To prove it, they rolled out the radical—for the time—841.

A largely clean sheet design, the 841 was more "inspired by" the R71s than a direct copy like the competing Harley XA. Instead of a Beemer clone boxer, the 841 featured a 45-cubic inch, air-cooled, flathead V-twin derived from the Sport Scout's mill. Unlike the more common V-twins used in Harleys and other Indian models, the XA's engine was mounted longitudinally in the frame like a modern day Moto Guzzi. To meet the Army's requirements, the 841 featured a shaft drive system, tubular frame, plunger rear suspension, four speed transmission, foot operated shifter, and a hand operated clutch. Instead of the telescopic forks on the R71 and XA, the 841 featured a girder fork damped with a shock absorber.

Unfortunately for Indian, the 841 ran into the same problems as the competing XA. By the time the bikes were well into their production life, the Army decided to go with the Jeep for its all-purpose runabout. In addition, the 841 suffered from severe problems with its gearbox during testing which prejudiced Army brass against it. It quickly became apparent that any role in which an 841 might be used could be better served by either a Jeep or an existing Harley WLA. Like the XA, the 841 program was canned and none of the bikes were accepted into military service.

With the cancellation of the program, Indian was left with nearly 1,000 unsold bikes on their hands. They were eventually sold as surplus out of the corporate warehouse in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Kawasaki M103M1

An M103M1 getting ready for launch.

Kawasaki's M103M1 is a far cry from the old Harley and Indian V-twins that once graced the battlefields of Europe and Northern Africa. Derived from the KLX650, the M103M1 is a long range, multi-fuel, nearly unstoppable dual sport designed to work in the harshest conditions. In service since the late-90s, the M103M1 has served in numerous theaters of combat around the globe in nearly every environment imaginable.

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Used primarily by the U.S. Marine Corps and Army Special Forces, these bikes produced for the military by a company called Hayes Diversified Technologies out of Los Angeles, California. Using a handful of Kawasaki internals and a whole heap of new parts, Hayes produced a multi-fuel engine that can run on anything from diesel to kerosene to JP8 jet fuel - a requirement to fit into the military's logistics chain. The low-strung engines are incredibly efficient, as is expected from a diesel mill, and get almost 100 miles to the gallon.

Aside from the trick engine, the M103M1 is essentially just a KLX650 in olive drab. Underneath the milspec body work is the stock Kawasaki frame, swingarm, wheels, and transmission. The suspension and brakes are beefed up to handle the roughest terrain, and the bikes are equipped with a combination blackout and infrared lighting system.

There are about 500 of these bikes currently in service with the Marines and Army, with a few more scattered among out NATO allies. They've acquired a kind of cult status among dirt bike nerds, and finding a surplus M103M1 and converting it for civilian use is the dream of more than one American dirt head.

So, that does it for today's little military history lesson. Happy 4th of July to all our American readers, and I hope the rest of you have a great day and a safe ride.

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