Forget tanks – we’re heading into battle on two wheels!
The Norton Big 4
This beast was one of the first motorcycles outfitted for military use. Its history reaches back to 1907, and it was built seemingly for what a motorcycle should be used for in war – swiftly carrying men and supplies to and from the front lines. With a 38.6 cu inch side-valve engine, it had plenty of low-end torque and fulfilled its duty of hauling sidecars containing two or three heavily equipped men, or a healthy load of ammunition. The Big 4 weighed in at 373 pounds unfuelled, had 7-inch drum brakes in the fore and aft, and could carry 2.75 gallons of fuel. Of 100,000 military bikes made by Norton during WW2, 4,700 were Big 4s, and like other side-valve single engine bikes, they were ridden until they ultimately broke down, making these near impossible to find today. This was a motorcycle that weighed about as much a smart car - and nearly had its own little smart car growth attached to its side – and was as sturdy a two-wheeled monster as you could ever hope to carry you into battle.
Royal Enfield WD/RE
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Honking great bikes like the Norton were necessary for transporting people and ammunition, but when it came to transporting messages or signals between areas without radio communication, much lighter bikes were needed. Enter the Royal Enfield WD/RE, a zippy little number also known as the “Flying Flea.” It employed a 126 cc air-cooled two stroke engine with drum brakes, could run on any fuel, and weighed 130 pounds - 250lbs less than the Big 4, and light enough for riders to carry it through otherwise impassable terrain. But it didn’t get the name "Flying Flea" because it was small and quick (well, not so quick – it topped out at a humming 45mph): no, it got the name because the Brits could drop these into battle with parachutes, or carry them with gliders. After testing, the bikes were made as compact as possible so they could be packed into bombers and dropped off. A sealed vent on the fuel filler prevented spillage, while folding handlebars, a folding kick-start and a raised toolbox allowed many bikes to be packed into the smallest possible space. Can you imagine getting assigned to use that thing? “Well Johnson, we’re going to attach this wiry motorbike to a glider, then you’re going to drive it through enemy territory at 45mph, and deliver the following coded message: ‘The troll has got a key in his pocket, the Fox trots at noon when the church bells toll, and Jerry can’t remember his name’ to the captain hiding in the basement of the boulangerie. Got that? Good.” Guys back then had balls of steel, y’all.
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By 1940, a bike had finally come along that was powerful and reliable enough to transport people and supplies to the front line, but light and quick enough to use for scouting, courier work, and sometimes carrying radio equipment. The WLA employed the side-valve engine - despite Harley Davidson already having developed the much more efficient overhead-valve designs - since the small twin flathead design was more reliable overall, which was a necessary trade for power in rationed military times (sort of the same way we trade pride for speed by microwaving chicken pot pies six nights a week). While the WLA was a civilian bike originally, it underwent many military modifications: It was one of the first to employ military “blackout lighting,” and was accessorized with a heavy-duty rack to carry radios, an ammo box, a leather Thompson submachine gun scabbard, skid plate, and leg protectors – it was basically the Immobilizer 418 Cruiser of military motorcycles. The WLA was also one of the first dust and water-resistant bikes - Harley used modified oil bath air cleaners, originally used for tractors and other vehicles in dusty environments - as well as making changes to the crankcase breather to reduce the possibility of water intake. The post-war WLA surplus led to cheap Harleys for all soldiers coming back, and thus can be credited for the rise of the chopper and its surrounding biker culture – although since the bikes were “civilianized,” they didn’t have all the shotgun holders and radio suppression goodies they were probably used to.
Vespa 150 TAP
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We know, we know – technically, this isn’t a motorcycle. But how could we resist including this crazy thing? Just imagine the scene: The enemy spies a hoard of Vespa 150 TAPs coming at them, and exclaims, “Uh, hey… so, there seems to be a bunch of guys coming at us in… scooters? Maybe they’re going to deliver us some baguettes, or some delicious cheese?” And everyone laughs and laughs until the Vespa 150 TAPS turn a corner and the enemy sees the firepower these little crickets are packing. The “Bazooka Vespa” - modified to mount an M20 recoilless rifle - was used by the French Airborne Forces. The M20 itself was a light anti-armor cannon, developed by the US and able to penetrate four inches of armor. Like the Royal Enfield, these little bastards could also be dropped out of planes, meaning they could show up practically anywhere. What’s more, these flying, two-wheeled bazooka scooters were cheap - Vespas only cost about $500 at the time, and M20s were a dime a dozen, so you can imagine what kind of hellscape these things could cause.
If we were to go back in time, drop the Hayes Diversified Technologies M1030 in front of the driver of one of the earlier bikes on this list, and give him the choice between our latest Maxim cover girl or this limitless, near-submarine, bulletproof hell dragon, we’re pretty sure they’d choose the bike. Well…ok, maybe not. But it’d be close! The M1030 can run on diesel, biodiesel, JP8 aviation kerosene and four other military fuel variants. Not only that, but it can run any seven of those fuels through its 670cc 4-stroke, indirect injection liquid-cooled single-cylinder engine to run for over 400 miles (at 55mph). Put one of the previous bikes in water and they might rust up quicker than Brandon Roy’s knees, but drive this thing through water over two feet deep and you’ll be fine. Cutting edge military “blackout lighting” allows for near invisibility at night, and the non-reflective, dustproof, and bulletproof body – while reaching speeds of up to 95mph – make this a pretty hard target for a measly enemy bullet.