Phat-Phat: A reincarnation of Harley Davidson

From a wartime bike to public transport

By Heritage Transport Museum

Heritage Transport Museum

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

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.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

On display at the Museum is a modified Harley Davidson from 1954, decorated in traditional Indian motifs prevalent during that era.

Operation Overlord (1944-06-06) by WallGetty Images

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.

Child & Adult on Harley Davidson (1920)Heritage Transport Museum

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.

By Loomis DeanLIFE Photo Collection

So what happened to all those war Harleys?

Scrap Metal Farm (1948-11) by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

In the US and Europe, most of them were sold as surplus. Sold cheaply, these bikes led to the rise of the ‘chopper’ and ‘biker’ culture, where they were modified.

Black Bike Riders (1971-08) by John ShearerLIFE Photo Collection

A few WLAs in their original form survived. Many were left behind in the former Soviet Union, where they were preserved during the Cold War era.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

In India, the Harley-Davidson WLA got a fancy new avatar and a new lease of life. It was transformed into a public transport vehicle rambling on crowded Delhi streets, ferrying daily passengers across the city.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

The motorcycles front part and the engine was attached to a bright rear passenger-carrier covered with an umbrella, often painted in some bright hues.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

Harley Davidson WLA Motorcycles ended up in the capital city of India as colourful motor-rickshaws. Also called the ‘Phatphatis’, these were not just another form of transportation, but became a part of Delhi's nouveau culture.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

Somewhere along the journey, the Phat-Phat was redesigned to seat six to eight passengers. In reality though, these were seen ferrying at least ten passengers. If circumstances and size permitted, the enterprising drivers would have two more passengers sharing their own seat.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

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.”

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

Phat-Phats survived for four decades. The final blow came when the Supreme Court of India passed a verdict stating that polluting vehicles had to go off Delhi’s roads. Phat-Phats then became a piece of history.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

The Phat-Phat displayed at the Heritage Transport Museum has been painted by a Pakistani artist keeping the tone and design close to the original decoration.

Phat-Phat at Heritage Transport Museum

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

Details of the decoration

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

The traditional Jhalar (decorative covering) on the Phat-Phat is also similar to the Phat-Phats used in early 1950s.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

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.

PhatphatHeritage Transport Museum

Credits: Story

Mr. Tarun Thakral
Mr. Vivek Seth
Dr. Shashi Bala
Ms. Ragini Bhat

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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