Bikes have a long and distinguished service record in the U.S.
- Harley-Davidson Model 17F/J
- Indian Powerplus Big Twin
- Harley-Davidson WLA “The Liberator”
- Kawasaki KLR650
- Zero MMX
As far as iconic U.S. military vehicles go, the Willys Jeep, Humvee and P-51 Mustang immediately come to mind (maybe even the Sherman or Abrams M1 tanks, if you know your stuff). But one of the unsung motorized heroes of the American military is the motorcycle. Though it may have faded in and out of fashion with the armed forces, the military has been utilizing the motorcycle’s simple and nimble functionality since the Mexican Revolution. From leading the charge with mounted machine guns and V-twins to special ops running silent with all-electric bikes, motorcycles have seen their fair share of combat.
Harley-Davidson Model 17F/J
Originally part of an order of just a dozen, Harley-Davidson specially developed the Harley-Davidson Model 17F/J for General Pershing to combat Pancho Villa in the “Border War.” Though U.S. forces weren’t successful in capturing Villa, the way the Model 17F/J traversed the desert was so impressive, the military upped the order, and by the end of WWI nearly half of all Harley-Davidsons were in military service — 20,000 units’ worth.
Engine: 1,000cc Flathead V-twinHorsepower: 16Duty: Hunting Pancho Villa
Indian Powerplus Big Twin
Although the Harley-Davidson was in service in WWI at the same time, the Indian Powerplus Big Twin was the favorite of the armed forces, with 50,000 units in service. However, those production numbers meant Indian was dedicating nearly their entire production effort to the war from 1917 to 1919. Patriotic though it may have been, that meant the civilian dealers had little, if anything, to sell, causing the company to fall on harder times than rival Harley-Davidson after the war.
Harley-Davidson WLA “The Liberator”
Because of advancements in weaponry between the World Wars, motorcycles disappeared from the front lines — a complete lack of armor will do that. Instead, they were reassigned as military police vehicles and utilized by dispatch riders for their speed and agility. By the end of WWII Harley-Davidson had built almost 60,000 units, but they continued to produce WLAs for civilians. However, when WLA’s were under civilian butts, the windshield, extra panniers and body work proved to be overkill, so they chopped them off — thus creating the chopper.
Engine: 740cc V-twinHorsepower: 23Duty: Dispatch / Military Police
WWII was the heyday of military motorcycles; they didn’t see much action again until the ’80s. And when Desert Storm broke out the Kawasaki KLR became a popular choice, albeit in a heavily modified form. The military KLR, known as the M103M1, was versatile enough to either run on jet fuel or burn diesel and return a hearty 96 MPG.
Engine: 651cc single-cylinderHorsepower: 45 (civilian spec)Duty: Scouting / Patrol
The MMX was developed specifically for special ops and the military because of Zero’s near-silent electric motor. Zero says that while on recon the MMX has a range of 71 miles under hard city riding, but the battery itself can last for 4,130 hours. With no exhaust and a 0-60 time of 4.4 seconds, you’d never know what hit you.
Engine: 6.5 kWh lithium-ion battery and brushless motorHorsepower: 54
Duty: Recon / Rescue / Covert Ops