Our visit to the home of Harley Davidson – the HD Museum.
Mention Harley Davidson to anybody, and the first thought that pops into their head is of a large, loud motorcycle, with a big, tough man in a leather jacket and tattered jeans riding on an empty road. While that image has become ubiquitous with the brand, there is a lot more to Harley Davidson than comes to mind. So, one spring morning early this year, I headed to the home of Harley Davidson, the HD Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Milwaukee is a primarily industrial city. Red brick buildings that were once factories have now been turned into fancy coffee shops and office space. Tall chimneys litter the skyline as water towers mark the beginning and end of every couple of blocks. The city has now become a commercial hub replete with skyscrapers. It is fitting then that William Harley and the Davidson brothers found success here. From a humble start in a machine shop in 1903 to the worldwide acclaim that the brand sees today, it’s been a tumultuous century. Financial crises, competition and numerous other factors have tempered major accomplishments. Today, Harley Davidson is a household name, known for the close bonds it forges between riders loyal to the brand. How did it reach this point? Time to find out.
The Harley Davidson Museum is located on the banks of Menomenee River. A massive charcoal colored complex, it exudes a new, yet industrial vibe. Leaving the ticket counter, I made my way up to the starting point of the tour.
Entering the first hall, I was met by a long avenue of motorcycles. Beginning in the 1920s, these bike charted the company’s history. From motorized bicycles to proper motorcycles, it was an education of sorts in the history of the motorcycle. Branching off, there were adjacent rooms. Entering the first one, I found the first Harley Davidson ever built. White tyres, a suspended leather seat and a black frame, that’s it. Rudimentary would be the right word, but placing it into context, it was a technological marvel of its time.
Walking through the rest of the museum, it became increasingly clear as to how deeply Harley Davidson was embedded into American culture, for a few simple reasons. There were Harleys for every conceivable purpose. There were motorcycles from the Second World War that had served the Army, Navy and Air Force, in addition to those for the Police and Mail services.
Eventually, I came to the motorsport section. Here, there were bikes for motocross, dirt track racing, road racing etc. A Harley amply covered every genre of motorsport. XR750s were abundant in a variety of colors and setups. Sportsters, Road Kings, Panheads and an assortment of other models were on display everywhere.
One of my favourite areas of the museum was a massive wall, which held a large number of different gas tanks. Myriad colors and typefaces illustrated the endless ability to customise a Harley Davidson, something that makes it very popular even today.
Even movies were represented among the bikes on show. The motorcycle from Captain America – the First Avenger was on display along with an information card that detailed the efforts expended in order for the bike to perform stunts while looking as period correct as possible.
As my tour ended and I found myself in the sun again, I looked at the huge letters (Harley Davidson) that line one exterior wall of the museum. The fact is, the brand has become larger than life. Harley Davidson is as much part of the ‘American Dream’ as anything else. There is a certain sense of optimism, along with a bit of childhood glee whenever anyone hears or looks at a Harley. Sure, it may be loud and may not have the most civilised fans, but it has become a part of American culture and it is here to stay. It’s almost a reminder of the Wild West. Cowboy hats have been replaced with helmets and motorcycles have replaced horses. All you need is the open road.
As a Harley fired up somewhere behind me, I smiled.