20 Dec 2010

My fourth bike was a 750cc WLA Harley-Davidson

Dear reader,

I must admit here to have strayed a little from the straight and narrow, and indeed for the second time (already!) in this two-wheeled confession! But we are nearing Christmas and the end of year's reckonings and taking of stock and all. So, having admitted to having owned a Japanese bike (and  it won't be the last, cringe cringe), I now have to admit to having owned a Harley (well, actually two or three, that is if you count my conversion of the first one into something a bit different). I only wish that I had kept real photos of the machines  that I owned, since they appear in my memory so much better that the pictures I have managed to grub off the net to try to give some idea of what they were like.

But, after all, did Marcel Proust show pictures of the madeleine his Aunt Leonie gave him? So here goes anyway...

a 1945 Harley-Davidson WLC750cc (known as a '45, for 45 cubic inches, in the US)

Mine was actually pale blue, but it had the same three-speed, hand-change gear box with a double foot and handlebar controlled clutch, footboards, buddy seat and saddle bags that you can see on this one. The engine is a long-lasting, slow revving side-valve that was used for ages by Harley, and especially in the WLA war version of this bike, as well as dirt-track versions. It had a windshield as well, which came in really handy on the 5000 mile trip that I made with it around large stretches of Europe in the summer of 1969. This thing was a tractor. It was much slower than the Triumph 500 whose engine I had exploded, sending oil all over the place, but it was such fun sitting on that big seat, sticking it into first gear with the hand lever on the left side of the tank, and pressing my left toe on the clutch (which has a rocking pedal) with no hands on the bars and watching people's faces as this thing chugged away from traffic lights. On the bends in the Alps the footboards would scrape all the time round the bends to the point that I sometimes felt I was riding one of those kiddy bikes with little side wheels, and you has to literally stand up on the brakes to make it stop (just look at the size of that front drum and match it to the weight of the ensemble loaded up!). Despite the rigid frame, it was remarkably confortable as the seat was mounted on a long tube that floated up and down a central sloping column in the frame (I hate to think how those people who ride chopped versions of these rigid-framed bikes without spring seats can fare on anything other than billiard-smooth roads). The front forks were of the "springer" type and would very quickly find their limit on bends or bumps, bottoming out fast on the bumps with a clang and engendering mind-boggling tank-slappers from the wide handlebars coming out of bends, even with the friction steering damper tightened to the maximum. I suppose it wasn't supposed to be ridden that way, as it was at its sedate best just cruising down a Tuscan road with a cigar in my mouth (those Toscanis!).

I do not like Harleys any more (slow, heavy, no brakes, no handling and usually pig ugly), but I have to admit that I saw their crowd-pulling capacities on this trip. Once, having parked it outside a café somewhere in Italy, some guy offered me just about everything he had as a swap: the Lambretta, plus the wife, plus I don't know what else. I wisely declined and went my way. It was a great trip.  I returned with it to the UK and converted it into what would now be called a "bobber", but it was a kind of chop in those days.


  1. David, disdain or contempt is never far way from admiration.
    I belonged to what French biking magazines used to call “les purs” at that time. You know, the type who rides in one go from Brussels to Nogaro on an old Yamaha RD 350 (the air-cooled model which would need re-tuning every 200 miles or so, always had a strobo with me) for a GP, who does not sleep a single minute during the whole of “Le bol d’Or”, who plays mechanic for a friend in the pits at the “1.000 km de Mettet”, in freezing cold weather and so on ... Needless to say Harley’s were never my pint of gasoline (biker’s equivalent to a cup o’). I would rather marvel at a red 350 cc two-stroke Jawa side-car!
    Still, a guy silly enough to embark on a mountain trip with a “45”, and surviving it: “respect, mon colonel!”.
    Steering dampers. That tells the whole story. The handling must have been dreadful. What is the English for “guidonnage”, you know the frightening undulating zig-zag movement of the front wheel (and handle-bars of course) that seems to get worse every second ? Brrrr, I still feel the shiverings along my back-bone.

  2. One could hardly call it handling! The term for "guidonnage" is the one I used in my text. We called these shakes "tank-slappers", as the bars on each side would slap tha sides of the petrol tnak in the worst cases. But it never got quite that bad on the old WLC since the front was pretty heavy and there wasn't enough power to lighten it coming out of corners.
    Never got to the 1000 kms of Mettet but always heard it was a great event. Managed the Bol a few times. And I remember the British rider, Dave Degens, riding from London to Barcelona on his special framed Triumph, winning the 24-hour race on it, and then riding the thing back again. Most have been the late 60's. Chapeau bas Monsieur!
    I am sure than once we are over my childish Harley episodes (not much monger to go) we will return to some machinery that is more to your taste. But I heard and excellent comment the other day from the ex-editor of Cycle World, Peter Eagan:
    "I don’t think I despise any bike that runs and takes you down the road—they’re all fun, by definition. It’s like trying to despise one Golden Retriever puppy out of a large litter—can’t be done."
    Well said!

    1. Hello,

      I buy this machine last week, and i don't understand whère this picture become, and if you know this machine, are you able to give me some information about it ?

      Thanks and good evenig

  3. So “tank-slappers” it is then. I’m one nice item of vocabulary richer, on the same line as ... “Thanksgiving”, don’t you think ?
    And a wise man indeed, your Peter Eagan, who teaches me a lesson. Please note I said disdain, in my simple mind somewhat softer than despise, or am I mistaken?
    Finally, why does he think a Goldwing is just part of a large litter?

  4. I noted that Luc. Maybe he rides doggs as well?