What Role did the Motorcycle and Harley-Davidson play in Wartime

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Members of of 82nd Armored Reconnaissance on Harley Davidson WLAs during WWII

Tanks. Armored troop carriers. Humvees. These are the standard bearers for military vehicles on the battlefield. Motorcycles? Not so much these days. But the early motor bike made the first significant impact by a gasoline-powered machine in modern warfare. And the role of the military motorcycle continues more than a century later.

Possibility of a “Motorized Infantry” Recognized

It was the military that foresaw the importance of the motorcycle in warfare even before the bike manufacturers. With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the British office of the Ministry of Defence sought out William and Edwin Douglas, brothers in Bristol who had been manufacturing a 2.75 horsepower Barter Fairy Motorcycle since 1907. [1] The Douglas brothers initially assumed the order was for 300 of their pedal-assisted machines, total. In fact the War Office was looking for 300 motorbikes each month and the company would eventually provide 70,000 machines for the war effort. [2]

Some of the Douglas motor bikes were outfitted for use as mounted infantry while others were used to shuttle ammunition to large stationary guns and ferry wounded soldiers away from the front lines. But overwhelmingly the primitive motorcycles were employed to dispatch messages across the battlefield. Electronic communication was easily breached by the enemy and infrastructure susceptible to destruction. A motorcycle courier could speed sensitive information between units inside the war zone.

The United States Army began using motorcycles even before entering World War I in 1917. The previous year General John "Blackjack" Pershing was deployed to the Mexican border to pursue Mexican Revolutionary general Pancho Villa who had engineered a raid on the New Mexico border town of Columbus. Pershing realized that the new motorized technology would be a boon to his pursuit of Villa across inhospitable desert lands and there was one particular motor bike that he favored. It was nimble, durable and easy to use. Pershing’s favorite motorcycle was built by a relatively obscure Wisconsin outfit called the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. [3]

Who Were Harley and Davidson?

William Harley and Arthur Davidson grew up in the dying days of the 19th century. Davidson worked as a pattern maker for Ole Evinrude who would soon gain fame for his outboard boat motors and Harley had a job fixing bicycles. The two friends got together to build a motorized bike and by 1903 they had a prototype puttering around the streets of Milwaukee at death-defying speeds of 25 miles per hour. Harley and Davidson painted their bike gloss black and went back to their jobs; it was just a private hobby. [4]

But friends began pestering the young tinkerers for similar machines so Harley and Davidson toiled weekends in a backyard shed to produce more hand-built motorcycles. By 1907 the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was officially incorporated and 150 motor bikes were in production. Two more Davidson brothers joined the company and a Davidson aunt, Jane, designed a distinctive logo for the gas tank. [5]

But it would take more than a fancy logo to stand out in a motor bike market glutted with small manufacturers. So Walter Davidson was sent to New York to compete in a two-day endurance ride. Fewer than half of the 84 contestants entered rode machines that could handle the gutted country roads of the day and Davidson won the race. Soon Harley-Davidson had a racing team known as "The Wrecking Crew" and sales started to grow. [6]

Harley-Davidson’s Entry into the Military

And then came Blackjack Pershing's order for 12 machines. The U.S. Army chased Pancho Villa for nine months and never caught him before World War I intervened. But in the meantime, Harley-Davidson advertisements were trumpeting the motorbikes as "Uncle Sam's Choice." The Harley-Davidson Quartermasters School was established in Milwaukee so military instructors could direct Harley-Davidson engineers in designing motorcycles for the battlefield. Some of the innovations they developed were higher-horsepower engines, gas headlights, and high, flat fenders to better navigate through the mud. The school, now known as Harley-Davidson University, still trains mechanics today. [7]

Harley-Davidson would churn out some 15,000 motorcycles for the American war effort. When the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the first American to enter vanquished Germany was Corporal Roy Holtz - he rode down the cobbled streets on a Harley-Davidson with a sidecar. Despite the company's impressive output in support of the United States Army, the number of Harley-Davidson motorbikes sent to Europe was only about one-third of the company's total production. It is estimated that the American military ordered over 80,000 motorcycles and many manufacturers smaller than Harley-Davidson, most notably Indian Motorcycle, overhauled their entire facility to produce military bikes and lost their peacetime market in the process. Most of these companies struggled through the 1920s and were ultimately done in by the Great Depression.

G-585 Harley Davidson XA, 751cc, 23hp

The upshot was that when the United States military was ready to make the largest deployment of motorcycles in its history during World War II, Harley-Davidson was the prime supplier. Company engineers worked tirelessly to design prototypes that could handle shore patrols in Europe, jungles in the Pacific Theater, and desert sands in North Africa. Many of the new designs incorporated engineering gleaned from captured German BMW R71 motorcycles of the Bavarian Motor Works. For three consecutive years, Harley Davidson received the prestigious Army/Navy 'E' Award for Excellence in Wartime Production. [8]

Most of the Harley-Davidsons employed in World War II were legendary WLA models, assigned to reconnaissance and courier duty. While German machines were still often equipped with sidecars for gunners and deployed in battle, the Allies no longer sent unarmored cycles into combat as had occasionally happened in World War I. Harleys were so ubiquitous as scout vehicles at the head of military convoys that they were often the first vehicles into towns and villages liberated across Europe by the Allies and came to be known as "Liberators." [9]

The Decline of the Motorcycle in the Military

After the end of World War II many servicemen with fond memories of their wartime Harley machines sought out the motorcycles in stateside showrooms. Often times one of the first things these returning veterans did was to customize their ride by chopping off front fenders and crash bars and clunky seats. Thus was born the iconic Harley-Davidson "chopper."

By the time of the Vietnam War technology had rendered much of the motorcycle's duty in communications and reconnaissance work obsolete. But in the post-Cold War era the motorcycle, with its speed, agility and versatility still has a role to play in the military. Today's machines are often crafted from composite plastics and outfitted with engines that can run on almost any type of fuel, making the motorcycles ideal Special Forces weapons in rugged terrain and isolated actions. And, if the post-apocalyptic world of the Road Warrior movies becomes a reality, the motorcycle will always be with us in war.


  1. The London Douglas Motorcycle Club, 2015.
  2. McCrystal,Hayley, ”The Motorbikes of World War One,” Motorbike Times, August 4, 2014
  3. ”’H-D Supports the Military,” corporate history, Harley Davidson USA, 2015
  4. Girdler, Allan and Hackett, Jeff, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, MBI Publishing Company, 2000, page 10
  5. Huze, Cyril, ”Harley-Davidson Logo. Bar And Shield Forever,” ‘’’Custom Motorcycle News’’’, August 31, 2010
  6. Girdler, Allan and Hackett, Jeff, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, MBI Publishing Company, 2000, page 16
  7. ”’H-D Supports the Military,” corporate history, Harley Davidson USA, 2015
  8. ”’H-D Supports the Military,” corporate history, Harley Davidson USA, 2015
  9. Panhead, Jim, “Top 5 Harley-Davidson Prototypes of WWII,” Ride Apart, 2016