Harley-Davidson Museum & Factory Tour

February 22, 2013
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

“We’re getting stuff ready for our black leather jacket collection,” says Jim Fricke, clapping his hands and briskly rubbing them together.

The curator of the Harley-Davidson Museum is upbeat starting our group tour, the first leg of a press junket through Harley-Davidson’s operations in Wisconsin. MotoUSA is along for the ride, ready to walk through the 110 years of history celebrating America’s most successful motorcycle brand.

Harley-Davidson is a giant, the giant, of American motorcycling. It has suffered through the economic downturn, only to find its position more dominant than before. The strength of the Harley-Davidson brand remains dominant as well, a fact acknowledged by even its fiercest critics. It’s a brand that has powered The Motor Company through 110 years of triumph and turmoil – world wars, economic crisis and generations of American riders.

Over the century H-D eclipsed its status as a simple motorcycle manufacturer to become an American institution. And even that plaudit doesn’t give due justice to the saturation of Harley-Davidson in popular culture. It’s a realization that hits me, oddly enough, while staring at Fricke’s eclectic assortment of black leather jackets…

We climb up into the museum archives to see the curator at work. Artifacts from Fricke’s Worn to Be Wild leather jacket display unfurl before us. Black and white photos of leather jackets worn by bomber pilots during the Second World War – some of those hot shots returning home to ride in post-war motorcycle clubs. Hollywood paraphernalia: Marlon Brando and The Wild Ones. Evidence of the jacket of motorcycle roughnecks co-opted by American culture at large – punk rockers, The Fonz, leather daddies… Even the incomparable Derek Smalls, of Spinal Tap renown, it’s all there before us. A single article of fashion morphs into cultural symbol – the strong re-enforcement of American masculinity, or a direct subversion of those same ideals. But Fricke saves the best jacket memorabilia for last – Elvis Presley.

Turns out The King got his black leather jacket from JC Penny. Elvis wore it while riding a Harley-Davidson he bought at a Memphis dealer in the early 1950s. Now, let that face-melting level of Americana sink in for a moment! Fricke even shows us one of Presley’s $50 payment stubs, upon which he listed his occupation as “vocalist, self-employed.”

Harley-Davidson is the black leather jacket of motorcycling. And for the non-riding layman here in the U.S., the terms “Harley” and “motorcycle” are synonymous. The latter fact is true, no matter how much it irks H-D’s detractors, and there are plenty. Elvis, Harley, 110 years… Standing in the museum archives, surrounded by such heavy cultural images, I jot down a quick thought: “Americana fitted to a rolling chassis.”

Reading back thru my notes, the statement sounds grandiose, but it doesn’t seem unfair either. Harley-Davidson is a fascinating company – one that gets more interesting the more it’s examined. It inspires fierce devotion from many, and never-ending criticism from others. Easy to love, and easy to parody. Its story – past, present and future – is intertwined with the history of motorcycling in America, and it demands a critical look.

The breadth of history encompassed in the H-D museum encourages such big-picture ruminations. Even the short walk to the museum from our lodgings at the Iron Horse Hotel triggers historic musings. Museum visitors wade through the industrial grit of old Milwaukee to enter the impressive museum grounds, located next to the Menomonee River. The surrounding brick buildings, many of them empty, signify a place where Americans once made things. I can’t help but think this is a huge part of the intrinsic allure of the H-D brand. The Motor Company (and by association we Americans) still makes things in America – and Harley-Davidson twists metal into motorcycles.

H-D has grown amidst world wars and cycles of economic turmoil. Like all good legends, it has a compelling origin story: childhood friends, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, founding a company that would rise from humble origins to become the American motorcycle. Though now a publicly traded corporation, the family influence remains. A fact we are reminded of during our museum tour, as the semi-retired Willie G. Davidson strides past wearing his familiar beret and cheerfully waving to journalists and museum bystanders alike.

The museum delivers a heady dose of nostalgia. Exhibits show the progression of H-D mounts and engine platforms through the years. Visitors see bikes the company built for both World Wars. There are the false starts of unsuccessful models, proudly displayed next to the blockbusters. The marque’s racing success is also chronicled, from the board track years and beyond, including evolution to Flat Track and early road racing success.

Popular museum exhibits, like the Evel Knievel display, demonstrate the broad influence of the H-D brand. Yes, Evel rode other marques too, but it’s Harley-Davidson to which he is forever linked. Like H-D, Elvis and the black leather jacket, Knievel is a persona that transcends into the shared American psyche. Even kids who never got within spitting distance of a motorcycle worshiped the daredevil extraordinaire mystique – the hard case from Butte, who drank Wild Turkey from his walking cane, broke more bones than, well, anyone, and rode the wheels off a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

As we tour the museum, Fricke proves an ideal guide. He is a professional historian that happens to be a Harley-Davidson employee, not the other way around. As such, the tour steers clear of heavy company spin. And over its 110 years, H-D has slogged through its fair share of disappointment and crisis, to contrast the flush times.

Now it looks to climb its way out of the Great Recession. This latest economic downturn is just one of many the company has survived, and not the worst. In fact, The Great Depression can be credited to H-D’s dominance of the domestic market as the dire economic straits of the 1930s culled a once robust roster of American motorcycle manufactures. Only H-D and its traditional rival, Indian, survived – the latter marque doomed to eventual post-war failure, before subsequent revival attempts.

Harley-Davidson did not fail, of course. And despite the economic setbacks of the past five years, its hegemony in the domestic market is even greater than before. While unit sales have declined, nearly cut in half from the boom years, H-D’s market share has grown. Company profits, after falling into the red, are back up too, thanks to restructuring and production changes implemented by CEO/President Keith Wandell. Changes we would see firsthand visiting the engine factory at Pilgrim Road.

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