Wandering the Hallowed Halls of the Harley-Davidson Museum and Factory
October 9, 2012
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Features: Bikes, Blokes, Culture and Beyond
I am old school, which may explain why I am lost. When you ride a Harley you don’t need no stinking GPS, no dang MapQuest, no thumbtwaddle smartphone. I rattle through the deserted, impersonal industrial section of Milwaukee in search of the Iron Horse Hotel. I pull over to ask directions from a guy wearing a faded gray Harley T-shirt, a Harley hat and a smile. He introduces himself. “I’m Michael Davidson. Willie G. is my father. I think I can help.” He said I had the look—someone on a motorcycle, wondering where he was and what happens next. He gave me directions, enjoying the moment, the unlikely coincidence. “You know Willie G. retired last week? He may still be hanging around the museum.”
Outside the museum, bikes begin to arrive for the weekly bash. Friends greet each other, gather in clusters and toss back dollar beers. Girls from the Brew City Bruisers roller derby team glide from group to group, handing out flyers. A DJ pumps out hard southern rock (what, no Debussy?). In a tiny corral, an instructor guides a petite Asian girl through the act of riding a stationary motorcycle. Shift. Gas. Let out the clutch. An industrial-strength fan cools the engine, but also provides a sense of wind in the face of freedom. Nearby another instructor shows a woman how to pick up a motorcycle five times heavier than she is.
Twenty steps into the museum there’s a picture of the founders blown up on a wall and rubbed smooth in odd places by people posing for photos. A stairwell to the second floor has a haunting shadow image of a motorcycle in mid flight, seemingly weightless. Above, somewhere out of sight, Evel Knievel’s motorcycle hangs suspended from the ceiling by wires, illuminated by spotlights. This shadow is an accident, like the face of Jesus appearing on a subway wall, or on a piece of toast. The company had recognized the accident, and said “keep it.” Magic. This is how myth is made. Harley casts a long shadow.
James Fricke, curator of the museum and our guide for the night, is manic expressive, apologetic for talking too much, because every time his eyes fall on something, he relives the joy of finding this or that artifact, the magic of recreating an era. He has access to miles of files and posters—memos written in clean penmanship; minutes of the first Board of Directors meeting; a memo directing staff to remove the AMF logo before applying the Harley decal; an ad based on a letter from the Sam Houston border patrol requesting six additional police bikes. You could strip this site of motorcycles and still have a monument to entrepreneurial spirit, a case study for the Harvard Business School.
A museum, I think, is like a magazine article you walk through.
The museum is a work of art, a cathedral, a sacred space. A long row of motorcycles, three abreast, acts as a timeline, drawing you deeper into it. The colors change from black, to the Silent Gray Fellow, to green. Beginning in 1915, Harley kept one motorcycle from the production line each year. The result, says Fricke, is the largest collection of original paint motorcycles in the world. They have a patina, the accumulation of passing time, though the odometers only register two to four miles from being wheeled around various warehouses.
Wandering, we spot the first teardrop tank, circa 1926. Fricke points out a 1906 side-valve V-twin police motorcycle, from Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time collection. We pass a section of boardtrack, tilted steeply, on which fly five boardtrack racers from the ’20s. These are vehicles that could reach 100 mph on banked, splintered tracks, bikes that carried the Wrecking Crew into battle, that built one aspect of the Harley legend when one racer always showed up with his pet pig—leading to the moniker HOG. The bikes are the gift of an unnamed donor. In the space beneath the track, monitors display films of actual races, posters, magazine covers. It is not enough to show the bike when you can reach back through the years, grab a whole chunk of time and recreate the moment, in room after room.
The first room is pure magic. In 1903, Arthur Davidson wrote to his brother Walter to say that they were working on a motorized bicycle. Fricke points to a single motorcycle, the 1905 serial number 1 bike. In all likelihood it’s not the first, but one whose body parts bear a metal stamp, #1. It sits on a light box set inside a rectangle of light, like one of those mystic symbols in an Indiana Jones film. Only this rectangle of light measures 10 x 15 feet, the size of the shack where the H-Ds assembled their first motorcycles. No foundry. No paint shop. All of that was available a few miles down the road, when Wisconsin was home to the metal specialists of America.
Almost on cue, Willie G., the white-haired guy in the beret, walks by trailing an entourage. Waving to Fricke he shouts, “I’m never leaving!”
We cross and find a wall of engines. I mouth the names. Knucklehead. Panhead. Shovelhead. The rosary beads of generations of American rebels. Then a wall of gas tanks, each a different color, each with a different logo. Frick points out the core “outside the box” attitude of Harley.
“The company broke the number-one rule of branding. They changed the logo, repeatedly. Imagine Coke doing that?”
Harley respects the impact of artists who have appropriated the brand. There are loving recreations of the Easy Rider bikes, another display of Captain America’s bike, the Evel Kneivel stunt bike (with a glass case housing E.K.’s X-rays). A monitor runs clips from biker movies—Bruce Dern reading from the Harley service manual; Peter Fonda trying to inspire the pack with a speech about, “All we want is to ride our machines without being hassled by the man.” A clip shows Michael Parks atop a Sportster in Then Came Bronson. The images flicker, in the corner of the eye, in our collective memory.
In a back room, pulled from a recent exhibit, is Elvis Presley’s 1956 KH Harley. Fricke runs down the provenance, ticking off the receipts (the bike was paid off in installments), the leather jacket bought from J.C. Penney’s—and tells what it was like to work with Alfred Wertheimer whose photograph captured Elvis looking somewhat downcast, framed by the handlebars and tank. Moody artist? No, Wertheimer told Fricke, Elvis had tried to start the bike and realized it was out of gas.
The informal tour lasts three hours, sucking the life out of camera batteries, assaulting the senses. We enter the archive, moving past a sign that says, “Restricted Area. Staff Only. Violators will be sent to Reform School.” Bikes stacked nine to a rack, like shelves in a library. Press a button and the racks move aside, showing bike after bike. “Oh look, there’s an Ironhead over here leaking oil.” We stroll past racks of early motorcycle magazines, with ads and articles that restorers would kill for.
On a wall there’s a quote from Willie G: Form follows function. Both report to emotion.
I am completely drained. I could spend a week in the museum and still want more.
Day Two—The Steel Toe Tour
At the Pilgrim Road Powertrain Operations facility, a woman behind the counter hands us steel-toe protective thingies. We go through the expected clogging and tap shoe jokes, then enter a factory the size of 19 football fields. We wear listening devices and earplugs. We walk between yellow lines, the sidewalk of safety extending half a mile ahead of us. In this place, 750 separate pieces of metal are fashioned into the powerplant that is the soul of all Harleys. Slugs of gray steel come into the factory and are put on trays, to be plucked and shaped by robotic machines. What was it Michelangelo said? I look at a piece of stone and take away everything that does not belong. Blocks of steel are lathed, shaped, heated, annealed. Metal curls, falls into baskets—24 tons of aluminum and 27 tons of steel are hauled away each year and recycled. What remains, you put between your legs, twist your wrist and ride.
At the first stop, we watch Colleen monitor the assembly of rotors and stators, the cementing of metal rectangles inside a circle, the wrapping of wire around stators. John, our guide, says, “Colleen’s fingerprints are on every motor that leaves the factory.”
John asks, “What are you paying for when you buy a Harley?” He holds up the blade and fork connecting rods of V-twins. The metal source of that potato potato sound, the percussion that has driven 110 years of Harley obsession, something the company tried to trademark. Furnaces anneal and temper the metal, changing the color. We learn the vocabulary of steel. Gray. Silver. Blue. Witness the tools that coax bend from brittle. “Steel that can be carved is not strong enough to go into a bike.”
I watch robots machine gears. Straight cuts, says John, give first gear that “clunk of confidence.” The middle gears switch to helical cuts. Fourth and fifth gears reverse the slant, to give that particular thrill of acceleration. These are wizards working their magic in heated steel, mechanically constructing the music box that is Harley.
The engine is old school; the plant is not. Eyeballs, living and electric, examine every piece of metal. Computers count the number of screw turns at every step of engine assembly. Repeat inspections detect the occasional flaw, keeping them from the showroom floor.
We hand in our earpieces and steel toes, and consider the souvenirs. A vending machine offers T-shirts, pens and postcards, lighters, all bearing the H-D bar and shield.
Before all of this, Chris Urban, manager, core customer marketing, told us that he wanted us to experience the soul of the brand. Harley wants the journalists in our group to take away one message. The company listens to customers. To riders.
“First of all there is the iron. Harley owners say they are attracted to the quality, the price—but it’s the intangible—the emotion, the passion, the desire. The museum is stuffed with emotion. Harley is more than the iron, the leather. It is a community, a touchstone, a heritage.”
(This article The Pilgrimage: Wandering the Hallowed Halls of the Harley-Davidson Museum and Factory was published in the October 2012 issue of Rider Magazine.)