Army Surplus Harley-Davidson WLA Restored

Collector Fred Wacker restored a custom hot-rodded bike to its former glory as an Army surplus bike used in WWII.

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Burt Richmond
An older white man on a motorcycle

Most of us had difficulty getting parental approval to ride a motorcycle.

Mom would remind us about how dangerous they are. Dad would tell us that he never wanted to see a motorcycle in the woodshed. Imagine how lucky Fred Wacker was, as he had a Bonanza mini-bike when he was only 7 years old!

On his 16th birthday in 1976, Fred’s father gave him an adult-sized yellow Harley-Davidson, which happened to be an old WLA Army surplus bike from World War II. Fred Sr. was not only a fellow motorcyclist, but was also a British sports car fan, competing in MGs and other race cars of the 1950s. Luckily, Fred had a great role model in his dad, who taught him how to ride safely and how to keep his 1942 Harley tuned and running properly.

Fred Wacker, Sr. paid $250 for that old Army surplus bike. The seller had removed or cut-off all the non-essential military components and added a large buddy saddle instead of the single bicycle-type seat. He also had the front-end chrome plated — it was a perfectly hot-rodded bike for a teenager. WLA was Harley-Davidson’s abbreviation for their military model: W= flat head 45 cubic inch engine; L= high compression and A=Army. The yellow Harley took Fred through high school and college. Well into his working career, Fred decided to freshen up the bike in 1987. He dismantled the bike, stripped off the old school bus yellow paint, and sandblasted the frame and the sheet metal. The tired and pitted shiny parts were re-chromed — all part of Fred’s love affair with anything with two wheels and an engine. The family business was manufacturing tools, so it was natural for Fred to learn how to use them with proficiency. Like father, like son. Fred grew into a competent weekend mechanic.

Years ago, Fred, Jr. was on the hunt for a replacement seat for his Moto Guzzi 175cc Lodola Sport. It was an important bike as it was the one his parents bought in Italy for their honeymoon in the 1950s. Fred enjoys rescuing abused and unloved motorcycles, which, over time has morphed into a serious collection, several of which he has personally restored. It gives him great pleasure to escape from corporate captivity by tinkering in his garage workshop on winter nights and weekends.

Back to original

Fast forward to the mid-2000s, during a dinner conversation with one of his sons who was studying World War II in middle school. The son asked why the family motorcycle collection didn’t have any military bikes. Fred pondered that for a few minutes and responded, “We already have an old relic from 1945. Yep, our yellow Harley was actually a 1945 Army surplus relic that your Grandfather gave me. It was used by messengers and scouts in the front lines of the European theater!” That dinner conversation got Fred inspired about restoring his WLA.

First, he researched the Harley-Davidson archives to learn that they actually produced 88,000 military models from 1942 through the end of the war in 1945. However, all of them were titled as 1942. Via the internet, Fred was able to find several Harley-Davidson operator’s manuals, illustrated parts manuals, and various sources for the many missing military parts. How to Restore Your Military Harley-Davidson was a great find — not necessarily an actual do-it-yourself guide, but an indispensable assistant to understand the production-run variations caused by war-time changes.

Fred’s WLA is from the end of the war in 1945. He began finding other collectors who had many of the parts that he needed. The most daunting missing pieces to locate were the so called “black-out” lights made by Guide & Cycle Ray, which had small horizontal rectangular openings so that aerial observation at night was nil. According to Fred, the nighttime lighting is akin to four lightning bugs in a pickle jar! It was very hard to discern the war-time dirt roads in the dark. Therefore, most nighttime mobile military operations were during full moons when the ground forces could see where they were going and could see the enemy.

During their training, riders were taught that if they encountered enemy fire, that they should “drop” the motorcycles on the side and crouch down behind it to let the engine deflect enemy fire. Many soldiers reported back after such incidents that Milwaukee’s metal saved their lives!

Once again, the bike was on Fred’s lift being disassembled for the second time. It took more than five years for the complete restoration, but Fred is delighted with the finished product. No details escaped his touch. Notice that even the heads of machine screws and bolts are painted OD (olive drab) or finished with the correct Parkerizing non-rust finish. Check out the leather toe shields at the bottom of the leg shield to keep the rider’s boot more stable on the foot platform. David Sarafan, a nationally known expert on WLAs, directed Fred to other known sources for literature and parts. At this juncture, those black-out lights are virtually non-existent; same for the NOS tank-mounted speedometer, which drives their price off the charts of affordability.

The MVAA (Military Vehicle Association of America) was able to supply the correct, toxic, dull OD paint. The paint is thick and clings to all the metal parts, which is essential for military use as exposing any metal to sunlight reflections could be observed by the enemy. This machine is not a shiny trailer queen. It is an authentically restored 75 year old Army work horse.

The engine went to the local Harley-Davidson dealer whose shop machinist had been servicing the engine for years. He did a complete upper-end including a valve job, honed the cylinders and replaced the piston rings. The crankshaft journals, camshaft and bearings were checked for wear, but checked out as okay. The bike was finally completed in 2006. Much of the fun and sense of accomplishment occurred piece-by-piece when long awaited parts arrived and were added.

Fred’s constant searches for authentic pieces for his restoration included the Thompson submachine gun scabbard and the handlebar mounted shovel bracket. After a long search, a pair of very stiff leather saddlebags were found in Europe that had Cyrillic (Russian) writing inside the bags — a reminder that Russia was an ally during World War II via a program called “Lend Lease.” The U.S. supplied the Soviet Union with $11.3 billion in food, uniforms, and military equipment including planes, tanks, jeeps and 30,000 WLA motorcycles to help fight the Germans. That represented a third of Harley-Davidson war production! No surprise that those saddle bags were sourced from behind the former “Iron Curtain”! There was and is an abundance of WLA machines and parts readily available from the old Soviet Union and satellite states.

Fred lives a few miles from Fort Sheridan, a former Midwest Army base. The most appropriate ride after the motorcycle’s metamorphosis from yellow and chrome to a “Monument of a Bygone Era” that saw active duty during World War II was through Fort Sheridan. He experienced several thumbs-up as he rode through Fort Sheridan’s Parade Grounds, where General George Patton trained as a cavalry soldier during World War I. That ride around the Parade Grounds was an incredible source of pleasure putting the proverbial bow on the proper restoration to return this bike to its original military configuration. Between the bike that his father had given him 44 years ago and thanks to his son’s inquiring mind, Fred has achieved a high level of pride with research and his hands. MC

Harley-Davidson WLA: The Main US Military Motorcycle of World War II

Harley-Davidson WLA is the story of an iconic model in the long history of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the WLA, which was used by Allied forces during WWII and developed for the U.S. Army’s mechanized cavalry. Known today as the “Liberator,” this book will unveil the history and stories of individuals who rode this icon to war and why the model is now a favorite among civilian collectors. This title is available at or by calling 800-880-7567. Item #10562.

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