Rumblin' on

It's Harley week here ... A non-stop celebration of 105 years worth of Harley-Davidson ...

I've said it quite a few times now: I've never been a big fan of motorcycles, and I can barely stand the noise they make ... Except for this week. During this week, I almost can't get enough of it.

The last time we experienced such a spectacle was in 2003 for the 100th anniversary, and that was one of the coolest experiences of my life ... People from all over the world flooded the city, The motorcycles on the road nearly outnumbered the cars. And then the parade --1,300 bikes stretched over seven miles from one side of the city to the other -- it still gives me chills ...

... The motorcycles are rumbling through downtown again today, their echoes bouncing off the buildings. And tonight, we'll do the parade all over again ...

Equally fascinating to me is the Harley-Davidson history ...

Earlier this month, I got a chance to tour the new Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. It was a whirlwind tour that passed far more quickly than I would have liked, and I felt as though I hardly got to study a lot of the displays ... So I'll be going back as soon as I can get some free time this fall to see it on my own terms ...

In the meantime, here's a piece I had published about the museum last week ...

To hear it from planners of the new Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee and read the gallery texts, it’s as if Arthur Davidson and Bill Harley knew exactly the institution they were building when they started tinkering with motorizing two-wheeled vehicles in 1903.

Within years of founding their motorbike company in a Milwaukee shed, Harley and Davidson began storing away some of their bikes for safe-keeping. They recognized almost immediately that it would be a good thing to document the progress of their company.

Today, Harley-Davidson holds in its rich archives about 450 vehicles, including at least one from every production year of the company’s history. About 140 of them are on display at the new Harley-Davidson Museum, which opened July 12, at Sixth and Canal streets alongside the Menomonee River.

Adding to the lure, most of the bikes have their original paint and parts, although organic materials, such as tires and seat covers, deteriorated and needed to be replaced on some of the earliest models.

Museum guides welcome you warmly into the atrium, which is awash in silver steel and orange paneling. They’ll tell you to plan for at least two hours to walk through the museum, but anyone with an above-average interest level in the Harley-Davidson lore could plan to spend a full day in the place.

With nine galleries spread over two floors, the motorcycles and artifacts are shown with more density in the initial galleries where people are likely to be fresh and excited. Toward the final galleries, the lights are brighter and displays are spaced farther apart; there’s less reading and more moving parts.

Each gallery tells a different chapter in the 105-year history of Harley-Davidson from the products to the people who rode the bikes. Planners designed the galleries so people can roam and explore at their own pace.

“It seems Harley to not try to force people,” says Jim Fricke, the museum’s curatorial director. “People feel more comfortable in the space if they can orient themselves early in the experience, being able to sort of look and ‘oh, there’s cool stuff down there.’ ”

Within each gallery, museum curators took pains to note each model’s history, deficiencies and changes, while a team of conservators stripped each bike down to its tiniest nuts and bolts, cleaned them and put them together again for display.

Not all of the bikes appear as good as new, however, which is part of the story, Fricke said. A 1932 model displayed at the museum with a Serv-a-car was restored with pinstriping — but it wasn’t done well and it wasn’t done by Harley-Davidson restorators, Fricke pointed out. Another bike has a large dent on its tail, likely caused by a fall.

“They were moved, they were not always in the best storage conditions,” Fricke says. “But that’s part of its history.”

The early years
The journey begins with a climb up a steel staircase that winds its way to the museum’s second floor. At the top, visitors are immediately confronted with a parade of classic Harley-Davidson vehicles headed straight for them. Throughout the museum, the vehicles are displayed and assembled in order by the year of their production, beginning with the company’s famed Serial No. 1, a 1903 bike encased in glass.

The second floor breaks down HD’s history prior to World War II with five galleries, starting with — as all enthusiasts know — that little wood shed where Harley and Davidson developed their first motorcycle. Visitors can see the 10 x 15-foot footprint of the shack outlined on a wood floor, which was recycled from a Milwaukee knitting factory, along with photographs and snapshots of industrial Milwaukee at that time.

An original buckboard motor is displayed along with artifacts that include original meeting notes and a piece of stock issued in 1907. A 15-page catalog from the era, however, shows the bike makers hadn’t yet mastered a branding plan — the catalog’s plain cover reads: “Motorcycles.”

That mentality didn’t last long, though. At a time when hundreds of manufacturers were trying to develop motorized bikes, the founders were one of the first manufacturers to understand the benefits of an organized dealer network. They developed a system to train dealers and ensure consumers could be confident in purchasing bikes, as well as getting them repaired.

Arthur Davidson, Fricke explained, spent years tooling around the country on a bike and signing up dealers.

“They not only had the foresight to establish this network but understand that they needed to train people to do the work,” Fricke says, pointing to a display of a leather-bound book titled, “To Help You Sell More Harley-Davidsons.” “You’re often rolling through some town in Montana and there’s a druggist that maybe comes out and looks at your bike and (gives the pitch) ‘Wouldn’t you like to be a Harley-Davidson dealer?’ ”

Style and color take hold
Later, as the company evolved in the ’20s and ’30s and cars became more prevalent, galleries show how style and color gained importance. Harley-Davidson was among the first to use the sleek streamline design before it became popular in trains, cars, appliances and electronics.

A wall also shows some of the graphically beautiful — and fear-mongering — posters to come out of the 1920s, a time when highway departments began paving roads and cars were driving faster. To convince people to buy motorcycles, posters painted cars as evil machines with Death behind the wheel and phrases like “60 out of every 100 children born today are doomed to death” in traffic accidents.

A small display, with a 1936 Harley model, also commemorates the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson’s first sale to a police agency before the galleries transition into World War II-era products.

Visitors also will see how motorcycles were altered for military use to include accessories like machine gun scabbards and ammunition boxes.

Engines and rallies
The top floor also includes “The Engine Room,” a gallery that opens with a disassembled motorcycle floating from the ceiling — an eye-catching piece of artwork that appears intact if you view it straight-on. Mounted on the wall next to it like player plaques in a hall of fame are an array of Harley engines.

While assembling the engine gallery, curators tried to give visitors an idea of the Harley engine’s characteristics and how it gets its distinctive sound.

“The engine not only makes the vehicle run but if there’s a Harley-Davidson credo, the engine is the jewel and we never cover it up,” Fricke says. “If you’re not a gearhead, you probably think you don’t want to go into that gallery. So one thing I wanted to do is create some kind of an experience that you look and it is attractive.”

Another gallery, “Clubs & Competition” focuses on the beginning of the Harley-Davidson club culture that emerged from competitions. More proof there’s something worth seeing in every gallery, the room includes a life-sized replica of a wood velodrome curve built at a 45-degree angle, complete with a group of racing bikes riding the boards.

The gallery’s glass cases are loaded with colorful racing sweaters, team photos, patches, trophies and medals, giving a sense of Harley-Davidson’s dominance in the racing culture.

“If you were a motorcycle collector, you’d be drooling,” Fricke says. “The factory racers are kind of the most collectible of the vehicles. It’s such a great story, I was resisting doing this initially because it takes up a bunch of space ... We’ve got this spectacular collection of old racing posters and all of this great material and it’s such a fascinating story.”

Original scrapbooks and photos laid out in the gallery illustrate in fascinating detail how passionate some people became, even in those early days, about bike touring and rallies. In one journal, a cyclist wrote on Saturday, May 18, 1940, “Got motorcycle. $521” Another cyclist noted every penny he spent and the places he stayed, including a culvert in western New Mexico.

“It was the first time in history that people went and slept inside the woods by choice,” Fricke says. “You used to be a hobo if you traveled and slept in the woods, and all of a sudden people were buying gear and doing it for recreation.”

The gallery also foreshadows the evolution of gentleman motorcycle clubs to bad boy motorcycle gangs. Club costumes started to take on a military look, and one of the most sought-after prizes at a rally was the award for “Best Dressed Club.”

Changing times
Post-war euphoria reigns as visitors enter exhibits on the museum’s first floor. A colorful storefront display shouts “Have fun in ’51” and advertisements illustrate HD’s introduction of more lightweight models aimed at teenagers and women. Visitors also will see a 1960 Model A Topper, a zippy little two-wheeler that was Harley’s contribution to the scooter craze.

And then there was the AMF-era. While a kiosk tells the story of Harley-Davidson’s 1969 merger with American Machine & Foundry and the ailing company’s move toward more recreational vehicles, the gallery houses a golf cart — which at one point was the company’s biggest money-maker — along with a fiberglass motorboat.

That era ended in June 1981 when 13 Harley-Davidson executives pooled their resources and bought the company back from AMF. That dramatic story is told in a short documentary within the gallery.

“That’s an interesting thing with the enthusiasts because all of the Harley enthusiasts that come in you’ll hear them as they walk into this gallery and talk about ‘oh AMF, that was the worst possible time!’ ” Fricke says in the voice of bitter Harley follower.

Harley lives on
After a moving photo and video gallery takes a look at the memorable 100th anniversary in 2003, visitors get a look at the celebrity and oddball sides of Harley-Davidson culture.

“Russ & Peg’s Rhinestone Harley,” a 1973 model belonging to Russ Townsend, is almost completely covered with red, white and blue rhinestones. The bike also is surrounded with Townsend’s photos and belongings, right down to the margarine containers where he stored spare stones.

“That’s what he kept them in,” Fricke says. “You can knock them off so it was a constant addition but also lots of repair. Gary, the son who came (for the museum opening) said that when he was younger as punishment his dad would make him go replace them.”

In a similar vein, some enthusiasts might consider the display of Felix Predko’s 1941 custom “King Kong” a travesty, Fricke explained. A long-time mechanic, Predko adapted the bike from two factory frames and built in a handmade electric starter he took from a pickup truck. That was a feat in itself, considering Harley-Davidson would not introduce the electric start for several more years.

The bike is outfitted with brass door knobs, taillights from cars and trucks, trailer hitches and scraps of metal that Predko hand-punched. The display also includes Predko’s riding costume and a handmade sign that hung in his shop and reads “I went for parts. Be back.”

“Some people would call it the waste of a couple good knuckleheads, but what’s interesting about this is it’s folk art and it’s an expression of a unique aesthetic , but it’s also a mechanical marvel,” Fricke says. “To extend the frame and take two engines, mechanically modify this so that they work in tandem to run the bike. In amongst all the deco excess are all sorts of really fascinating practical features.”

The section also looks at the Outlaw movement born in the 1950s from imagery in pop culture, film and records and movie posters. An entertaining and comical montage of some classic motorcycle movie scenes also shows how putting on a black leather jacket helped breed the bad boy stigma.

Although, you won’t see any footage of Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider.” According to Fricke, Hopper is still upset Harley-Davidson refused to donate motorcycles for the 1969 cult classic. Fricke added the original bikes were destroyed or stolen during the movie’s filming, so a faithful replica of the bike belonging to Wyatt, portrayed by Peter Fonda, has a place at the museum.

But Elvis Presley’s bike on display at the museum is an original. The 1956 KH Side-valve V-twin comes complete with a sale contract and delivery receipt showing that Presley agreed to pay $11,400 for the bike — just weeks before “Heartbreak Hotel” became his first No. 1 record.

The papers show Presley signed and registered the bike at the address of his guitar player Scotty Moore, and he agreed to pay $50 a month toward the purchase. He listed his profession as a vocalist, self-employed.

“If he bought it six months later he almost certainly would have paid cash,” Fricke says.
Like the parade of motorcycles that leads visitors into the first galleries, there’s one more that leads visitors into a final gallery about product development, a florescent-lit room that’s set up like a laboratory full of drawings and prototypes.

To some, however, the gallery, which also includes full-sized mock-ups and clay models, will not be nearly as enticing as earlier rooms in the museum. But that’s part of the beauty of the museum and the Harley-Davidson lore.

“You get Willie G. Davidson talking about the beauty of fasteners, it’s eloquent,” Fricke said. “The Harley design aesthetic is that machines are beautiful and each part is beautiful and we’re going to show all of it.”

Functional design
Constructed over two years for a $75 million price tag, Harley-Davidson’s massive steel and brick museum buildings are a nod to Milwaukee’s industrial past, but the entire property is a mecca that will attract even the slightest of motorcycle interests.

Opened July 12 at Sixth and Canal streets, near downtown Milwaukee, the much-anticipated Harley-Davidson Museum is as much a marvel to look at as the hundreds of motorcycles displayed as artwork inside.

Much like the Harley-Davidson mantra when it comes to building motorcycles, the building’s steel exoskeleton is functional framework and everything underneath is like the jewel within the frame.

More than 1,200 tons of galvanized steel beams were used to complete the museum buildings. An 80-foot tower bearing the Harley-Davidson shield looms over the main entry way, and the museum’s west wall is made entirely of glass allowing visitors to see inside.

“We chose the materials because they’re very honest and timeless and classic and bold, like Harley-Davidson,” said Amanda Lee, the museum’s manager of multimedia communication.

Almost everything is oversized, from the 17-foot tall doors visitors must use to enter the museum to the Harley-Davidson name embedded in the brick wall. For that project, a mason designed a grid, numbered each of the 4,700 bricks and then cut and placed them by hand.

But the 20-acre campus also is a scenic gathering spot nestled in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, where the river flows by an outdoor patio and walking path. Close attention is paid to the landscaping on the grounds, too.

A bronze Hill Climber statue shows a rider wildly taking a vintage Harley motorcycle up a slope, and rows of shiny rivets lace the outdoor concrete in a tribute to Harley-Davidson dealers and clubs across the world.

The site is open to the public, free of charge, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Though 500 parking spaces are devoted to cars, there are 1,000 motorcycle spaces — located closer to the museum entrance — with orange striping on the pavement that acts like a red carpet for riders.

“When motorcyclists arrive it’s like, ‘OK, I know where to go,’ but also part of it is we wanted to foster and nurture a museum on the street,” Lee said. “A big part of Harley culture and motorcycle culture is going to a rally and being able to interact, connect with others, share stories. You see buddies that you met at a different rally, and just that connection is really looking at other people’s bikes, admiring what people have done with their bikes.”

In addition to the museum, two more buildings house the Harley-Davidson archives and a retail store. A restaurant and cafe, meanwhile, doles out menu items like “Potato Potato Potato Pancakes,” “Flathead Flatbreads” and “Bobber Brats.” Some of the dishes are made with actual motorcycle spokes as skewers. It’s hearty, American, stick-to-your-ribs food made by talented chefs who also are Harley riders.

There’s enough indoor and outdoor space to accommodate gatherings of as many as 15,000 people. Meanwhile, projections say the museum could attract 350,000 people annually from around the world.

“The design is meant to be a neighborhood within the city instead of just like Harley town,” Lee said. “Everything here is really about stories about connections.”

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