105 Years in the Making: The Harley-Davidson Museum

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Glenn Roberts
November 1 2008

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, best known for beer, bratwurst, baseball and, of course, bikes. Harley-Davidson bikes to be exact.

The city that played host to hundreds of thousands of Harley riders from around the globe five years ago did it all over again on the August 2008 long weekend to celebrate the 105th birthday of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Not to shadow such an achievement of being 105 years old, the weekend also marked the 25th anniversary of Buell Motorcycles and the Harley Owners Group, better known as HOG, and the opening of the Harley-Davidson Museum.

With only five years separating the 105th from the centenary of the Motor Company, I wondered how many riders would attend the celebration. I didn’t really know what to expect having missed the one hundredth anniversary of those humble beginnings in a 10 x 15 foot shed in 1903. I did expect it to be well attended, but I was blown away at just how well attended it actually was.

I can’t think of any other company, in any other industry, in the world that could pull off an extravaganza like this. Then again, how many of the world’s companies have such a dedicated fan base that would wear the Bar and Shield logo on their skin for the rest of their life. To have a party this big, and attract riders from around the globe, every five years is mind-boggling. I saw HOG patches from all over North America, South America, Europe, Japan, and even Beijing, China.

While I am told it wasn’t as busy as the centennial, as one would expect, it was still a hub of activity all over Milwaukee and the many suburbs and towns that surround the home city of Harley-Davidson with full schedules of events and entertainment for the masses. Local Harley dealerships had bands and activities for the duration of the 4-day celebration, as did area campgrounds, hotels, restaurants and bars. There were organized street parties throughout the city but Harley-Davidson, of course, topped them all and had the biggest and best of all the surrounding activities.

Something for everyone

On top of plant tours at Juneau Avenue, the Capitol Drive and Pilgrim Road powertrain plants as well as the Buell plant tour, Harley had booked the exterior grounds of Miller Park, Summerfest Grounds, State Fair Park, Discovery World and Veterans Park, but possibly the biggest and certainly the newest venue was the opening of the long-awaited Harley-Davidson Museum. Most of the venues had live entertainment for the whole weekend. I don’t mean just local bands either. Some of the better-known names you might recognize include Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Sugarland, Kid Rock, Black Crows, ZZ Top, Three Days Grace and Foo Fighters just to name a few. Live music was non-stop in most of the parks all weekend including five stages continuously playing in the Summerfest Grounds on Milwaukee’s waterfront.

The weekend headliner on Saturday night was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They played at The Roadhouse in Veterans Park. There was only sparse standing room at the back of the park, as the crowd rocked to Springsteen’s classic hits and his trademark blue-collar heartland rock.

The Museum

If anything could outdo the celebration as a whole, it would be the long awaited opening of the Harley-Davidson Museum. The museum opened in July 2008 but for this weekend only, because of the exploded population of the city, museum visitors were selected by a lottery system.

Us media types from all over the world were allowed in on Thursday morning, everyone still a little bleary-eyed as the media opening was between 6-8 a.m. Seeing the museum was the highlight of my trip and what I was most looking forward to, I have always been a huge fan of vintage motorcycles and the history that goes with them.

Pulling into the museum grounds on a dedicated roadway at the end of Canal Street, the museum stands larger than life on the edge of the Menomonee River. The roadway outside the museum building is highlighted with orange sections for motorcycle only parking, in fact, signs are prominently displayed announcing ‘No Cages, Motorcycle Parking Only’. At the end of the road, on the banks of the river, stands a lone bronze casting depicting a hill climber on an out-of-control bike, the rider’s arms flailing as if he were on a bucking bronco.

The museum is as impressive as the icon of the company that built it. The structural steel of the building is on the outside with the buildings cement walls inside the metal framework. Steel frame towers rise high and proudly display a three dimensional Bar and Shield logo high above the building while a few of the steel beams are periodically wrapped in hundreds of feet of motorcycle drive chain.

Pulling open the massive doors and walking inside forces your eyes to adjust to a softly lit hallway leading to the admissions desk. You then follow the bare metal industrial looking staircase up to the second floor to begin your history lesson. Your first sight is a black 1906 single-cylinder Harley clad with traditional white rubber tires. The initial hall continues chronologically from this first bike to display almost every year of Harley-Davidson motorcycle up to 1947. Most are in original condition with original leather drive belt and tires, and in some cases, the paint flaking off of the frame.

Large galleries split off of this initial hall. There is an engine gallery that not only has every model of engine the Motor Company has ever used displayed on a wall, but interactive displays for kids and adults alike. Ever wonder how a four-stroke internal combustion engine works? Or why the Harley engine has such a distinct sound? It’s all explained here by turning knobs and cranks or pushing buttons. Very cool are the engines projected on a wall as if they were three-dimensional holographic images, showing various engines in complete form and then slowly changing to an exploded view, and coming back together as a different model of engine.

Luckily for us, and future generations, the founding fathers of the Motor Company started socking away one of every motorcycle. Probably never in their wildest dreams would they think that their historic inventory would be used to fill a museum to track their acomplishments. It is said that they more likely kept the documents, motorcycles, parts, posters, trophies and what have you for reference. The ‘Archive’ holds more than 450 motorcycles as well as a vast archive of everything Harley-Davidson, only a portion of which is on display in the museum. Ideal for rotating stock so those who are lucky enough to visit the museum regularly won’t necessarily see all the same stuff.

In another gallery, a glass case holds a motorcycle they call ‘Number One’. While engineers know that this motorcycle is not the first one built because, although the engine is a very early design, it doesn’t match what they know of the first engine. Also, the frame is from 1905 and is not original to this motorcycle. After the discovery of this early motorcycle and the resulting restoration in the 1990s, various internal engine surfaces had a number one stamped in the casting leading to much speculation of the origin of these various parts. One thing is for sure, it is the oldest known Harley-Davidson in the world.

It is only fitting that this gallery also holds the origins through text and photos of the company founders William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. Walter Davidson joined his brother in 1903 in that original 10 x 15 foot wooden shed. In 1907, brother William A. Davidson joined the team rounding out the four founding fathers Military displays documenting Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle involvement in various wars are contained at the end of the gallery before continuing onto the next section.

The museum not only shows motorcycles, parts and literature, but just as impressive are the extraordinary people and culture that make up what Harley-Davidson is. The people mentioned in the historic racing gallery are no exception.

A fascinating display of board track racing takes its fair share of this race inspired gallery from another era with an actual segment of board track and period racers mounted on the track. A board track race film is displayed on the track itself, very cool. Hill climbing also shares the gallery as various motorcycles, complete with chain-clad rear tires are on display and plaques describing those who raced them.

The upper level is partially open to the lower level and at one point there is a replica of one of Evel Knievel’s bikes in mid-air as if it were jumping. While the bike is a replica of one of Evel’s XR750s, it was painted by Evel’s painter.

At the end of the upper hall is a display of gas tanks. Approximately 100 tanks fill a wall, each showing a historically significant paint scheme or logo. Harley-Davidson is possibly the only company in the world that can change their logo on a regular basis and not lose their brand identity.

Lower level: Down another industrial set of bare metal stairs brings the museum guests into the era of the 50’s to present day. On display is the launch of the 1957 Sportster, the Nova Project and vehicles from the company’s AMF years. Did you know that Harley-Davidson built trail bikes, snowmobiles, golf carts and even boats? A small video theater explains the buying of Harley-Davidson by AMF in 1969 and the 1981 buy back from AMF by Harley executives and employees. Also explained is one of the most turbulent financial times for Harley-Davidson and how the company was able to stave off bankruptcy.

Around the corner are displays of custom motorcycles, and video monitors invite you to watch segments of various movies over the last 50 years that have cemented the motorcycle in people’s psyche through the movie industry.

Some of the custom bikes on display are timeless, while others are pure gaudiness in its finest form. On the classy side are replicas of Capt. America and the Billy Bike from the classic movie Easy Rider. There were two of each of these bikes built for the movie. One of each was destroyed in the movies dramatic ending. The other two were presumably stolen and their whereabouts remain unknown.

On the gaudy side of showing personal expression are bikes like King Kong; a twin-frame, twin-engine behemoth sporting extensive metal work and trinkets and the Rhinestone Harley, an FLH covered in rhinestones and lights. It takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round.

A row of bikes on the lower level continue where the upper level left off at 1947 and continue into today’s most current offerings from the Motor Company.

The Design Lab demonstrates how the bikes are designed including life-size clay models, welding robots and test equipment. The test equipment allows the company to test a product 24/7 and is able to demonstrate the effects of many years of use in only a few days.

The last display is of various vintages of motorcycles throughout Harley history that welcome you to climb aboard for a photo opportunity.

Outside the museum are, of course, the gift shop, appropriately named ‘The Shop’ and a couple of restaurants, again appropriately named ‘Motor’, a sit-down restaurant and the ‘Café Racer’ for those who want to take it out and eat on the run while checking out the 20-acres that make up the park as it follows the edge of the Menomonee River. Also in the park is the ‘Living the Legend’ wall of rivets. The idea is you buy either a 3 or a 6-inch stainless steel rivet, custom engraved with your name and message on it. The rivets are then mounted on large sections of curved steel walls in the park or in a plaza for all to see.

Because of our allotted two-hour time limit before the public were allowed in on that Thursday morning, I would bounce from display to display like a kid in a candy store but I wasn’t taking the time to read much of the display descriptions leaving me feel like I needed more. Luckily I was able to attend the museum the next day for a more relaxed look around. I will have to return again one day as I still feel like I need more. I could easily spend two days, if not longer in the museum. Not only for the hardware and the history that is Harley-Davidson, but the various photographs, videos, rare and fascinating documents and possibly most of all, stories of the people who make up this amazing motorcycle culture. MMM

For more information go to www.harley-davidson.com and click on Museum on the top menu bar.


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