Big Dog, Harley-Davidson and Wild West; V-twin Manufacturing Spotlight
May 5, 2006
Filed under Motorcycle Features: Bikes, Blokes, Culture and Beyond
[Big Dog, Harley-Davidson and Wild West; V-twin Manufacturing Spotlight was originally published in American Rider magazine]
From little quark-sized mom-and-pop shops that build one or two at a time; to small molecular-level construction shops that make one or two hundred a year; to medium-size solar-system companies making 5,000 units; to the galaxy of all companies making a seemingly infinite numberof motorcycles—Harley-Davidson. Here’s a look at three different sizes of V-twin manufacturers.
We begin our exploration of the V-twin universe with a small molecular-level shop: Wild West. Wild West’s story is much like many start up V-twin operations, beginning in a garage and developing into a small plant that employs 17 people, all very dedicated to and proud of the company and its product. The company has never sought out side capital. It’s one of those great American success stories, pulling itself up by its own boot straps.
The company’s owner, Paul Seiter, began building custom bikes 10 years ago when he was 25. At that time he had customers in Japan who bought everything he could make. Seiter developed his ideas and focused on a single well-engineered product. Eventually he began offering his bikes to the domestic market. Only a couple of models are offered, and they share the same design philosophy. Most of the engineering is done in-house by Seiter himself on software that’s used by the top design companies in the world. Wild West builds its own fuel-tank tooling in-house to better control styling and quality. The machines are, like many of those from the small V-twin makers, a little more unconventional and refreshingly unique.
Some of the technical features include a frame that holds the engine’s 2.5 quart oil supply and a single rear vertical shock, which allow a low, 21-inch seat height.There’s also a rear carbon-fiber fender that can support 800 pounds and boasts inter-nal struts; and a proprietary single-riser handle bar housing the electronic instruments.Each hand made machine is assembled by a single technician. Wild West built about 100 units in 2004,about 150 in 2005, and it plans to build 200 units for 2006. Its current 16,080-square-foot facility has a capacity of 600 units annually. Wild West seems to be solid, well organized, and capable of vast expansion.
One company that stands out as a good example of a medium-size solar-system level manufacturer in the V-twin universeis Big Dog. It produces about 5,000 units annually. Big Dog’s growth, as well as its solid foundation, has been a great benefit to the industry.By growing to its larger size, it has left space in the industry for smaller com-panies like Wild West—and this has lead to diversity. The company has shown that one man with a vision and the ability to manage well can succeed as a small motorcycle supplier. Sheldon Coleman, the company’s founder and CEO,began with the notion that he could build a better V-twin. Guided by a conservative philosophy ofsustainable growth, the company now has a solid dealer base and distribution network. Big Dog uses the production-line method—the bikes roll along an assembly line—rather than the single-craftsman assembly of Wild West. Each method has its own pros and cons; the key element is the ability to maintainquality. Big Dog pursues quality relentlessly, somethingthat does note scape notice of its largely contented dealers.
The Motor Company
In a galaxy far, far, away. . .Harley-Davidson operates a half-dozen major manufacturing facilities around the country. There are two final assembly plants in York, Pennsylvania; two engine plants in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area; a sub-assembly plant in Tomahawk, Wisconsin; and a Kansas City, Missouri, facility that makes both engines and complete motorcycles. And this doesn’t even count Harley’s ultra-modern Product Development Center or its six-story headquarters on Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee. We visited Kansas Citybecause it’s the newstand most diverse of any Harley plant. Kansas City makes 40 percent of all Harleys. In addition to all final assem-bly of Sportster and Dyna Glide models,the plant makes VRSC engines and assembles all V-Rod models including the CVO. This one plant alone outproduces all other V-twin makers on the planet (not counting Harley’s other facilities). It has nearly 1,000 employees working under a 350,000-square-foot roof and it consumes 10,000 gallons of paint per year. The Kansas City plant is its own community with a wellness center and miles of walking trails; nearly half of theworkers are minorities or women. And that’s just one plant. Over at Capitol Drive in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, 650 workers build 80,000 Sportster and Buell engines a year in a 355,000-square-foot facility. The Big Twin engine and gearbox plant over on Pilgrim Road is even bigger. After visiting Wild West and Big Dog, awalk through the celestial Kansas City facility inspires awe. Sportsters and Dynaspop out of here at the rate of about oneevery six minutes; one V-Rod every five minutes. And this is only one small constellation in the Harley cosmos; the two otherfinal assembly plants in York more than a million square feet—crank out the other 60 percent of Harley’s bikes.