BMW design cues are evident in Harley-Davidson’s XA.
The Quail Motorcycle Gathering is quite a show. Held at the upscale Quail Lodge golf resort in Carmel, California, the event features just about every type, year and nationality of classic motorcycle, all displayed on the putting green, with pavilions featuring everything from motorcycle gloves to upscale watches ringing the display area.
This year, in honor of Armed Forces Day, Quail hosted one of the largest displays of military motorcycles ever seen. Among them were three unusual World War II-era machines: Two Indian 841s and a Harley XA, both bikes unlike anything either Indian or Harley had built before — or since.
Before World War I, Indian was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the U.S. — and for some time, in the world. Harley-Davidson was at first too small for Indian to take notice, but by the time the guns of August 1914, started sounding in Europe, Harley had too much market share to ignore. The only other American motorcycle firm of note was Excelsior, which was then the third of America’s Big Three in motorcycling.
However, Indian made a lot of business and marketing mistakes, and Harley-Davidson made very few, and by the 1930s, Harley was pulling ahead. After Excelsior decided to quit the motorcycle market in 1931, the two survivors were going head to head for market share, and the fabled Indian and Harley wars were on. The fight took place on racetracks, at dealerships and even sometimes between individual bikers. As World War II got underway, Harley and Indian were duking it out for military contracts.
In 1940, significant military operations were underway in North Africa. The Axis forces had an edge in mobility with their tracked Zundapp and BMW two wheelers. The Allied forces had nothing comparable, so the U.S. Army put a bid out for a desert bike. The U.S. was not officially at war, but behind the scenes was hard at work preparing for the inevitable.
Shades of Moto Guzzi: A civilianized 1941 Indian 841.
Indian had been developing a 90-degree traverse V-twin engine for other applications since 1939. Switching gears, the company started developing this engine for use in a shaft drive military bike. Harley-Davidson bought a sidevalve BMW in Holland, shipped it to the U.S. and reverse engineered it. By February 1941, Harley was far enough along with the project to submit a bid to the Army for manufacture of a shaft drive opposed twin, based on the BMW. Indian presented a competing bid for production of desert bikes. The upshot was that the Army decided not to decide, and contracted for 1,000 Harley and 1,000 Indian shaft drive twins, to be delivered by July 1942.
Indian’s model was named the 841. A 744cc sidevalve with a 4-speed gearbox and foot shift, the frame had plunger rear suspension and girder forks. It produced 24 horsepower and maximum speed was about 60mph. It was slow — due to the 564-pound weight — but it was surprisingly easy to ride.
A stock military issue Indian 841.
The competing Harley-Davidson XA produced 23 horsepower, but weighed a little less — 525 pounds. Estimated speed was also 60mph. It was the first Harley with foot shift and telescopic forks. Also a sidevalve, it had a two-throw crankshaft, a compression ratio of 5.7:1, and a heavy duty air cleaner to keep sand out of the internals. A channeled steel luggage rack was intended to support a radio.
During the same time, Willys was inventing the Jeep, which the brass thought was a more versatile machine. Another issue was the amount of scarce aluminum needed to manufacture the Harley XA. While all this was being discussed and thought over, Rommel was chased out of North Africa and the war effort moved on to Italy and the Pacific. The desert bike project was canceled and few if any of the opposed twins saw combat. After the defeat of Japan, most were sold as military surplus. Both the Harley and the Indian are now rare collector’s items.
For some reason, neither Harley nor Indian followed up on civilian uses for either the XA or the 841, which is a shame, because both had great potential.
Best of Show for the 2015 The Quail Motorcycle Gathering went to the 1951 Mondial 125 Bialbero Gran Prix from Museo Moto Italia.