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A Behind the Scenes Visit to the Harley Davidson Museum

Words and Photos by Paul Garson

 

There are bucket lists of all kinds, but for anyone interested in motorcycles on any level, topping the list of must-sees is Harley-Davidson’s 50,000 sq. ft. treasure trove - not only for the insights into that company’s history, but for the overview of American culture it provides. In addition to the 100-plus years of motorcycles, memorabilia and documentation beautifully showcased in dramatic viewer-friendly exhibits on several floors, the museum offers Bike Night gatherings every Thursday, as well as special bike shows and in-house tours, plus a restaurant and bar - highlighted, of course, by vintage Harleys as the centerpiece.

During our visit, we were provided with special insights and access thanks to the museum’s curatorial director, Jim Fricke, the master-mind behind the design of the incredible exhibits and displays. In addition to seeing everything from the very first 1903 H-D #1 to the futuristic “LiveWire” electric Harley, we gained access to the “vaults” that contained an additional 500-plus Harleys... factory, prototype and custom... housed on huge computer-mechanized shelving. We also glimpsed the museum’s restoration area, where Bill Rodencal had been working his magic. The surrounding city of Milwaukee is certainly a destination in itself, and exploring the local area via motorcycle has its own rich rewards. Of course, doing that on a Harley would be icing on the Motor City cake.

 

Museum’s Launch Vehicle

“Hill Climber,” sculpted by Jeff Decker, is the first thing that catches your eye as you pull into the main square, the dynamic piece placed between the main museum building and the adjacent watering hole/restaurant. Standing 16 ft. tall and weighing an estimated 2 ½ tons of bronze, it depicts a Harley rider circa 1930s symbolically reaching the top of the hill. Decker, well known for his motocycle-related art, was commissioned by the Davidson family to create the now famous sculpture for the new museum itself, standing on 20 acres of land in the historically industrial area of Milwaukee.

 

1903 was a Very Good Year

Several visitor bikes gather in front of the “Café Racer” watering hole and restaurant adjacent to the main building. On Thursday Bike Nights, it’s a mobile museum in its own right, Harleys of all vintages making the pilgrimage after the grand opening on July 12, 2008.

 

Ambiance on Two Wheels

When you belly up to the Café Racer bar, you can toast some serious history.

 

Joining the Crew

As you enter the museum you are “greeted” by the larger than life Founders, who are obviously very happy that you’re taking a selfie with them. Joining the author are the three Davidson brothers and the solo Harley, making up the Harley-Davidson quartet.

 

Stepping into History

Rising like something from the film 2001: A Space Oddyssey, the monolithic electronic signage scrolls off H-D’s milestones. That two-stroke dirt bike is one of several of Harley’s “experiments” in marketing.

 

Harley Under Glass

The border around the display traces the dimensions of the first H-D workshop, the original “factory” basically a 10x15 wooden shed. Within the case, glowing in an almost eerie light, is one of the first machines to be produced in 1903 thanks to the efforts of Willian S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, later joined eventually by brothers Walter and William A. Their very first bike was designed as a racer, followed in 1904 by three “production” machines offered to the public. In 1905, the fledgling H-D won its first race, a 15-miler in Chicago on the 4th of July no less, and the fireworks began. A sign of optimism that year was the hiring of the “company’s” first employee. By 1920, Harley-Davidson would grow into the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, their much sought after machines sold in 67 countries… including Japan.

 

Two Pivotal Years

A pair of 1909 and 1911 single cylinders sit side by side, the “thumpers” leaving the H-D line-up in 1918 but brought back in1926. 1909 also saw the debut of the first twin cylinder model and upping the performance ante to 7 HP, followed by the F-head design, introduced in 1911 and in production until 1929 and also setting the iconic H-D V-Twin design in motion for the next 100 years. By the way, the white tires are correct for the period as they were made from natural rubber with white zinc oxide initially added for increased traction, but to enhance endurance carbon black was added later.

 

Rolling into the Future

Speaking of 1929, the twin-headlamp model scene here features the 45-cubic inch “Flathead” engine introduced on the D Model in that year, its reliability earning loyal fans for decades to come, and still available as late as 1973 in Harley’s 3-wheeler Servi-Car. Joining the lineup in the background are the first of the 74-inch motored bikes, as seen powering the JD and FD models.

 

Where’s Evel?

Hanging literally by a wire, one of Evel Knievel’s stunt bikes seems to fly skyward.

 

X Marks the Spots!

Up in the Museum’s Collections department you can find original X-rays of Evel, showing some of the 128 bones he purportedly broke during his death-defying career.

 

Walk of Semi-Fame

Over the past century, H-D has tested the waters with a variety of vehicles not limited to motorcycles - case in point, their successful line of golf carts and scooters and even a boat or two. And they weren’t shy about some ‘badge engineering’ when adding a few Italian made Aermacchi bikes to their offerings, including the now sought-after Sprint.

 

Cycles Minus Motors

H-D also produced a line of non-motorcycles from 1917-1922, and the pedal power ads to go with them.

 

Rack them Up

H-D bicycles were as sturdy as their fellow motorcycles, and are now highly collectible.

 

Wall of Light - Dramatic presentation of Harley ads and photos through the decades

 

Pick-a-Color Fatbob Mural

More colors than exist on the spectrum have been offered by the factory, including multi-hued custom designs, each set off by distinctive badging, itself a history of design.

 

Pick-a-Part of Harley Engine Design

You can walk through the complete evolution of the Motor Company’s motor design from the first tin can carbureted single to the V-twins all the way from the singles to the V-twin Flatheads, Knuckleheads, Panheads, Shovelheads, Evolution, Twin Cam 88, the Revolution and, most recently, the 8-valve 107 cubic inch Milwaukee-Eight.

 

1923 Racer

Considered the monster motor of its day, the Overhead 8-valve V-Twin was the creation of H-D’s top engine designers, William Ottaway and Harry Ricardo. With such a powerplant, the spindly machines could top 100 mph… if you could hold on even with its “advanced scissor shock” front end. Not for everyone, including the price tag, a 1923-hefty $1500. This particular racer belonged to British competitor of fame, the dapper Freddie Dixon.

 

Bowling for Dollars?

H-D has had its share of roller coaster rides. In one case, the U.S. government helped bail it out of economic difficulties by buying a bunch of drone targets for anti-aircrafters to practice fire on. Then there was the infamous American Machinery and Foundry (AMF) years, when H-D came under the control of the mega sporting goods company, here represented by the encased bowling pin and the 1969 AMF Annual Report touting on the cover the company’s seacraft as well as the purchase that year of Harley-Davidson. The display also shows illuminated building signage with the AMF logo pinned to Harley-Davidson.

Fortunately, by 1981 AMF, because of flagging sales due to both poor quality build control and the flood of Japanese bikes, was eager to sell the company back to thirteen private investors who had a personal, vested interest in the company, including Willie G. Davidson, the grandson of company co-founder William A. Davidson. The price: $80 million, which would soon develop into a great investment for all concerned, including long-term Harley supporters and fans. While some called the AMF/H-D period a great fiasco, a review of history does reveal the fact that AMF’s initial purchase helped keep H-D from going under, so in effect they did more good than harm… and they did come out with some nice Shovelheads.

 

Awesome Optical Illusion

Even the museum’s elevators sport cool graphics; in this case, an original photo of a production line-up leads the way to the Harley-Davidson Archives as well as a treasure trove of collectibles, toys, parts and accessories, clothing and riding gear, art, documents and photographs. On the second and third floors you’ll find the Artifact Storage, Collections Processing department and Motorcycle Storage, along with the Conservation and Restoration department.

 

Rare as Dragon’s Teeth

You’re looking at the original full scale design drawing by William Harley that he made on July 20, 1901 for a “2 x 2 ¼ Bicycle Motor” - literally the beginning of it all!

 

Stack’em/Rack’em

Call it the ultimate bike garage: The museum’s solution to storing about every H-D model includes several triple decker electrically operated mobile shelves. It’s a mix and match of all years, including production, special projects, racers, customs and historic machines.

 

Up on a Pedestal…at Last!

We did spot a Buell up on a top shelf, looking a bit lonely. It’s no secret that longtime Harley dealers weren’t that fond of the newcomer from Erik Buell and weren’t that energetic in promoting them, at least from this writer/rider’s experience, but in any case, I’m a big fan of the sporty rorty machines and admit that I still own the single Blast version, but hope for the big boy at some point. H-D bought 49% of Buell in 1993, and thus it became a subsidiary of H-D by 2003; some 100,000 bikes were shipped by late 2009, but in that same year H-D discontinued the line, Erik taking control again and launching his own reworked line… for a while.

 

World’s Most Iconic Motorcycle?

What Harley museum wouldn’t have an Easyrider on display? Is this the real McCoy? ...Depends which McCoy you speak to. Various sources say there were more than one built for the movie, the original chopper purportedly “mis-approprated” and chopped up for parts… but they live on in numerous meticulous recreations by devoted fans of the iconic custom.

 

Contest Bike

This custom 2009 Dyna Custom was built by Scott Jones with a factory H-D Screamin’ Eagle 120R race motor which he won at the 2013 Born Free rally. The vintage inspired bike then entered into the 2014 Born Free show, the Los Angeles area event gearing up for its 10th anniversary in 2018 and now a world class showcase for some of the best builders in the world. After visiting the Museum, Scott decided it would be approproate to “bring it home” as part of H-D history.

 

Humming Along with the Real Deal

While most think BIG when talking Harley, smaller bikes played a major role in the company’s history. A third of H-D production in 1955 were “lightweights,” including the 125cc Model B seen here, a pocketbook-friendly tiddler that sipped 100 miles to a gallon, and also made for a great first bike. It had no horn, air cleaner or even foot peg rubbers… an emphasis on “no frills” and low price.It was also known as the “Hummer” in gratitude to Nebraska H-D dealer Dean Hummer, who at the time had sold the most lightweights in the country. Many ascribe the name “Hummer” to all ‘50s and ‘60s Harley lightweights, but technically it only refers to the 125cc Model B circa 1955-59.

 

Streamlining into History circa 1936

Today reaching 136-183 mph on a motorcycle seems not so impressive when you can roll off the showroom floor with a 180 mph street bike, but back on March 13, 1937, this blue bomb piloted by famous racer Joe Petralli broke the then-current land speed record at Daytona Beach, now home to the annual Bike Week and Octoberfest bike rallies. The idea for the 1936 attempt was the brainchild of H-D’s co-founder William Harley, who thought it a great way to showcase the company’s newest engine, the now much-beloved Knucklehead, in this case its dual carbs fed by hotter burning alcohol. Oddly enough, Petrali would take leave of his motorcycle exploits as a member of the Harley race team to join millionare maverick Howard Hughes to develop the “Spruce Goose” airplane, which barely got off the ground, literally and figuratively.

 

“Penster” – One of the five experimental trike designs.

Note exceptionally low seat height, sportster-style exhaust and dual headlamp arrangement.

 

Coulda Shouda?

Completed in 2006, the “Penster” three-wheeler was termed a “secret project.” These particular examples are among the five variations built during the trike’s development stages. One advanced feature explored was a computer-operated electric hydraulic system to control the lean angle during turning. Note the Harley belt drive as well as dual front disc brakes. Perhaps sadly, the Penster never mustered enough corporate votes to carry it through into production, yet today we see the success of other manufacturer’s similar designs, notably the Cam-Am Spyder. More recently, H-D has come out with its own well-received line of more traditionally styled trikes.

 

King of Super Bling

Called the “Rhinestone,” this 1973 FLH bagger was dressed to max by owner Russ Townsend in the style popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s for turning dressers into rolling art works. Seems Russ was recovering from some injuries and needed a hobby of sorts, so he chose to embellish his Harley with thousands of Yankee doodle red, white and blue rhinestones, plus a few extra lights and chrome trim pieces. Because of the power requirements to light everything, he added an extra alternator.

 

Tsunami Survivor

In sharp contrast to the hundreds of shiny painted, polished and chromed bikes found at the Museum is this crusty curiosity… perhaps one of its most dramatic displays. The story goes that a Canadian guy named Peter Mark was rolling along on his ATV, exploring an isolated British Columbia island beach one day in April 2012, when he discovered a small trailer washed ashore. Peering inside, he found a Harley much the worse for sea wear, wearing a Japanese license plate. He snapped some photos and went about tracking down its origin and owner. Turns out the cargo holder and bike had survived a 4,000 mile sea voyage, the result of the tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on the preceding March 11, 2011. The trailer and bike were a tiny piece of the 20 million tons of debris swept out to sea.

When Peter went back to retrieve the survivor bike he found the trailer washed back out to sea, but the bike was still there, now half-buried in the sand. He managed to excavate the 2004 Night Train and eventually found its owner, Ikuo Yokoyama, who had a tragic story to tell. When the 25-foot tall wall of water hit the town of Yamamoto it took out the trailer and bike and, very sadly, several members of his family as well as his house and belongings. After some thought, Mr. Yokoyama asked if the bike could be displayed at the Museum as a memorial.

 

“I’ll be back!”

The facsimile of the ex-governator of California in his original “Terminator” leathers appears with one of the bikes that he piloted in his famous flicks. Arnold Schwarzenegger rides Harleys both on and off screen.

 

Micro Masterpiece

The smallest Harley contained in the Museum’s collection was hand-built to a mind-bendingly meticulous degree by famed high performance engine builder and prototype designer Don Nowell. In this case, the Museum asked him to build a custom Knucklehead a guy would have built in his living room in the 1960s and Don, having lived it, nailed it to perfection. Would you believe it includes 125 handmade screws, and special permission from Avon tires to mold and cast its exact tread design for the rubber tires? And yes, the control levers work. A couple of Don’s very limited edition bikes with various engines are still available from him (donnowell design.com/fineart)

 

Proper Prop?

There’s that old joke…would you fly in an airplane if it were powered by a Harley-Davidson? Well, there were actual aircraft lines that employed Milwaukee motors, as seen here in the museum’s restoration shop - this appears to be an early F-head twin. You can also build your H-D powered plane with the Zodiac XL or the L’ll Hustler from Hogair, some of the Harley friendly aircraft kits; several are available. You can also find one on display at Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, NC, in this case a Harley powered 1927 Miller Lightplane built by a 17-year old.

 

Project Livewire – Still Unplugged?

You could say H-D also saw electric vehicles in the ascendency, along with several other car and bike companies gearing up to run silent. They launched their own effort in 2014 with “Project LifeWire,” although in the early conceptual stages it was code-named “Hacker,” which again was in keeping with the new "cyber world." However, keeping to H-D’s mandate, they focused on keeping the fundamentals, as in “look, sound and feel.” This would seem a bit of a challenge, especially when coming to sound, so they went for a “fighter jet” signature.

In 2015, some demonstrator Harley E-bikes were parceled out as demonstration vehicles. The reviews were not exactly fever pitched as they mentioned the electric bike’s sound was similar to other ebike brands rather than a jet. You might remember that H-D, several years ago, fought tooth and nail to trademark their V-twin “potato-potato” exhaust sound. The reviews also said the performance was “snappy” and handling tracked well; the bike was fun to ride, but its 60 miles fell short of range… and so did the proposed production of the bike. Its future is yet to be determined, but word is a new goal sees a LiveWire by 2021, although it will very likely look far different from that original design.