Harley-Davidson is one of Milwaukee’s iconic companies.
Since 1903, the H-D headquarters have been located in Milwaukee. It’s only natural that Milwaukee would host Harley-Davidson’s first and only comprehensive museum. Sure, this isn’t a novel idea, but it definitely is about time.
After two years in the making, the Harley-Davidson Museum finally opened its doors to the public last weekend. The two story building is chock full of 105 years of H-D history and pays homage to the extraordinary people, culture and famous products that turned the company into the icon it is today.
The Harley-Davidson Museum is built on a 20-acre reclaimed industrial site in the Menomonee Valley that up until now used to be a barren brown field. Its unique, urban design reflects Milwaukee’s industrial past and Harley-Davidson’s history of manufacturing.
Yesterday, Eric and I drove to the site and came up to three buildings that, because of their architecture with cross-bracing girders, columns and frames composed of galvanized steel, resembled the layout of a small group of factories. Along with the tons of steel, there was a lot of black and orange paint (the Harley colors) and plenty of brick. Still, the place isn’t too themed or too contrived – it’s genuine and distinctively Harley-Davidson.
We followed a mob of motorcyclists along the broad, orange asphalt roads leading us closer and closer to this extraordinary neighborhood within the city. We were then directed by a man waving an orange flag toward rows of free parking at the back of the museum that’s sectioned off just for cars. We parked near one of the giant orange hoppers that are original to the site and were coincidentally previously painted orange.
We headed to the building with the enormous solid steel, four-sided Harley-Davidson logo suspended in its open tower. Nearly one month ago, I purchased advanced tickets online to check out the new museum on Saturday – I figured there would be a high demand to see it on opening weekend. We arrived at the museum only five minutes before our scheduled time at noon. Even though they only let a select amount of people in every 15 minutes, it was still quite crowded.
On our way toward the entrance, Eric stopped to ogle the assortment of motorcycles parked “Sturgis style” (one motorcycle on each curb and two parked in the center) in the thousands of spots lining the crossroads of Fifth and Canal Streets. Although the museum obviously targets motorcyclists, it still resonates well with Harley fans, riders and those new to the H-D brand and culture.
We entered through a set of tall, heavy metal doors and into a large open space with a glossy black floor and tinted black windows with plenty of chrome accents. Here we were warmly greeted by a woman who scanned our tickets, handed us a brochure and pointed us to a staircase that we’d climb to begin our tour. Without delay, we eagerly went on our way because the shadow of a bike dangling from the rafters – we found out later that it was a replica of Evel Knievel’s custom Harley – beckoned us upstairs to see more.
Once we ascended the spiral staircase and stepped onto the upper level, we began to explore the place, making our way through several interconnected galleries – the Engine Room, Clubs and Competition, the Poster Wall and the Tank Wall – that span Harley-Davidson’s first five decades.
The entire second floor remained quiet aside from the sporadic rumbles of Harley’s famous V-Twins from the Engine Room. Many people filed in wearing headphones to begin their guided tour, which supposedly lasts a full two hours, but Eric and I relied on our brochure to provide us with additional information and further direction.
First, we found ourselves staring down a line of bikes, three wide and 180 feet long. These bikes represent the story of Harley’s first 50 years of motorcycle manufacturing. I was in awe of how well restored the earlier bikes were, but then I overheard a museum employee explaining that these were all original motorcycles and that none of them needed to be fixed up because Harley pulled bikes off the production line each year and stashed them away for safe keeping. Lucky for us, Harley made use of their secret collection by putting them on display for everyone to appreciate.
According to the museum’s brochure, each bike in this gallery was specifically chosen for its noteworthy heritage, as well as its unique expression of signature Harley-Davidson elements: beauty, performance, functionality and style. We admired every type of motorcycle – from blasé olive green colored bikes with strapped-on fuel tanks to customs with enormous engines and outrageous paint jobs.
We entered into the Engine Room next where it was impossible to miss the impressive 1940 Knucklehead that had been sectioned into seven pieces and proudly put on display in the center of the gallery. Supposedly, the Knucklehead’s signature design and style are what defines Harley-Davidson motorcycles, so this was definitely a fascinating way to present the cycle.
The thing I enjoyed most about this gallery was that even non-enthusiasts with absolutely no interest in crankshafts and pistons (Wha?) could amuse themselves for hours by playing with the many interactive elements found around the room.
On a glowing orange wall is a selection of various types of engines to showcase the evolution of Harley-Davidson motor design. Below each design are touch screens that allow visitors to hear the roars and hums of each type of motor. Also, spread throughout the galleria are more buttons to push and levers to pull to demonstrate how a motorcycle engine works.
Continuing through the galleries, the stories of the people, products, culture and history that made H-D what it is today began to unfold. The room dedicated to clubs and competition houses an impressive replica of a board track curve that would have been used by cycle racers in the 1930s. Sepia-toned racing and hill climbing footage from the early 20th century, along with things like Harley’s first stock certificate and ads proclaiming “Something to Crow About” and “The Eagle Flies Alone,” clothes, trophies, medals and accessories all adorn walls spackled in spot lights.
According to news sources, over 85 percent of the items on display came from the company’s archives and the rest were given through donations or found on ebay. I guess you really can find everything on ebay.
Moving on, we learned of Harley’s contributions to WWI and WWII and how motorcycles were part of both civilian and government life – the U.S. Postal Service, U.S. Military and police forces used Harley-Davidson motorcycles daily.
We checked out the Servi-Cars, 3-wheeled cycles with bins in the back used for delivering milk, soda and ice cream in the 30s, and a Harley snow mobile. Yep, even golf carts and boats that Harley-Davidson manufactured in the 1970s. Who knew? Since I didn’t, this display certainly added another dimension to the Harley-Davidson brand that I knew.
Our last stop on the second floor was the Tank Wall. One hundred tank designs were chosen by Willie G. Davidson, Chief Styling Officer and, you guessed it, the grandson of one of the founders, not only for their historical significance, but also for their aesthetic beauty. It was really fun looking at each tank, after all, the tank’s design and paint job are usually what defines one bike from the next.
Next, we meandered downstairs to continue our tour. We entered another set of galleries – Custom Culture, The Bridge, the Design Lab and the Experience Gallery – which feature some of Harley-Davidson’s more recent history spanning WWII to present – the rebel bikes and customs I associate with Harley today.
Along one of the walls is the continuation of the motorcycle gallery which began on the upper level. Lined up three wide and nose-to-tail, this exhibit is comprised of bikes build from 1940 onward. Eric and I took a little time to peruse these bikes. They were much more colorful than those featured upstairs and a lot more common, since many of these are what we see presently zipping down the M-Change and along the lakefront.
Next, we moseyed on over to the Custom Culture Gallery. This area is dedicated to the personal expression and creativity that permeates the Harley-Davidson culture. According to the museum brochure, riders have been customizing their bikes since the early 1900s, but it was not until after WWII that people started the customization movement, dreaming up the over-the-top eye candy we see today.
Along one wall are a couple of computer screens where museum visitors can virtually custom design and build their own bikes. I took a turn and selected a Sportster and changed its wheels and seat and handlebars by clicking on the touch screen and surfing through a catalog of style options. When I was finally finished constructing my dream bike, my very own custom Sportster raced across the computer monitors above for everyone to behold.
Other highlights in this section were Felix Predko’s 13-foot-long, two-engine “King Kong” motorcycle equipped with a plush ape strapped onto the handlebars, as well as, Russ and Peg Townsend’s 1973 red, white and blue rhinestone-encrusted bike. There were also exact replicas of the two Hogs ridden by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 movie Easy Rider along with looping clips from Bad to the Bone and The Wild Angles among other movies that turned Harley rider’s nonconformist “outlaw” image into a cultural phenomenon. Another artifact not to be missed is the 1956 KH that was purchased and ridden by Elvis just before he made it big in the music industry.
After awhile, we walked past four extreme bikes lining a 28-foot steel ramp where I stopped to take a few photos as Eric drifted into the Design Lab. In the Design Lab we explored how H-D motorcycles are designed and engineered. Hand-written design notebooks dating back to the 1940s, an original clay styling prototype of the 2002 V-Rod motorcycle, and several test stations with functioning robots filled the many glass, wall-to-floor display cases. Eric and I watch for several minutes as a robot meticulously screwed bolts into the frame of a motorcycle with ease.
Lastly, we entered a dimly lit room where 10 vintage and contemporary bikes are positioned in rows waiting for visitors to sit on, touch and admire. Without hesitation, I swung my leg over each of the bikes inhibiting the gallery. While pretending to kick start the engine and maneuver the bike, a video presenting the great roads of America streamed across a big screen in the front of the room – sometimes it felt like I was actually zooming across those open highways.
Before we exited, I stopped to sign the huge leather-bound guest book. “Congrats on the new place,” I wrote. While that’s all I could think to say, I walked out having a deep respect for Harley-Davidson and its culture and the allegiance that has been built around the brand. I was so impressed by the museum – everything from the Harley-colored décor to the various, in-depth displays.
This museum is something Milwaukee should be proud to have!
400 West Canal Street
Milwaukee, WI 53201
Summer hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends
Winter hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends
$16 adults, $12 seniors and students, $10 children