European Motorcycles

Today in Motorcycle History

Military Motorcycles

Armed Forces of the Great War, Spanish Civil War, Interwar Period, Second World War, Postwar Era


Viewed as a near failure in the eyes of the War Office in 1936, this model was ultimately to evolve into perhaps the most illustrious and longest serving model in the history of British military motorcycling, not to mention becoming the most numerous type produced for the War Office itself.

The vast majority of BSA M20 models delivered were employed by the War Department (Army), although smaller quantities were also used by both the Admiralty (Navy) and the Air Ministry (RAF). The RAF was issued with quantities of Swallow sidecar combinations, and many of of the smaller M20 model contracts throughout the Second World War specified sidecar-lugs for the frame, generally removed from all the larger contracts, which were specifically solo only.

Although intended as a general-purpose motorcycle for convoy escort and long-distance communications duties, due to the sheer number supplied the model was employed ultimately in every theatre of war and for every imaginable purpose, whether suitable or not. It is perhaps for this reason that the model is the one best remembered by and familiar to most ex-servicemen.

Desert colours: khaki brown was used on most North African theatre machines

BSA M20 Military History and Specifications

Winston Churchill's James ML

Italian models used in WWII

Motocarro Benelli 500
Motocarro portamitraglia Guzzi "TriAlce" 500cc
Motocarrozzetta Gilera "Marte" 500cc
Motocarrozzetta Guzzi "Alce"
Motocicletta Benelli 37 250cc
Motocicletta Benelli 40 500cc
Motocicletta Bianchi 500M
Motocicletta Frera 250cc
Motocicletta Gilera "Saturno" 500cc
Motocicletta Gilera LTE 500
Motocicletta Guzzi "Alce" 500cc
Motocicletta Sertum 250cc
Motocicletta Sertum 500cc
Volugrafo Paratrooper

Frera circa 1915 Military

One of the countless Frera motorcycles equipped with mitragliatrice supplied to the Royal Italian Army.

Frera was the largest supplier of motorcycles in the First World War.

Una delle innumerevoli motociclette Frera dotata di mitragliatrice di cui il Regio Esercito Italiano disponeva. Infatti, la Frera e stata il maggiore fornitore di motociclette del REI nella Prima Guerra Mondiale.

Gilera LTE 500

Production years: 1937-1945
Power: 12 CV a 3800 rpm
Capacity: 498cc
Engine: single-cylinder, four stroke, side valve
Transmission: chain drive, four speed gearbox.
Maximum speed: 85 km/h
Weight: 202 Kg approx.

Moto Guzzi GT 17

Manufactured: 1932-1939
Production: 4810 Units
Engine: Single cylinder horizontal OHV, unit construction, bore and stroke 88 x 82 mm, 498.4cc
Transmission: Three-speed gearbox, multi-disc clutch, primary and final drive by chain.
Tyres: front and rear 3.50 x 19
Length: 1520 mm

The GT17 was the first military motorcycle built at Mandello del Lario. It was produced in single seat and two seater versions, the latter having the fuel tank situated further forwards and higher to allow the rider saddle to be moved forwards allowing room for the pillion and a better centre of gravity.

Used by Italian companies during the Spanish Civil War, some of these machines were equipped with a Breda machine gun operated by the rider of the solo machines. It was also employed by the Milizia della Strada (military traffic police) and saw service in Africa during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936).

Moto Guzzi Airone 250cc Militare

In addition to the olive green model for the Carabinieri, there was a delightful blue one for the air force, the Aereonautica Militare.

Ignition: Magneti Marelli type MCR 4-G with automatic advance
Bevel Gear ratios 3.46: 1 (13-45).
Dry Weight 150 kg

Moto Guzzi Superalce

Superalce italiano

Bersaglieri italiano

French Military Motorcycles

Solo motorcycles:
Peugeot P107 and P122
Terrot HSTA and HAD
Gnôme & Rhône Major and Supermajor

Cross-country solo motorcycles:
Terrot RATT and RDTT
Gnôme & Rhône and Motobécane D5A
Simca-Sevitame B
Peugeot TT112

Side-car combinations:
Terrot RDA
Monet-Goyon L5A1
René Gillet K1 and G1
René Gillet Type L1
Gnôme & Rhône XA
Gnôme & Rhône AX2
Terrot VATT

The French army also employed a number of imported motorcycles:
Royal Enfield 350
Ariel 350
Velocette 350
Triumph 500
Indian 340B sidecar
Gillet-Herstal 373

Gnome et Rhone AX2

Produced 1938 to 1945

1st serial number: 160001

Colour: army green (with various shades depending on the regiments) or gendarmerie blue

This vehicle was strictly reserved for the military authorities. The motorcycle uses the stamped metal frame inspired by the other models of the range (fork with Neiman rings). The sidecar wheel was driven except on the first models.

The engine is a side-valve 800 cc flat twin fitted with a four-speed gear box. Power is transmitted to the rear wheel by drive shaft and conical torque, and the sidecar wheel is directly driven by the final drive unit. One engages the gear by the means of a pedal coupled with a hand lever, and the rotating throttle handle is coupled to a hand throttle for off-road use. The dog clutch is operated by a pedal.

A five-speed gearbox version with reverse gear was also available.


Marcel Violet and Achille Vincent designed an amphibious motorcycle for the French Military.

In 1938 tests were carried out in Normandy where the motorcycle crossed muddy potholes as deep as 40 cm, navigated without difficulty a course which included craters and ditches designed for testing tanks and other tracked vehicles, and towed a disabled automobile.

The Simca factory in Nanterre was commissioned to build 3,000 motorcycles.

The Sevitame had a 314cc two-stroke engine (62 x 52 mm), and was an inverted in-line twin (with the crankshaft above the cylinders in similar fashion to the Tiger Moth), cooled by eight litres of oil, and with 4 speed transmission via clutch to a cardan shaft driving crown and pinion gears. The assembly could be dismantled in a few minutes by withdrawing only four bolts. The engine could be used as an outboard engine by attaching a propeller to the PTO.


Shaft Drive

Examples include BMW, Zundapp and Velocette LE Cardan drive eliminates chain and associated mess and maintenance. Often referred to as a "diff", the final drive unit consists of bevel crown and pinion gears.

Sevitame Military Motorcycles


Zündapp KS750 Sidecar Combination

Arguably the best motorcycle in use during the Second World War, this powerful machine sported a four-speed gearbox driven by a horizontally opposed twin 'boxer' engine. It was designed as a sidecar machine and quickly became the German army's preferred choice.

HO Twin

Horizontally Opposed Twin

Examples include BMW, Zundapp and Douglas HO Twins have conrods running on a common crank, with one on the exhaust stroke and the other on inlet.

Armament typically consisted of an MG 34 machine gun affixed to the sidecar, but it was often seen with other weaponry.

It had remarkable performance cross-country and on unmade (and often ruined) roads, as it could climb a slope of 45 degrees and could cross streams up to 44cm (17in) deep - though there are plenty of photos of them in merde a lot deeper than that.

The remarkably sophisticated war machine was fitted with hydraulic brakes on the rear and sidecar wheel, and the sidecar wheel was driven. In addition to the four forward speeds, the gearbox had a reverse gear. The differential to the sidecar drive could be locked for heavy going, or left in free-wheel.

The Germany army used the bike on all fronts, from North Africa to Northern Italy, Eastern Europe to Sebastopol and the frozen wastes to Russia and Finland, where it was employed by both sides during the Lapland conflict.

Power: 26 HP
Capacity: 750 c.c.
Engine: Twin cylinder boxer
Transmission: Cardan, 4 speed gearbox with reverse.


Shaft Drive

Examples include BMW, Zundapp and Velocette LE Cardan drive eliminates chain and associated mess and maintenance. Often referred to as a "diff", the final drive unit consists of bevel crown and pinion gears.

Maximum speed: 95 Km/h
Weight: 420 Kg with sidecar

Zündapp K800

Production years: 1933-1938
Power: 22 hp at 4,300rpm
Capacity: 800cc
Engine: Horizontally opposed four cylinder, four stroke,
Transmission: 4-speed, hand-shift
Maximum speed: 70mph
Weight: 171 Kg (without sidecar)

The Zundapp K800 was announced in 1933, as were the factory's other K-series motorcycles which ranged in engine sizes from 200cc to 800cc. The K800 displays innovative features including a unit construction horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine with shaft drive.

Many of these Zundapp motorcycles saw service during World War II, often as sidecar combinations, and were the only four cylinder machines to be employed by the German military.

Zündapp K500 & K500W

Production years: 1933-1940 (K500W - 1934-1939)
Power: 16hp (civilian - 12.5hp) @4800rpm, opposite SV 2-cyl, 4-stroke 498cc
Capacity: 498 c.c.
Engine: SV, four stroke, bore/stroke: 69 x 66.6mm
Transmission: 4speed, Cardan
Crown & pinion ratios: Solo - 5.57 (7:39), Sidecar - 6.33 (6:38)
Weight: 188 kg
Max speed: 105 km/h (K500W solo 100 km/h, with sidecar 85 km/h)
Tyres: 3.50 or 4.00 x 19 inches
Fuel tank capacity: 12.5 Litres

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