Bike of the Month
1942 Harley-Davidson WLA
By David Funk
I had been looking for an antique Harley-Davidson for a few years when I came across this WLA. Circa 2014, a coworker of my brother in Salinas, California had recently lost a leg and decided that he could not ride any longer. He informed my brother that he had an old Harley for sale. Knowing that I was looking for an older Harley, my brother passed the information along. As is typically the case, the bike was running when it was parked, but after a quick look, it was apparent it needed some TLC. Half-assed work was previously done to get the bike running, it was missing a few parts, and it was fairly corroded from the moist Salinas air, but other than that, it was in perfect condition. After some minor negotiating, the WLA was headed to its new home.
The complete history of the WLA is unknown, but I have documentation that the bike was purchased at an auction in Iowa in October 1991 for $3,200. Eventually the bike made it out to California and was owned by an absent-minded individual who forgot that he had a handgun in the glove box of his vehicle. Apparently this individual was pulled over by the CHP for speeding, or something minor, and when he reached into the glove box to fetch his registration, the handgun fell out of the box in front of the officer. Cuffed and stuffed, the absent-minded WLA rider was off to jail. In need of a get out of jail card, he sold the bike to the aforementioned peg legged owner.
Approximately 90,000 WL’s were made for the American and Canadian militaries between 1941 and 1945, and approximately enough spares to build another 30,000 WL’s were also produced. The WL’s produced for the American military were badged WLA’s, while the Canadian military WL’s were badged WLC’s. Although this WLA does not bear a VIN number, it is thought to be the real deal. The matched engine cases indicate that the engine is indeed a 1942 and it is thought that the original cases on this WLA were replaced with a set of one of the 30,000 spares. Plus, it was painted in military drab green, so it has to be a military machine, right?
After I got the bike, it sat for a couple of years before I started working on it. Unfamiliar with the WLA motor, I didn’t touch the engine. I focused on cleaning it up, removing the corrosion, painting, locating as many original parts as possible and getting it running. Parts were sourced from eBay, Kick Start MC, and Tom’s NOS and included items such as a genuine military ignition switch (7-pole), belly pan/skid plate, ammo box, and tail light. I was not able to source a few items including the Tommy gun scabbard/rack and black out light. The rear fender and horn are not original WLA pieces, but based on the attention that it receives, nobody seems to mind. Overall, I am pleased with the build, but if I had to do it again, I would not paint as many parts.
Riding the WLA requires one’s full attention. In addition to being slow, it has poor brakes to make up for it. Add in the tank shifter and the foot clutch, a helicopter pilot license is a prerequisite to being qualified to ride a WLA. Since I have completed the WLA, I have ridden all three days of the 2019 Comstock Classic and have ridden to Topaz Lake a couple of times. If the weather is decent, I frequently ride it to Saturday coffee.
I have really enjoyed the WLA, but while participating in the Comstock Classic, I realized that I would like to have some more horsepower. Consequently, the WLA is on the auction block. If you are interested or know somebody who is, let me know.