From a wartime bike to public transport
This is the story of how one of the most iconic bikes of the Second World War era became a mode of public transport in the heart of India’s capital. Imagine a Harley Davidson bike accommodating 10 people! Well, that’s what a little “Indian Jugaad” (innovation) can do. Popularly called as Phat-Phat because of the bike’s loud exhaust sound, Harley Davidson bikes mass produced during the Second World War were modified into public vehicles accommodating up to nearly a dozen passengers! Though its run on the road was short lived, the Phat-Phat left a heritage behind and probably inspired a slew of such innovative vehicles to be made and run on Indian roads.
Phat-Phat is modelled from Harley Davidson’s WLA motorcycles, which were manufactured during the Second World War. In the years leading to the War, Harley Davidson Motorcycle Company was unionized and received a contract to manufacture a variant of the civilian bike for the United States Army.
It is speculated that in the Model WLA 'W' is taken from the earlier model ‘W’ bikes. WLA uses the same 45 cubic inch, side valve engine, introduced in 1937 and first used on the Model W bikes. The letter 'L' stands for High Compression. 'A' indicates a model developed for Army use.
During the Second World War, the WLA motorcycle symbolized reliability and was used in massive numbers. It is estimated that Harley Davidson manufactured as many as 70,000 WLA bikes during the War. For its considerable participation and excellence in production, the Harley Davidson Motorcycle Company received the Army-Navy "E" Award in 1943. At the award ceremony the Harley Davidson workers were called the "Soldiers of the Production Line."
However, with the advancement of communication technology post Second World War, these bikes became redundant for military use.
Being open on all sides, Phat-phats immediately became a feasible option as a vehicle fit for sight-seeing. It soon became a favourite with tourists in and around Delhi’s Red Fort area. Even office goers are said to have taken a fancy to this open-air vehicle. According to old- timers “it was delight to travel from Regal to Red Fort route in this vehicle.”
Heritage Transport Museum is proud to possess and showcase this invaluable piece of art and transport heritage. It embodies the romance of travelling in innovative and crowded public transport modes in India. It is a reminder of the roar only a Harley Davidson engine can make. The roar might have now been silenced, but you can almost feel the ‘Phat-Phat’ Harley Davidson thump at the Heritage Transport Museum.
These were last seen on crowded road of Daryaganj, Delhi.
Mr. Tarun Thakral
Mr. Vivek Seth
Dr. Shashi Bala
Ms. Ragini Bhat