LATHAM — Just think of all the wonderful things you can do with a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle: Head out on the highway looking for adventure and, when you find it, use the bike to shield you from bullets.
That kind of stuff was in the field manual back when the 1942-era “WLA” Harley model, painted a rather drab yet surprisingly cool-looking shade of camouflage green, rolled off the Milwaukee production line destined for Army service.
It’s now standing at ease in the Latham workshop of Terry’s Custom, an emporium run by Terry Williams and dedicated to the painstaking resurrection of our two-wheeled motoring heritage.
Williams leaves no bolt unturned and knows pretty much everything about these bikes. He could probably field-strip and assemble one blindfolded while under fire, and is aware there’s a good chance these military machines, deployed throughout World War II, saw their share of action.
“One of the Army field manuals I have is describing how to come in on a slide, lay the bike down, get your gun out and use the bike for cover,” says Williams, 60. “The idea was you’d get down behind it while taking fire.”
The WLA model that fell under Williams’ loving hands was remarkably free of bullet holes but had taken heavy appearance casualties after it left the Army for Civvy Street. It was painted shiny black with lots of chrome do-dads and had been modernized in such a way as to be a full frontal assault in the eyes of the purist worshipping at the greasy altar of bike authenticity.
The machine actually had been discovered in a Herald & Review ad by its owner, Roger Harris. He runs the Harris Agricultural Museum in Atwood but has a soft spot for all things cool, old and mechanical and decided the Army-issue Harley would look good in his collection anyway.
“Well, these bikes are just scary hard to get,” Harris says. He knew Williams only by reputation but entrusted the machine to him and told him to remake it as it was in every detail.
“I also told him I wasn’t in a hurry,” Harris adds. “I didn’t have to have it tomorrow.”
Which was just as well: A quick three years later, his military machine is ready again to engage the enemies of freedom.
Its body and engine are back to factory specs, and every GI-issue detail is perfect. Williams had to junk various modern attachments as he replaced the lights, front fender and even the grill cover on the horn with period originals to match what would have been on there 71 years ago. A lot of the time lost in restoring the bike fell in the struggle to hunt parts as rare as hen’s teeth.
Modern wiring was scrapped in favor of other modern wiring that is covered in cloth insulation to look like the wires it had when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. An ancient oil-bath air cleaner was put back on to replace a more modern one, and new rawhide leather saddle bags were sewn along with a rawhide seat as wide as a punch bowl, all original spec stuff.
The hooded running lights are designed, basically, not to give off any light that would turn the motorcycle into a moving target. Riders do have the option of turning on a big headlight as well, but only if they depressed a special button first; activating the headlight by mistake while running messages near the front lines could also be hazardous to your health.
“I don’t want to be the guy that accidentally hits my headlight and gets us all shot,” Williams explains. “The taillights are also real dim.”
The maestro, who has been in the bike glorification business for 38 years, steps back to inspect his handiwork and pronounces it parade ground-ready.
His wife, Sandy, looks upon the drab green monster with the cooling fins of its 750cc motor bulging out the sides like metallic ribs but no chrome or ornament in sight and says this is one tough ride. “It’s a manly looking bike,” she adds.
The proof of any artist’s work is the pride and emotion he has wrapped up in the job, and the remilitarized Harley is in full command of her husband’s heart.
“I am going to hate to see it go,” he says. “I wish it were mine.”