Since their foundation in 1903, Harley-Davidson have been doing things resolutely the American way – or perhaps ‘Milwaukee way’ is more apt.
Harley-Davidson, of course, is synonymous with the Vee-twin, a lay out they first adopted in 1909. That first twin, with the now-familiar 45 degree included angle, displaced 61cu.in (999.6cc) and was said to be capable of almost 60mph from its 7bhp. It was a notable success, and the company grew rapidly. By 1914 the factory had mushroomed to 297,000 square feet, and during World War I no less than 20,000 Harleys saw military duty.
Years in Production
739cc side-valve Vee-twin
24.5 bhp @ 4600 rpm
tubular single cradle, rigid rear end
drum / drum
1929 – 1952
Nowadays, Harley-Davidson are the iconoclasts of world motorcycling – a situation little different from the fifties. This particular model, the WL45 began life in 1929, continuing in production with only relatively minor modifications until the arrival of the ‘ K’ Model in 1952. For an entire generation, this was the Harley-Davidson, as American as apple pie.
In 1929, the WL was the first of a new generation of side-valve ‘flathead’ Vee-twins. The ’45’ denotes the capacity in cubic inches, equivalent to 739cc. In 1930 it was joined by a sister model, the 74-inch VL. Almost on their own, this duo saw Harley through The Depression, for no significant new models were to be developed during six years of economic strife. Of literally hundreds of American bike manufacturers, only Harley and Indian survived, as industry- wide pro duction dropped from 32,000 to 6000 units by 1933. One Harley response was the three-wheeled ‘Servi-Car’ a cheap delivery and police vehicle powered by the WL engine, which lasted until the mid- ’70s.
In 1936 new models began to emerge, with an 8O-inch (1310cc) side-valve twin and the legendary 61-inch ohv Knucklehead. But the WL , along with Indian’s side-valve 750, remained the Harley main stay, an increasingly y integral part of American culture . (And elsewhere – WL’s were actually manufactured in Japan under licence, bearing the Rikuo name ) . Not surprisingly it was to the WL (suffixed ‘A’ for Army) that the American military turned during World War II. Of 90,000 Harleys ‘enlisted’ almost 89,000 were good old 45- inch WLA V-twins. It was a long way from 1903, when William S Harley; Arthur Davidson and two other Davidson brothers produced just three motorcycles in a shed measuring 10 foot by 15.
Hostilities over, Harley set about uprating their range, first with the 74-inch , alloy-headed Panhead, complete with hydraulic lifters; then with the first of the Glides , the Hydra Glide. Yet still the WL plodded on, its girder forks, side-valve engine and rigid rear end a growing anachronism but its sheer indestructibility continuing to be prized . Eventually, in 1952, it was replaced by another machine which was to become an American legend . For the K model not only featured hydraulically damped suspension at both ends, but was later to become the XL Sportster.
The WL is – and was for most of its life – a crude, heavy machine better suited to the American Prairies than any road with bends.
Cruising all day at 60mph on a long , straight road, it is in its element . But with 550lbs of momentum, poor brakes, minimal suspension and a wide gap between its three gear ratios, anything else is hard work. Even setting off is a knack , thanks to the WL’s foot-operated ‘suicide’ clutch.
The WL was, even in 1950 , a motorcycling dinosaur . But if it was slow, outdated and cumbersome, it was also strong as an ox and almost indestructible; a tough old workhorse that delivered the bacon . T h e superbikes that were to come would be something else altogether.