Harley-Davidson and Russia during WWII

Daily Slideshow: The United States was not the only allied power using Harley-Davidson motorcycles during WWII...

By Joseph Coelho - November 15, 2018
Harley Davidson and Russia during WWII
Harley Davidson and Russia during WWII
Harley Davidson and Russia during WWII
Harley Davidson and Russia during WWII
Harley Davidson and Russia during WWII
Harley Davidson and Russia during WWII
Harley Davidson and Russia during WWII

Harleys Around the Globe

During the WWII years of 1941-1945, Harley-Davidson produced nearly 90,000 motorcycles specifically for military use by Allied powers. While the majority of WLA model motorcycles were retained by US military forces, over one-third of these bikes were sent to the UK, China, France, and the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. With many of these motorcycles occupying Europe, it is no wonder the WLA became known as "The Liberator" and "The bike that won the war."

From Milwaukee to Moscow

The Lend-Lease Act was passed in March of 1941 and permitted the President of the United States to sell, lend, lease, or exchange goods to foreign governments that were deemed vital to the defense of the USA. Much time and effort has gone into studying shipments and quantity details of what was traded between '41-'45 with records indicating that a total of 38,103 WLAs were sent to Allied forces. The largest quantity by far (26,670) was shipped to the USSR alone.

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WLA Versatility

Most of the 42WLA bikes sent to the Soviet Union were equipped with the M72 sidecar and also included a passenger pillion seat and luggage rack to transport up to three soldiers plus equipment. While these motorcycles were often used for policing, scouting, courier, and reconnaissance duties, they were sometimes outfitted with 82mm mortars or even anti-tank guns at the back of the sidecar in place of the spare tire. Needless to say, the 750cc twin had its work cut out for it hauling around all that weight!

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Keeping the Wheels Turnings

With such large quantities of WLA motorcycles and parts being sent to the USSR, the Russians went as far as producing their own technical service manuals printed in Russian to aid soldiers and technicians with repairs and maintenance in the field. They even produced certain consumable items of their own, such as the 'Sportsman tires' made in St. Petersburg.

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Bobbed & Chopped Back Home

All Lend-Lease trading with the Soviet Union officially ended on September 20th, 1945. After the war, many western countries sold their WLAs as a surplus stock that could be bought by civilians in modified trim. In the US, this largely led to the rise of the chopper culture. Young soldiers were able to come home, purchase these bikes and parts for pennies on the dollar, and modify them to their liking. In the Soviet Union, however, things were quite the opposite...

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Into Hibernation

Many of the Harley WLAs leftover from the war would find their way into storage in the communist-controlled Eastern Bloc of the Soviet Union. With the government virtually controlling all aspects of the economy, private parties could not get their hands on these motorcycles nor would they be exported to the west. The Harleys would sit for decades and stay preserved during the cold war years.

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WLA Yard Sale

Fast-forward to the 1990's after the Cold War and we began to see original Russian military WLA Harleys popping up for sale. Russia and former Soviet-controlled areas were a huge source for original WLA motorcycles and various parts at cut-rate prices. There are stories of individuals picking-up what were essentially brand-new WLAs for a few thousand bucks each.

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For help with your maintenance and repair projects, please visit our how-to section in the forum.

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