Bike fails the Harley test
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?