Typically when military vehicles come to mind we almost instantaneously think of the humvees, tanks, and M9 armored vehicles. However, upon closer inspection we see the motorcycle serving as the unsung hero of military operations. It’s in these instances where motorcycles are on the front lines, acting as search and rescue vehicles to get soldiers out of a jam or even used to conduct recon under the dark of night prior to a special operations mission.
They’ve been in circulation since the turn of the 20th century and, much like war itself, have evolved over the years in congruence with evolutions in the auto industry. From here, out of all the iterations of military motorcycles out there, we found a handful that have stood the test of time in terms of their reputation and usage during times of turmoil. Some served the American military well, while others assisted our British allies across the pond and beyond. One thing’s for certain though, all are timeless expressions of military might.
Harley Davidson WLA
It’s often claimed that WWII was indeed the heyday of military motorcycles. That being said, it’s truly tough to pinpoint anything that provides more truth to that very notion that the Harley Davidson WLA. Based on the existing civilian model at the time, Harley Davidson began producing this military expression in small numbers around 1940. However, with the eventual US entry in WWII, we would see significant production in subsequent years with over 90,000 eventually produced during the war.
From here, surfaces were generally painted in olive drab and finished with either chrome or nickel-plated parts. Enlarged fenders were also implemented to reduce mud clogging, a heavy duty luggage rack was installed – as was an ammo box and a leather scabbard for a Thompson submachine gun. Additionally, the WLA boasted a skid plate, leg protectors, and a windshield could be fitted if necessary.
1919 Indian Military Powerplus
As far as storied histories are concerned, Indian is one brand that carries them all. And with their 1919 Military Powerplus iteration, many military historians feel this was the bike that helped us win the First World War. Ironically enough, it was the very same motorcycle that put Indian behind in the race against Harley Davidson due to their full-time commitment to wartime production. As for its use throughout the war? The US Army purchased nearly 50,000 of these bikes during the wartime years. Needless to say, Indian devoted nearly its entire production capacity to the cause.
Regarding mechanics, the Powerplus boasted a 1,000cc side valve, four stroke engine capable of an output of 18 horses and a top speed upwards of 60mph. It was here that the US military relied heavily on the bike for transportation throughout infamous years of the First World War making the Military Powerplus a valued collectible throughout the latter decades.
Norton WD Big 4
A lesser-known but equally present military motorcycle manufactured throughout the first half of the 20th century was the Norton Model 1, otherwise known as the Big 4. It was a sidecar motorcycle, boasting plenty of low-end torque and designed to carry 2 to sometimes 3 men over rough terrain. Its primary function was both recon and transporting ammunition to troops on the front lines. As for the name? Big 4 was appropriated thanks to the motorcycle’s output of 4 horsepower.
The burly ride was also powered by a 633cc side valued air-cooled single cylinder engine and came equipped drum brakes, and a suspension complete with a sidecar mounted on four leaf springs and featured two friction disc shock absorbers. It was developed with gumption through the early 20th century but was later replaced by the likes of the Ford GP and Willys Jeep in 1941. At its peak, the Big 4 could also come equipped with a Bren Gun, 3-inch mortar, or even bombs fitted to a platform that could replace the side care if needed.
Built out for the Swedish Armed Forces, the Husqvarna 258A is one of our international favorite military motorcycles from the iconic Husqvarna brand – manufactured between in 1979-1980. These bikes, lending themselves to more of a dual-purpose aesthetic, were used by the military police and traffic soldiers in addition to the armed forces and were built out for both a driver and a passenger.
As far as it’s core competency, the Husqvarna 258A was powered by a 250cc 2-stroke engine and boasted a top speed of 68 mph. The ride also featured high clearance as well as long suspension travel purposed for arduous commutes across difficult terrain with both passengers and gear load-outs. As far as quantity is concerned, for the most part, the 258A is a rare breed with only around 3,000 ever built during these production years. Today, the majority of what’s left is owned and operated by the Voluntary Motorcycle Federation – a Swedish voluntary defense organization.
Royal Enfield WD/RE
Also known as the “Flying Flea” due to its lightweight nature, the Royal Enfield WD/RE was a British bike develop for the British War Office during its production years of 1938-1941. No tank by any means, this lightweight motorcycle served a quick and speedy purpose – dropped by parachute in times of need to serve as commuter rides the carry messages and signals between airborne and assault troops on the ground where radio communication wasn’t feasible.
At its core, this 130lb bike was powered by a 126cc air-cooled two-stroke single-cylinder engine that amounted to an output of 3.5 horsepower and a top speed of 45 mph. However, where the WD/RE truly excelled though was in its fuel economy – whereas a single gallon of fuel could last for 130 miles. Without a doubt, the allure amongst civilians was strong following the Second World War. In response, many Royal Enfield WD/RE motorcycles were then repainted and repurposed for this very market. Several military iterations were also in use up until the late 1940s as well.
How To Buy Your First Motorcycle
All this talk of motorcycle collectibles have you itching to purchase your very own sled? Be sure to check out this guide to buying your first motorcycle for the lowdown on what you need to know beforehand.