Bike fails the Har­ley test

Albany Extra - - Motoring - Peter Thoem­ing

The Har­ley-David­son Panamer­ica has been get­ting a bit of at­ten­tion on the in­ter­webs, and it hasn’t been what I’d call over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. Most peo­ple seem to agree that the bike has been struck se­verely with the Ugly Stick.

It doesn’t help that the com­pany re­leased news of the bike with a photo from pos­si­bly the least flat­ter­ing an­gle; our photo shows it al­most side-on, and it doesn’t look quite as bad. But it’s still no beauty, the way most of the mo­tor com­pany’s prod­ucts are.

The ma­jor prob­lem with the Panamer­ica is one that I didn’t think Har­ley-David­son would ever fall prey to. The bike doesn’t look like a Har­ley. For a com­pany which has made its for­tune by ju­di­cious self-ref­er­enc­ing over the past cen­tury, this is in­ex­pli­ca­ble. Peo­ple buy Har­leys be­cause they are Har­leys; they buy more than a mo­tor­cy­cle be­cause they buy his­tory. I bought my Sev­enty Two be­cause it is ir­re­sistibly rem­i­nis­cent of the great Cal­i­for­nian H-D chop­pers of the 70s.

The Panamer­ica looks noth­ing like any Har­ley I’ve ever seen, and I’ve owned a half dozen or more and seen just about ev­ery vari­a­tion Mil­wau­kee has come up with. Could that be a good thing? No, to put it bluntly. The mo­tor com­pany trades on its name, as do all es­tab­lished brands. That name is linked to cer­tain vis­ual cues, and this bike has just one of them apart from the name: the en­gine. I don’t think that’s enough. “So, OK, smar­tarse”, as you may be tempted to say if I know you: “what would you do?” Af­ter all, the mo­tor com­pany doesn’t ex­actly have a his­tory of build­ing dirt bikes, if you ig­nore that Cana­dian mil­i­tary thing they played with for a while.

I am truly glad you said that, be­cause I can think of some­thing I would do.

Har­ley-David­son did build a dirt bike. It was one of the most fa­mous motorcycles ever. It was even known as The Bike That Won the War, and I’m talk­ing about World War II, The Big One. It was, of course, the WLA — and don’t call it a Walla. No­body called it a Walla when I used to ride one. It’s one of those stupid ne­ol­o­gisms that grate on any­one who was ac­tu­ally there; no, not dur­ing the war but dur­ing the late ’60s when WLAs were the only Har­leys any of us could af­ford and we bought them for $400 from Old Jack and Johnno at Red­fern Mo­tor­cy­cle Spares.

The first WLA pro­to­type went from Har­ley-David­son to the US Army for test­ing in 1939, and lim­ited num­bers were built in 1940. It was based on the then cur­rent WL model, a 45cuin (738cc) flat-head.

The suf­fix “A” means army. The “W” se­ries had been de­vel­oped from the “R” se­ries, pro­duced be­tween 1932 and 1936, and “L” sig­ni­fies high-com­pres­sion. High com­pres­sion? Well, it was, then: five to one, a lit­tle low by to­day’s stan­dards.

Pro­duc­tion speeded up con­sid­er­ably once Amer­ica had en­tered World War II in 1941, and more than 88,000 WLAs were built. In par­al­lel, Har­ley pro­duced the WLC for Cana­dian forces to a slightly dif­fer­ent spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Pro­duc­tion re-started for the Korean War in 1949, to fin­ish again in 1952. Most WLAs pro­duced af­ter Pearl Har­bor were se­rial num­bered as 1942, no mat­ter what their ac­tual year of pro­duc­tion. Aus­tralian forces used WLAs in Viet­nam be­cause the BSAs that had of­fi­cially re­placed them proved to be too flimsy.

The flat-head v-twin was out­stand­ingly re­li­able, and re­ports men­tion that it could eas­ily run on 74-octane fuel. We oc­ca­sion­ally ran them on kerosene dur­ing the reg­u­lar Christ­mas fuel strikes; you just had to prime them with petrol and mix a lit­tle in with the kero.

The im­pres­sive “Springer” fork, rigid rear and sprung sad­dle — ei­ther a solo “trac­tor” or dual “buddy” seat — com­bined to make the bike re­mark­ably ca­pa­ble on dirt. The one thing it could not cope with well was a high-speed pot­hole. This would fire the rider up into the air when the spring un­der the seat com­pressed and then ex­tended. Af­ter I hit a par­tic­u­larly deep one on Pyr­mont Bridge Road in Syd­ney on one of my WLAs, a laugh­ing mate who’d been rid­ing be­hind me told me that “your arse was higher than your head!”

What that all comes to is that the WLA was a gen­uine ad­ven­ture bike.

I am not sug­gest­ing that Mil­wau­kee should be build­ing a replica of the WLA.

But why not take de­sign cues from it? That would pro­vide con­ti­nu­ity of ap­pear­ance, and also be a con­stant re­minder of H-D’s con­tri­bu­tion to the war effort, not to men­tion the sub­se­quent cus­tomis­ing revo­lu­tion in Cal­i­for­nia.

It’s an op­por­tu­nity missed, folks. My thanks to the Na­tional Mo­tor­cy­cle Mu­seum in Anamosa, Iowa for back­ground in­for­ma­tion and pho­tos.

The Har­ley-David­son Panamer­ica — ugly duck­ling or fairy princess?

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