Harley Davidson’s Forgotten WWII Motorcycle – the XA

I was researching a post on Police Harley-Davidsons, when I ran across what may be one of the rarest Harley-Davidsons.

Harley-Davidsons were the main General Purpose vehicle of the US Army in WWI and many other US Army actions, such as the Army’s raid on Pancho Villa.  In World War II, the motorcycles usefulness was challenged and surpassed during the war by the Willy’s-Overland Jeep.  The Jeep’s use by the Army came about very quickly. As it became clearer that the US would become involved in the war, the Army gave 135 companies 49 days to create a working prototype.  The American Bantam car company came up with the best design but was deemed too small to produce the quantity needed so the initial design was given to Ford and Willys-Overland to impove.  Willys was able to lighten its design enough to use a heavier and more powerful motor, which won Willys the bid. Ironically, to produce the 640,000 Jeeps used during WWII, Ford was given a contract to produce Willys-Overland final Jeep design. Don’t worry, we’re getting to the motorcycles..

The main Harley-Davidson used in WWII was the WLA.  These were Harley-Davidson civilian WL’s modified for military use, including 45 cubic inch V-Twins. Estimates vary but we can be pretty sure Harley produced 60,000 to 70,000 WLA’s during WWII.  Some estimates put the number of WLA’s at 80,000, with about 20,000 being used by the Russian Army.

The military was aware that the German military motorcycle, manufactured by BMW, had advantages over the WLA.  It could go twice as long between maintenance and the BMW shaft drive was much more dependable, particularly in the North African desert that would be part of the conflict.  The desert also exposed the natural design flaw of the V-Twin and lack of reliability in a 1940’s chain drive.  While a V design is relatively easy to package in a frame, the V layout has always made it difficult to cool.  The front cylinder can have difficulty getting enough air across its fins and therefore to cool the cylinder, and the back cylinder’s airflow is blocked and heated by the front cylinder. Modern Harley’s have fancy technology, like turning off the back cylinder in high temperature that the WLA didn’t have.


Harley duplicated the BMW R71 flathead  motorcycle to create the XA, including the flat twin.  Testing showed that the copied BMW opposed twin allowed the cooling fins for both cylinders to be cleanly out in the airstream, which kept the oil temperature 100 degrees cooler than the V-Twin.

The boxer engine’s weight characteristics were valued.  As in modern BMW and Honda motorcycles, and Subaru and Porsche cars, the boxer doesn’t provide as much horsepower as a similar inline or V, but it improves handling by keeping much of the engines weight low in the frame.

The required geek paragraph.  The engine was square (Bore/stroke 3.063 in × 3.063 in) with a 5.7:1 compression ratio.  It had a 6V system and produced 23 HP. The transmission was a 4 speed.  XA’s were originally produced for leading link forks.


The XA provided a number of additional advantages. It was designed with a foot shift allowing both hands to stay on the handlebar, larger capacity battery and a radio shielded electric system. The XA was originally designed with a springer front end, but in later production it was replaced by H-D’s first telescopic front end. The motorcycle was designed for just a single rider.

Harley offered reduced prices on the XA to the military based on volume but the military decided to only order 1000 bikes for evaluation.  At this low volume, the XA cost $870 a bike, about twice what a WLA cost.  In fact, the XA cost more than the Willys version of the Jeep, which was $648.74 at initial contract, growing to $749 by the end of the war.

Indian also produced a shaft drive motorcycle to meet the government’s requirements, called the 841.  It was a V-Twin designed based on a Moto-Guzzi.

Because of the Jeep, the army dragged its feet on making a decision on the XA.  The success of the Jeep essentially made the decision for them.  The Jeep had many advantages including that it was less expensive than the XA, didn’t fall over and could be used with less training. The Army never ordered any more XA’s.  The WLA was judged sufficient as a vehicle to get into difficult spaces and to provide the messaging capabilities that were required from a World War II military motorcycle.  The Jeep, with its 4 wheel drive and water cooling was able to work well in adverse temperature and conditions.

The XA never saw conflict, it was used in various locations around the U.S.  It seems ironic that the motorcycle that was specifically designed for the brutal conditions in North Africa never made it outside of the United States!

Estimates have it that there are at most 300 XA’s left in the world, and that 60 or less are in running condition.  When I looked on eBay to see what an XA might be worth, or how many have been sold, there was only one XA listed and it was withdrawn before it was sold.  If you find an XA in good condition, make sure you bring pants with big pockets if you’re planning to pay in cash.

Modern XA

About Steve Kastell

Born in 1961 in Brooklyn, New York, I currently live in Manalapan New Jersey. My day job is implementing and managing the systems that run large companies. Currently I work for a medical device company based out of Boston. I have an undergraduate degree in Business from SUNY Albany and a MBA in Finance from NYU. Like many of you I rode as a kid, both dirt bikes and street bikes and then was interrupted by school, work and family. I added to my time away by living in NYC for four or five years and Divorce. I love Muscle Cars and Bikes, Harley-Davidsons, Duks and BMWs top my wish list. I current own a Harley Davidson Softail Deuce thats been considerably changed from the way Harley shipped it and I'm shopping for a BMS K1200R. A decent amount of success has lead me back to my passion - writing about cars and bikes and I'd like to do more of what I like now that most of the family can stand on their own two feet. I'm very capable. My dad owned 3 gas stations and I learned about cars from him and bikes from Joey Pitch in the back. I worked my way through college in Uncle Mikes Auto parts store (Everything Automotive on CIA for you Brooklyn kids). I built a 55 Chevy 150 coupe from scratch amongst a number of other projects in my time and have done much of the work on my bikes throughout the years. Most of my friends think I know more about bikes and cars than anyone they've met and I love to hear that. Would love to hear from you at nine11c2@gmail.com or nine11c2 on twitter. I'd love to hear about things you'd like to see on Classic Harley..
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