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Dirty Harleys – Harley-Davidson WLA & The Long Hard Iron Road

The Pan America is getting plenty of love these days … but the whole concept of a Harley-Davidson ADV didn’t just pop up out of thin air. It’s been around quite a long time after taking root with a legendary war effort – the Harley-Davidson WLA.

The month belonged to the Pan America. With shaggy-maned, square-shouldered Jason Mamoa serving as the defacto host in a glitzy series of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter hits, Harley-Davidson absolutely bombarded the blog-o-sphere with Pan America imagery in the weeks and months before officially unveiling the big adventure-touring bike on February 22. Harley-Davidson’s relentless social media campaign was an unreserved success, the world sat up and took notice, the Pan America had become one of the most anticipated and talked-about new models from any factory in years. Coast-to-coast, the motorcycle press lost its collective mind.

Yet for all the chatter, it’s fun to remind ourselves the Pan America is by no means the first time someone has tried to configure Harley-Davidson motorcycles into something more adventure-oriented—or even dirt road-ready. Leaving the late and not especially lamented Buell Ulysses out of the discussion, a quick survey of recent history uncovers numerous attempts to re-imagine Harley-Davidsons as overgrown dirt bikes.

Sidebar thought: Do we dare mention the factory’s previous attempt to do something dirty—the Harley-Davidson Baja MSR100? The Pan America is in a completely different league of course but for the record the year was 1970, the project was a joint venture with Aermacchi, and the result was a 98cc two-stroke single that actually enjoyed some success, winning the Baja 1000 in 1971. In fact, there were 14 Harley-Davidson Bajas in that race with eight finishing in the top ten. Artwork included Harley’s traditional black-and-orange racing colours on the tank but most of Harley-Davidson’s fanbase simply could not ignore the green “Made in Italy” sticker on the fender. Not then, not now.

A recent effort comes from a privateer shop in California, Carducci Dual Sport, which CAD-designs components in the creation of custom off-roaders such as the SC3 Gera Baja powered by a punched-out Sportster 883 motor. The desert race-ready Gera Baja floats on 10 inches of suspension travel front and back with engine mods upping the Sportster’s output to 100 horsepower, so says Carducci. 

Carducci also offers a big dualsport version in its SC3 Adventure model although it’s only slightly more streetified with a 2-into-1 pipe and humungous collector, aggressive knobbies, long-travel suspension, wire wheels, a long narrow saddle, and the standard lights and mirrors to make it legal on public roads.

Less polished but equally fun is “Jethrine,” which we found on an internet forum. Here we have a 2005 Sportster blended with a Suzuki DR 650 through a custom frame and bolstered by 10 inches of suspension travel. The poster says he’s “Thinking of changing to a 19-inch front wheel to take advantage of a wider tire. Currently it’s a real hand full in the sand with the stock 3.00 x 21.” No doubt he’s right about that. 

The handbuilt luggage racks seem sturdy as anything and very likely add to Jethrine’s curb weight as do the steel claw pedals and heavy frame mods. Give Jethrine’s builder full credit for taking on a difficult project for any lone individual to tackle.

Jeremy Cupp of LC Fabrications in the state of Virginia also had enduro visions for his Evo Sportster project. The stock Sportster frame was cut and modified to accept the linkage of monoshock rear suspension. Inverted front forks, billet swingarm, carbon fibres fenders, and custom exhaust lend Cupp’s “SX1250 Dirtster” a dashing, competitive look with the kind of bar-hopping bling that makes it the focus of attention wherever it goes.

Arguably the most well-known Harley-Davidson ADV conversions in recent years are those of the avantegarde custom collective called El Solitario which converted a trio of 1200 Roadsters into desert sleds purpose built for tackling the Sahara. The exploits of Eli Solitario’s “Desert Wolves” are well-documented and their conversions are pricey: ranging in the neighbourhood of $60,000. Suddenly the Pan America seems like an even better bargain.

CB’s long-time tech advisor Rich Burgess reminded us that Viet Nam veteran Dave Barr outfitted his 1972 Harley-Davidson FX Super Glide for ADV duty and is said to be the first person to ride a Milwaukee Big Twin completely around the world. His 83,000-mile, six-continent adventure took the native Californian four years to complete (1990-94)—a feat made even more remarkable in that Barr was a double amputee, having lost his legs to a land mine in 1981 while in southeast Asia.

Not being quite done with exploring the planet via Harley-Davidson turned ADV, Barr Dave set out during the winter of 1996-97 on a journey that would earn his place in the Guinness World Records  book for his efforts. His 13,000-mile ride was across Europe, Russia, and Siberia to the Pacific Ocean—all done during a Siberian winter.

As the hype around the Pan America continues, so does the free-flow of debate as to when, where, and who built the first adventure-biased Harley-Davidson. The claims and counter-claims are voluminous but most can agree that since the advent of hydraulic suspension, there have always been attempts to build dirt-capable Harley-Davidsons.

An interesting argument comes from Facebook blogger Justin Johnson who takes historical perspective to a whole other level: “The Harley-Davidson WL is the original adventure bike,” says Johnson. Well … okay. You have to squint a little to see his point but there’s some merit to his position, assuming he means the Harley-Davidson WLA built to military specs during the war years.

While World War One resulted in half of Harley-Davidson’s production going to the US military, WWII saw Harley build a remarkable 90,000 military motorcycles. The Russian army  purchased 30,000 units and the remaining 60,000 became a ubiquitous presence among the fighting men of the American forces.  The Harley-Davidson WLA was designed with toughness in mind and its performance in the field under the most challenging circumstances is legendary. It could famously ford streams up to 16 inches deep, run on low octane fuel and carry heavy loads thanks to its sturdy tube-steel frame and uncomplicated air-air-cooled 45 cubic-inch side-valve V-Twin.  

The Harley-Davidson WLA was a trooper in the deserts of North Africa, on the Soviet Russian tundra and in the jungles of the South Pacific. They came equipped with sideless fenders to prevent the build-up of mud. Some carried tall windscreens to protect the rider from road debris. Leg protectors were installed as standard as was the skid plate. A flat luggage rack and machine gun scabbard were also part of the standard fitment.

Harley-Davidson’s Pan America is one of their most important new models in decades. The very concept is a bold gamble as it enters an extremely competitive segment, equipped with all the latest and best technology. Riders will take their Pan Americas to places on the planet no Harley-Davidson has ever been before. 

Or maybe that’s not really true. Milwaukee iron has seen plenty of hard use over the past 100 years and bold adventurers have shown great creativity in adapting their machines to challenge rough country on its own terms. The whole concept of Harley-Davidson ADV didn’t just suddenly arrive out of nowhere at an office on West Juneau Avenue. 

The Pan America has actually been many lifetimes and countless adventures in the making starting with the Harley-Davidson WLA.

• John Campbell Canadian Biker Issue 352

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