Harley-Davidson's Military Model U

Starting in 1939, Harley-Davidson began producing the military version of the Model U motorcycle.  Initial orders for this model were made by the US Army and Harley added an "A" to the model designation to signify that it was being built for the Army.  The Model UA had a number of differences when compared to the original Model U made for civilians.  Some of  these included standard front and rear crash bars, a windscreen with transparent upper section and one of three types of fork mounted holsters which could hold a Thompson submachine gun, a carbine or a rifle. The 1200cc flathead motor was detuned to lower its compression and fitted with a larger more restrictive air filter. The transmission gearing was also lowered to make the motorcycle more suitable for sidecar use.

During the three years it was produced, the US Army purchased 670 units. Not many considering that Harley would go on to produce over 88,000 Model WLA’s during WWII. US Navy also purchased an unrecorded amount of Model U's for shore patrol and these were easily distinguishable by their grey paint schemes.  

Although the US Army preferred the solo Model WLA for wartime service, the South African Union Defense Forces thought the sidecar equipped  Model U’s would be suitable for their motorcycle companies. Between 1940 and 1941, the Union Defense Forces ordered 1,156 Model U’s, all equipped with left-hand mounted sidecars. They also ordered an additional 3,100 WL’s to help fill out their three motorcycle companies.

The three motorcycle companies of the Union Defense Forces saw action all across Africa.  After completing their training in Voortrekkerhoogte, they proceeded by ship to Mombasa.  There they joined up with armored cars and began an assault against the capital of Italian East Africa.  From there they continued battling into Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), then to the island of Madagascar and finally to the deserts of Libya and Egypt by the fall 1942.  The conditions these motorcycles faced could be argued to be some of the worst imaginable.  Riding through the arid wastes of Kenya, through torrential rain, across the mountains and in intense heat, the Harley-Davidson Model U proved to be a dependable and durable war machine.