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

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Harley-Davidson’s First Land Speed Record

A large part of the reason Harley-Davidson is the leading US Motorcycle manufacturer after more than 100 years was its early reputation of reliability and speed established by many racing and hill climb successes. Walter Davidson himself won the 7th annual Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability run in 1908 with a perfect score.

With all of Harley-Davidson’s racing success, the first time Harley held the Motorcycle Land Speed was in 1970, perhaps ironically, just after AMF purchased the company.

Early Land Speed Records are a combination of firms you would know and those you wouldn’t. Curtiss, OEC and Zenith traded the record with Brough-Superior through the 1930’s and then Brough-Superior and BMW traded it back and forth until BMW held the record from 1937 to 1951. Triumph held the record for the vast majority of the muscle car error (1956-1970).

In 1970, AMF had just purchased Harley-Davidson and the firm continued to struggle against Japanese competitors. AMF decided it needed to do something to bolster Harley’s performance image as a way to improve sales and sent a factory backed effort to the Bonneville Salt flats. While there, they ran into the young designer, Denis Manning.
Manning had fashioned a streamliner that measured 23 inches in diameter.  The streamliner leaned the rider back to reduce frontal area. While larger than some of Mannings previous efforts (the pictures of his previouse efforts are scary, they looked barely big enough to fit someone in), the Manning Streamliner placed the front wheel right between the drivers legs, and the engine behind his head. It weighed about 700lbs. Manning piloted the streamliner to 187 miles an hour using a stock Sporty motor running on gasoline.


Rayborn and the 22 Streamliner

The Harley-Davidson factory team was so impressed with his design that they joined forces with Manning. They wanted to use his strong, wind cheating design combined with their motor. When the effort came together H-D offered to pay Manning if they broke the record, and to cover his room expenses if they didn’t.

First, they had to adjust the streamliner to fit the H-D driver Cal Rayborn, who was about 5 inches shorter than Manning. Harley wanted Rayborn in the cockpit, and given the speeds they needed to achieve, and the odd layout of the streamliner a professional pilot was a good idea. Manning, and now Rayborn had to pilot the bike looking out the small side window driving to stay on the center line.


Rayborn’s feet in the Streamliner

The bike was constructed of an aluminum tube with aluminum bulkheads on each end. The bulkheads were bolted to a steel subframe at the front for the front wheel and one at the rear for the engine and other components.

Rayborn, one of the greatest riders in H-D racing history, went from having trouble staying upright in the odd shaped bike with the odd seating position, to being able to control it well enough for some high speed runs. While learning, Rayborn even had a fairly severe end over end accident. The accident confirmed the team’s faith in the Streamliners solid build. With some work, the aluminum bike was rebuilt, and more important, Rayborn survived.

The Harley team installed a highly modified 89 Cubic Inch Nitromethane burning Sportster engine. The bike achieved 286 MPH on the way out and 284 on the return run while starting to eat a valve on the return run. Speed Record runs are the average of two passes and the effort achieved a new speed record of 254.84, pushing aside Yamah by about 3 mph.

The Land Speed win was not based on the best factory effort and fancy computer generated design. It was the combination of a quickly thrown together factory effort and a privateer that met on the salt, each with key pieces of the puzzle that fit together to take the record. Looking back, it’s ironic that the record was won by Harley when it was owned by AMF. The run was impressive but couldn’t do much to offset the terrible reliability of the product AMF was selling in dealerships to consumers. Harley’s image for performance and reliability were at low points when AMF owned the firm.

The key to the success of the effort was the combined knowledge and skill of the team on the salt. They were far more than ragtag bunch of mechanics. Of course, I’ve already mentioned how renowned the driver Rayborn was. He deserves at least his own post. Manning would go on to found BUB Enterprises Inc., most famous for creating Harley-Davidson as well as other brand motorcycle exhaust. Manning’s holding of the land speed record didn’t end with this effort. Harley took back the record in 1990 but since 2006, the record has been held back and forth by the Top Oil-Ack Attack Streamliner, and the Mannings own BUB Seven Streamliner.

When researching the events of this landmark land speed event, it’s easy to overlook a common sounding name, George Smith. Smith was one of the engine builders on the Harley program, responsible for much of the fuel management that allowed the Nitromethane sporty engine to power the streamliner to its record. George Smith began on the salt years before and held records of his own, but you likely would know him as one of the founders of S&S Cycles.

I suggest watching the Youtube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gjmpZ3-uSA

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Classic Motorcycle Police Recruit Poster

Great old poster from the Maryland State Police looking to recruit new police motor officers.

Classic motorcycle police poster

$100 a month for “real men” sounds like a good deal. The motorcycle he is riding looks like a mid 1920s Harley JD.

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4 Classic Harley Riders On Team American Iron To Cross US on Motorcycle Cannonball

The third running of the bi-annual Motorcycle Cannonball will cross the US again in September 2014. This time it is from Daytona FL to Tacoma, WA on 1936 and older motorcycles.

Battery maker Adventure Power is the title sponsor for Team American Iron and the team, backed by American Iron Magazine, consists of author Cris Sommer Simmons on a 1934 Harley VD,  her husband Pat Simmons (of the Doobie Brothers) on his 1929 Harley JD, Paul Ousey on his 1925 Harley JE and magazine publisher (American Iron Magazine, Motorcycle Bagger, Motorcycle magazine, and American Iron Garage) Buzz Kanter on his 1936 Harley VLH.

Adventure Power’s Team American Iron Motorcycle Cannonball 2014 logo

Here is the team logo and team “support staff” shirts will be available for sale in early March on the www.Greaserag.com web site.

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1914 Dodge City 300 Motorcycle Races – “The Coyote Classic”

Originally posted on Riding Vintage.


The inaugural Dodge City 300 was held on July 4, 1914 on a 2-mile oval dirt track located northeast of town.   This was an officially sanctioned event of the FAM (Federation of American Motorcyclist) and all the usual manufacturer backed teams were present.  These included  Indian, Excelsior, Pope, Thor,Flying Merkel and for the first time Harley-Davidson. Continue reading

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Harley Topper Scooter Tackles Death Valley

Originally posted on Riding Vintage


Death Valley… definitely not on the top ten places to ride for many motorcyclists.  Located in the Mojave Desert in Eastern California, Death Valley has the highest reported air temperature on earth, reaching a world record of 134 degrees back in 1913.  While that’s warmer than usual, the average temperature for July is still a sweltering 116 degrees.  Luckily it’s a dry heat, since the average rain fall is less than 2.5 inches per year.  If that wasn’t enough, Death Valley also has elevations on both ends of the spectrum  It’s lowest point is 282 feet below sea level which is separated from it’s highest point (14,505 feet) by just 84 miles.  Even with all those obstacles or perhaps because of them, Ross Wooten, a Harley dealer from Bakersfield, thought that Death Valley would make a great place to test Harley’s new scooter, the Topper.

Continue reading

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Jim Davis – Harley Motorcycle Racing Legend

Originally posted on Riding Vintage


When people talk about early motorcycle racing legends, one of the first names that comes to mind is Jim Davis.  His racing career spanned more than two decades, riding bikes for both Harley-Davidson and Indian as well as a few British manufacturers.  He won titles under the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM), the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association (M&ATA) and the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA).  By the end of his career, he had won over 50 national events under the FAM and M&ATA, plus another 21 under the AMA. Continue reading

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Antique Motorcycles In Gasoline Alley in Portland, Oregon


This interesting photo shows us a gathering of motorcyclists and their machines in front of the Motorcycle & Supply Company, a Harley-Davidson agency that was located at 209 Fourth Street in Portland, Oregon. In 1913, The Oregonian reported about the first endurance run from Portland to Corvallis and back by the Rose City Motorcycle Club with 37 riders participating. This image may be connected to that or a similar event. The advertisement below by Motorcycle & Supply Company tells of a 428 mile endurance run.

The majority of the machines lined up here are Harley-Davidson’s, but a closer look at the photo will also show you a Flying Merkel, a Dayton, possibly a pair of Clevelands and one or two British machines. Left to right are the Rathskeller Bar, the Motorcycle & Supply Company, a billiard and pool hall, the Hotel Rowland and at the very right-hand top side of the photo the F.P. Keenan Company, who earlier sold hardware but, at the time this photo was taken, sold Pope Motorcycles and automobile and bicycle supplies. The photos are courtesy of the City of Portland Archives

Read the full post with mode photo details at http://theoldmotor.com/?p=110782

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2014 Kickstart Classic Ride For Vintage Harleys & More

The Kickstart Classic ride is open to all makes, models and years of motorcycles (with or without kickstarters). 2014 will be the fourth year American Iron Magazine, Motorcycle Bagger and Motorcycle magazine put on this two-day ride.

This year, the registered riders will meet, once again, at Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, NC for a welcome dinner and reception Thursday afternoon and evening, July 24, 2014. We leave the next morning (Friday, July 25) and ride to Chattanooga, TN where we will be treated to a tour and dinner at the Coker Tire world headquarters. The next morning we depart and ride to Red Boiling Springs, TN for a reception and dinner at Cyclemos Motorcycle Museum.

The ride will be mostly on beautiful backroads where we can travel at our on speed without worrying about modern highway traffic. We will ride roughly 160 miles each day with plenty of stops to enjoy the scenery as well as gas-up, eat (hopefully not associated) and check out each other’s bikes.

We will limit registration to the first 100 riders and registration is $100 per person (rider and passenger). To register, please send your name, address, make, model and year of motorcycle and t-shirt size. Please send this along with $100 per person registration fee to: Kickstart Classic, c/o TAM Communications, 1010 Summer St. Stamford, CT 06905. For more info, please call Rosemary at 203.425.8777 x118.

Please click HERE for the registration form.

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