Brand New Army Harleys Still in Crates

Living in the ’70s by Kelly Ashton

“YEP — FAIR DINKUM — brand new WLA Harleys; they’re still in their packing crates and cost only $10 bucks each!”

Like when US President John F Kennedy was shot, I still remember where I was when I first heard that famous old cock and bull story about the ‘recently discovered secret stash’ of war surplus Harleys.

I forget exactly which one of my mates actually uttered it (might have been Whitey or maybe Tommy) but most of us had older brothers old enough to ride motorbikes on a Learners Permit, so naturally we 14-year-old scumbag bikies-in-the-making were well up on all the gossip doing the rounds of the biker world in the late 1960s.

Even though I was in my first year of high school, I was hangin’ with the fellas one Saturday arvo in the playground of the Allambie Heights Primary School and we were fascinated with the thought of a Harley for just $10. Jeez, I could pay that off with just three and a half weeks’ pay from my paperboy round.

“It’s not all wine and roses,” the knowledgeable mate continued as he held court on the steps leading to the principal’s office. “They haven’t got any tyres or tubes, and you’ve got to buy them in minimum lots of 20.”

Just great! I knew there had to be a catch. I mean, where’s a 14-year-old tacker going to scrape up 200 smackeroosters? My older brother had just bought his ’59 Trumpy Thunderbird and that cost $200.

Even back then, I was an optimistic cynic (or a cynical optimist, take your pick) and didn’t really believe the story, but over the next four decades, it cropped up in varying forms so many times, it’s got to rate higher than the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus on the believability scale.

Very coincidentally, and only a few months after first hearing the far-fetched yarn, I received what amounted to a first-hand and official scotching of the rumour by someone who should’ve known more than most about the story — the President of the Harley-Davidson Club of Australia. See, I’d found a lost dog on Queenscliff Beach and rang the number on the dog tag. On the other end of the line, the mutt’s owner sounded hugely relieved. He said it was one of his two Dobermans that had gone wandering; the other one was already home and the one I was minding was named Harley.

“And I suppose the other’s name is Davidson?” I had to ask, being a smartarse 14-year-old.

“Yeah, how’d you know that?” he asked incredulously.

I gave him the address of my grandmother’s flat where the dog was in the living room tied to a barstool and the President of the Harley-Davidson Club said he’d be around in a few minutes to pick up Harley, the Doberman.

I stood out the front of the flat, manly to flag him down, and within minutes, the whirring, clattering chuff of a mint-condition, army issue, olive drab 1942 WLA wheezed into the street, its 6-volt electrics thrusting a bold spray of yellow light onto Bonner Ave. Then, a God-awful sound exploded from within Granny’s flat. It was sorta like the sound effects of Fred Flintstone flooring his car away from the traffic lights, only a lot louder and much worse.

The bloody Doberman had heard the Walla too and made a bolt for the front door — rope, barstool and all. The dragging barstool, one of those old, chrome plated jobbies from the ’50s, took out every bit of furniture between the lounge and the front door, before itself was trashed while being towed sideways through the jamb. The Black Demon Dog, with half a length of rope trailing, flashed past me on the footpath and made a huge leap, landing fair and square in its owner’s lap, yelping, “Hello master; I’ve missed you so much!”

Now, the Prez was either a fantastic rider, or was experienced controlling a foot-clutching, hand-shifting, 484 lb motorcycle with 30 kg of Doberman landing in his lap. Amazingly, he didn’t crash, bringing the unlikely ensemble to a safe stop outside Granny’s flat.

All was ending well for everyone, and the Prez (whose name was Barry, I think) said, “Listen, young fella, I’d like to give you a reward, but I’ve got no brass ‘til payday…”

My heart sank just a little — I wasn’t expecting a reward but the mere mention of the ‘R’ word got me wondering what may have been.

“But I figure you like your motorbikes,” he added, “so I brought you these…”

He hauled out about 100 or so magazines from both army-issue saddlebags. I was stunned. The mags were near complete sets of Cycle Guide and Cycle World all the way back to about 1962! I was gobsmacked. This was better than any shitty one dollar note reward; fair dink — back then, a lousy buck would barely cover the cost of packet of Peter Stuyvesants, a chocolate milkshake with double ice cream and meat pie with sauce, if that!

Those mags made me King of the Kids at school for a few weeks and I still own them now. More importantly, I got the good mail from the President of the Harley Club (the same Harley-Davidson Club of Australia that was later taken over by Bob Skol and his cohorts, who then took over Ozbike magazine, and… ahh, you know the rest; Skol’s name is still just inside the cover) that this, the mint condition, unrestored WLA I was looking at that night was the very last complete, good working order, Harley-Davidson machine on record sold by the Australian Army at one of their disposal auctions. Harley Club members had finally cleaned out the Army of all its last WLA Harleys, and while this one was a pearler, the others in that 1968 auction were more often the dregs. So no, according to the most credible source at the time, there were no Harleys in crates left.

Fast forward to more recent times, and a conversation I had with Johnno from Redfern Motorcycles (when they were still in Redfern).

According to Johnno, “I’ve been to a lot of army auctions with my dad, from when I was a real young bloke, and I’ve seen a lot of Harleys in my time, but I’ve never ever seen a brand new WLA in a crate or otherwise. I’ve had a few brand new motors still in their boxes pass through the shop, they were reasonably common, but never a complete bike.”

Now there’s a Harley authority I’d believe, and he’s put the kibosh on the rumours too.

At the army surplus auctions, Johnno and his dad Jack were usually the keenest bidders and often won most of the lots. The WLAs would head into the Redfern Motorcycles workshop and lose their olive drab army uniform, cop a fancy paint-job and a lick of chrome here and there. Hey Presto! Civilian Harleys for civilians.

While it seemed Redfern Motorcycles and the Harley Club had cornered the market on army Harleys, one of my Big Bro’s mates, Tosh, scored a refurbished Harley WLA from a private sale. He bought it for $650 from a bloke in Manly Vale, who in turn, had purchased it from the army. It last saw duty as a Military Police bike at the School of Artillery at North Head, had a metal-flake red paint job, chromed springer front-end, a little alloy front mudguard, ape-hangers and a sissy bar. It even starred with another Harley chopper and young, beautiful people in a tampon advert in magazines, so if you thought Harleys were only hip and trendy and appearing in tampon ads since the advent of the Evo model, you’d be wrong. Although this army Walla hadn’t ventured far from Manly for most of its life, its known history ceased one night when it was pinched from Parramatta.

However, let’s now jump through time again to 1976. I’m lying in a bed in South Wing 4 at Manly Hospital with a badly broken leg after smashing my AJS 500 big time. One of my fellow patients was an old biker named Bert (whose surname I’ll withhold). Bert was a ripper of a bloke. He was getting on in years, was in for an operation on a real bad back, and he was motorcycle mad; a lifelong biker like me. Bert was the man in charge of the Arnott’s Biscuits truck fleet, and he was a fastidious and very proud mechanic. When Bert ran the show, Arnott’s trucks were the cleanest, shiniest trucks in Sydney. The regal red and black colour scheme always shone as the trucks were washed every single day; all had chromed bumper bars and wheel nuts and they all displayed black and white personalised number plates from SA-000 to SA-099 (get it — ‘SAO’, as in Arnott’s SAO biscuits).

In one of our many conversations about motorbikes and the love thereof, Bert told me an incredible story. It was not long after World War II had finished, and Bert was still in the army. One of his jobs was to load trucks, cars, aircraft, motorbikes and a bulldozer onto a freighter, steam a number of miles off Sydney Heads and bulldoze unwanted war surplus army vehicles into the ocean and over the continental shelf. And yes, there were brand new Harley-Davidson 750 cc WLA models. And some of those were still in their packing crates.

This sort of ludicrous action made common sense back then. You see, all those war machines weren’t really owned by the Australian Army or the Australian Government, or even the poor old taxpayer. They were merely leased; supplied to Australia under a system called Lend Lease where major international money men, based in the United States, organised it so shit-kicking little countries like Australia could tool up with all the latest fightin’ gear and get involved in a really big war and then everyone’s happy. Yank manufacturers of weapons or military vehicles would get paid a certain price per unit to supply governments around the world so the war could keep bubbling along nicely, and US manufacturing could keep bubbling along nicely and everyone’s happier.

Of course, most of those war toys will be blown up, shot down or exploded during the course of the war, which, coincidentally, was started by, guess who? The major international money men who, of course, profit greatly while the war keeps going. The manufacturers get to sell many units, the army gets the vehicles on the never-never and war goes on. Oh, of course, there are many other clauses, like the shit-kicking little countries like Australia who gave a lot of land to the US for bases, and stuff, but that’s a whole other story. Most interesting to us is a neat little clause in the Lend Lease agreement that says: ‘At the cessation of hostilities, any surplus vehicles must be returned to the manufacturer or destroyed.’

That’s to prevent those same manufacturers going broke when the war is over, and no bastard wants to buy a new bike or car, as there is a million of them brand new and lying around painted green and doing nothing. Of course that would stifle demand.

So there was Bert bulldozing brand new, still-crated Harleys over the edge and into a watery grave. Now Bert, being a lover of all things motorcycle, could barely bring himself to do it, and with the help from some commanding officers who held the same views on the senseless destruction of Harleys, managed to spirit a few away from stores. Turns out it was quite a lot, actually, and had he done it in wartime, he would’ve been shot. But this was peacetime so it would’ve been only a court martialling and a lengthy stay in jail. Bert reckons his mum’s back yard in a harbourside Sydney suburb was stacked high with crates of brand new WLA Harleys which he was trying to unload to his mates — not selling for a profit, but giving them away for free, just to save them from destruction.

Bert reckons he got a first-hand and very practical demonstration of the basic economic law of supply and demand. Among his very select group of friends, he had saturated the market with free WLAs and literally couldn’t give the remainder away. “Sorry, old mate,” they’d tell him, “I’ve already got two new Harleys; I don’t have room for any more.”

It wasn’t as if Bert could advertise them for sale in the classifieds, as that was sure to bring the heat down on him, so he was very relieved when the last one finally went. He reckons once the crate was unloaded into his mate’s backyard workshop, the new Harley stayed inside the crate which then did its sterling duty as a way-too tall workbench.

So, I’m not going to rest my case just yet, Your Honour, but I reckon after what Bert told me, there’s still a chance that someone will eventually turn up a brand new WLA Harley still in the crate.

If anyone does, I just hope they take photos before they crack it open and go bush-bashing.

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