Last Updated on 08/04/2021
The 1940s were a turbulent time for motorcycle manufacturers.
On one hand motorcycles were evolving into faster, more reliable and capable machines and then on the other World War II was consuming the world and bikes were being built to go to the war efforts.
Following the war, manufacturers hit the ground running and picked up where they left off pre-1939 and developed some of their most exciting motorcycles that would go on to revolutionise motorcycling and provide a springboard for other future classics.
So, let’s have a look at 11 classic 1940s motorcycles.
The BSA Bantam was first designed not wholly by the British marque, but actually by the German DKW manufacturer pre-war. DKW was taken over by the Allies as part of the reparations after the war, BSA, Harley Davidson, Yamaha were among the other marques to benefit from this and all created bikes based off the DKW RT125 designs.
BSA flipped the engine design which in turn moved the shifter and kickstarter over to the right side and British electrics were added.
The first D1 Bantam released in 1948 had 58mm stroke and 52mm bore which displaced 123cc. It was a unit construction, single cylinder, 2-stroke, with a 3 speed gearbox and it was considered very modern for the time.
The Bantam had a second gear selector that had a reputation for being weak and breaking. The center stand was also known to be weak and the British electrics caused endless issues throughout the life of the Bantam.
The BSA Bantam was instantly popular around the world, it was tough and rugged enough to withstand most road conditions, but handled well, brakes were good and it was comfortable, even cruising at 50mph.
If you want to get hold of one today, Bantams are on the cheaper end of the classic market, priced from $1,000-$4,000.
Ariel W/NG 350
It’s 1939 and the Brits needed a war bike that could withstand anything that was thrown at it. There were two models presented to the British War Ministry, Norton presented the 16H and Ariel the W/NG 350.
Norton left the meeting victorious, but after the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, most of the 16H models had to be left behind. So Ariel took its chance and mass produced the W/NG 350.
The bike was based off the Ariel Red Hunter from 1932 which was designed by Ariel’s Chief Designer Val Page, who is undoubtedly one of the most important motorcycle designers in history.
It was a 346cc OHV 4-stroke engine that delivered 17HP. Ariel increased the ground clearance for the military bike and modified internal and external components to make it most suitable for its purpose. Crankcase, gearbox, timing-cover and chain case cover were all made from pressed steel as opposed to light-alloys that donned civilian Ariel models.
The W/NG 350 remained in production until 1945, it is said close to 40,000 of these bikes were used by the British armed forces throughout the war.
Today if you wanted a vehicle with serious wartime history you may be able to pick up one of these for between £3,000-£4,000 but they do not come on the market very often and certainly not outside of the U.K.
Douglas T35 (Mark I) and Mark III
Following the war many manufacturers went straight back to their late 30’s designs and just updated them. Douglas however, decided a brand new radical design was the way to go about things and that fresh approach birthed the T35 in 1947.
It was a modern motorcycle through and through with its “Radiadraulic” front suspension and transverse-mounted, unit construction 350cc twin engine. The bike’s swing arm rear suspension was controlled by torsion bars.
Britain had grown accustomed to Khaki paintwork or muted colors throughout the war effort so Douglas’ blue, black and chrome design was strikingly attractive. It was capable of 70mph and returned 60 miles per gallon.
The Mark II title was never dedicated and instead the T35 was demoted behind the Mark III in 1948. It offered two versions Mark III De Luxe or the Sports version. They featured redesigned cylinder heads and re-positioned spark plugs.
It wasn’t the fastest 350cc engine for the time but it was reliable, great handling and a real step forward for motorcycle ingenuity following the brutal impact of WWII.
There are a fair few Douglas T35 and Mark III examples for sale, mostly in the U.K and Europe with price from £3,500-£5,500.
The Ducati Cucciolo stands out in the list of 1940s motorcycles as it wasn’t really a motorcycle. It was a bicycle with an engine so it sort of fits the remit, so, in my book it is well worth a mention.
Midway through the war, Aldo Leoni and Aldo Farinelli developed a prototype auxiliary engine which was designed to fit on a bicycle, they called this the Cucciolo.
The Cucciolo had a 4-stroke cycle and two-speed gearbox which allowed the most power to be released from the small engine. Initially the engine was created by SIATA and produced in the newly built Via Leonardo da Vinci plant in Turin. It was presented at the Turin show in July 1945 and was met with a brilliant response.
In the end SIATA couldn’t process the staggering demand for the T1 engine and so Ducati saw their opportunity and stepped in.
Ducati was already a renowned brand in its own right and saw an opportunity to expand its popularity by buying the manufacturing rights to the Cucciolo. By 1946 ten of the first Type 1 engines for Ducati were built under license from SIATA and following shortly after Ducati had the original Type 2 design built and ready to go.
The model was sturdy, efficient and the frame was backbone which was ahead of its time. A luggage rack was fitted, suspension flexible, cylinder was redesigned to be removable and access improved for the drive. Power was also increased and a sport version released with a top speed of 60km/h. The engine was renowned also for its fuel efficiency with an estimated 100km for 1 litre of fuel.
From 1947-48 production was 240 units per day. 1948 saw a new engine design for the T3 and by 1949, a new tubular frame was built with rear suspensions, the Cucciolo was looking like a true motorbike and by the end of 1949 the blueprint was in place for the dawn of the Ducati 60.
Today if you are looking for a Ducati Cucciolo you can expect to pay between €2,000-€4,000 with nearly all examples being in Italy and a few across mainland Europe.
The Ducati 60 produced in 1949, was the first motorcycle that Ducati ever produced with its predecessor being the Cucciolo. It was lightweight, so light in fact it could be carried into your home for safe keeping.
It was targeted for a female audience but its lightweight of 45kg and impressive mileage of 164 mpg made the bike suitable for any rider, anywhere.
The frame was designed by Gian Luigi Capellino who had collaborated on similar frames including the T3 Cucciolo with Caproni. The engine was a 60cc version of the Cucciolo engine, it had a 3-speed gearbox, shift pedal and the rocker arms were protected by an aluminium cover.
The bike had a 60cc air-cooled 4-stroke, OHV pullrod single that generated 2.25HP at 5,000rpm and a max speed of 37mph.
Being the first true motorcycle produced by Ducati it is a coveted classic and you can expect to pay today between $3,500-$12,500 depending upon condition of the bike.
Many of the 1940s motorcycles were built purely for the war effort. In America Indian Motorcycles were called forward along with Harley Davidson to do their bit. Indian produced the government-spec 500cc Model 741 and a military version of the 750cc Sport Scout called the Model 640B.
However, they couldn’t quite stand up to the bikes that were being used by German forces that were notably the best military motorcycles in the world using flat-twin engines. These boxer engines combined with shaft drives, were just as capable lugging a sidecar as they were riding solo, across sand or muddy fields they could tackle most terrain with ease.
Late in 1941, the U.S government issued orders to Harley and Indian, they would be given $350,000 each to build 1,000 shaft drive, sidevalve twins for testing.
Indians responded with the Model 841 – War Horse. A 745cc air-cooled flathead 90° V-twin that had 25HP, a top speed of 70mph and weighed in at 528lbs.
It had a very low compression engine at just 5.1:1 this was so it could run on low octane fuel. The bike was very heavy and power was as a result insufficient, increasing the compression ratio did largely solve this issue.
Harley Davidson offered up the XA that was a modified version of the WLA that was already in production for military use. The bike had a reverse-engineered BMW R71 engine, transmission and shaft drive. Harley engineers knew the R71 powertrain was doing well in North Africa where the war was raging so they went with what they knew would work, it was a safe bet.
Indian designed a simple girder fork for the front suspension and plungers on the back which was an upgrade over and above Harley’s hardtail WLA.
In the end though after testing and evaluation neither of Indian or Harleys offerings were taken up by the U.S military and no further orders were placed for either model.
With only 1,000 Indian 841 Models ever built they are not the easiest to get hold of on the classic used market, and you can expect to pay between $15,000-$25,000.
The Honda D-Type is another 1940s motorcycle on the list that was the first fully fledged motorcycle for a manufacturer.
By 1997 it was recorded that Honda had produced more than a hundred million motorcycles, by 2019 this exceeded 400 million. It all began however in August 1949 with the ‘Dream’ that had a 98cc engine. Even those at Honda don’t know who called the D-Type the ‘Dream’ but it essentially came about by the D-type being the bike that fulfilled the company’s dream of becoming a motorcycle manufacturer.
The most revolutionary point of the D-type was that it no longer used a hand operated clutch lever. It was based around the C-Type but it carried the look of a motorcycle and no longer looked like a bicycle with an auxiliary engine.
The model also received a channel frame made of pressed steel plate, which made it stand out against all other steel tube frames being manufactured in Japan at the time. The D-type also stood out thanks to its maroon paint scheme which defied the market expectations of all motorcycles being painted black. The bike stood out from the crowd and sales were good from the get go.
However, great sales didn’t last too long as the economy was hit with a recession as after effects from the war. Sluggish sales also were in part due to the very revolutionary aspect of the D-type itself, its lack of hand operated clutch.
The bike had been marketed as a bike for anybody to ride, and part of that was not being put off by the complexities of using a clutch. The foot lever would operate the bikes 1st, 2nd and neutral gears. If you were riding uphill you need to keep the foot lever compressed to remain in 1st. People were just not ready to accept this semi-automatic type clutch system and it clashed with what was deemed a true motorcycle.
I was unable to find any Dream D-Types for sale today or even an example of a price point. They are clearly coveted as Honda’s first motorcycle and I wouldn’t expect them to be cheap, further to this they were only produced for 2 years and so there very well not be very many that have survived.
1947 was the first year of production for a civilian Matchless G80 following the war. It was an air-cooled OHV 497cc single engine that delivered 23HP and had a top speed of 80mph.
It still had the rigid frame of the bikes from before the war, but it had updated Teledraulic telescopic front forks which were taken from the wartime G3/L. These forks were shared with many other models and brands under the parent-company of AMC.
Fuel in Britain was of poor quality so most British car and motorcycle manufacturers produced vehicles with low compression ratios and so it was with the G80.
The rear suspension was taken off Velocette (another brand under AMC) for the 1949 G80, it was a swing arm suspension set-up that used 2 vertical shock absorbers. They were so thin they were referred to as “Candlesticks”.
You can expect to find a Matchless G80 for around £4,000, they are mainly only to be found in the U.K.
The Norton line up before WWII consisted of high performance bikes of all single-cylinder machines, in side-valve, OHV and SOHV varieties. However, for the war effort they were commissioned to produce the toned down somewhat primitive side valve Norton 16H. They produced 100,000 of these units.
The 16H’s history went as far back as 1911. James Norton entered his Model 16 into the Isle of Man TT but failed to place, however, in 1912 on a revised version he went on to win and set three world records.
In 1921 the model 16H was put into production and along with other models, Norton established a reputation for reliability and capable machines for all types of riding.
When called upon to prepare for the impending war, the tried and tested 16H was the bike that would be modified into the War Department 16H and was equipped with a higher frame for extra ground clearance.
The WD16H had the 490cc side-valve single cylinder engine, heavy duty forks, steel trials type foot pegs, sports tires and it was painted army issue olive green. It had a top speed of 68mph, and weighed in at 388lbs.
A great deal of the 100,000 units produced went on to be sold across Europe as military surplus following the war and many were turned into civilian bikes by changing the blacked out military issue lights and paint schemes etc.
The 16H saw a rebirth as a civilian model in 1947 and it was still as popular as it had ever been. The bikes were indestructible and more reliable than most of the competition, it remained in production until 1954.
You can pick up a pre-war or war-time Norton 16H today for between £15,000-£20,000. A post-war model can be purchased around the £5,000 mark.
Another influential Norton was the Dominator which was introduced in 1949. It was set to directly compete with the Triumph Speed Twin and it was Norton’s entry into the vertical-twin market.
The Dominator was designated the added title of Model 7. It was a good looking motorcycle, the new engine was a non-unit construction vertical-twin. It had been designed by Bert Hopwood who had also worked for Triumph on the Speed Twin project.
It was a 497cc vertical twin with 360° crank.
The ES2 frame was built to host a single cylinder, it was hand-built and costly, but that was the frame selected for the new engine. It was primitive, with a plunger rear suspension instead of a modern swing arm set-up.
It would be a few years before the infamous Featherbed frame was designed by Norton which would go on to revolutionise their line-up and turn them into real road warriors and high performing machines.
Early original Norton Dominator’s can be bought for between $4,500-$8,500. It is, however, easier to find the early models in the U.K as opposed to the U.S, later models with the Featherbed frame are easier to get hold of in the U.S.