Whether you’re a diehard Harleyphile or someone who simply enjoys motorcycles of all brands, shapes, sizes and colors, a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is well worth the trip.
The imposing structure, an edifice to the blue collar industries that helped forge Midwest America’s can-do spirit during the 20th century, is set on a 23-acre complex in Milwaukee’s original industrial heartland where a forest of factory smokestacks once dominated the skyline.
The museum’s huge steel girders supporting expansive window panes mimic the massive factories that crowded this stretch of Wisconsin’s lakeside landscape years ago when the Harley-Davidson Motor Company joined other Milwaukee-based industries (and breweries!) to fight — and win — two world wars, survive the Great Depression and later fend off price-point competition created by cheap labor from abroad. Indeed, the H-D Museum is all that, and more, paying homage not only to its namesake but to motorcycling in general. Granted, most of the exhibits celebrate the Bar & Shield, an iconic logo that’s aged well during the past century, but museum staff and volunteers still manage to shake out jingoistic fervor in favor of a passion that extends to all brands of motorcycles. Even so, exhibits and dioramas typically include the words “Harley-Davidson” and “Motor Company,” even “Bar & Shield,” for a reason — this is the Harley-Davidson Museum.
But there’s more to the museum’s story than just static and interactive displays and exhibits that consume the 130,000 square feet of floor space inside. There’s also the untold story of what’s collectively referred to by Motor Company employees as the Corporate Archives, what essentially constitutes the museum’s back room of collectibles, memorabilia, historic documents and art work, plus about two-thirds of The Motor Company’s entire collection of historic and landmark Harley-Davidson motorcycles that’s held in reserve because, simply, there’s not enough floor space to fit them all in the main exhibit hall at one time. Consequently, bikes are periodically rotated in and out of the museum’s exhibit arena; those “off the clock” are temporarily stored to await a future date back on the exhibit floor, or for loan to a related event or other museum.
The Archives are located in the annex building, accessed by crossing one of two foot bridges leading from the museum’s main ground-level exhibit hall. Although limited to staff members, it’s open to visitors during exclusive or scheduled group tours, known as the Behind the Scenes Tour. [Note: At time of printing, all tours, including the Behind the Scenes Tour, have been temporarily suspended. The museum hopes the tours will return in early 2021.] Both Archives floors spread a footprint of about 20,000 square feet; rare items and collectibles not currently earmarked for a main-floor exhibit are put in reserve on the Archives’ lower floor that also includes a small workshop to service and maintain exhibit bikes, while motorcycles not earmarked for exhibit are temporarily deployed for storage on the upper floor.
Perhaps the museum’s Curatorial Director, Jim Fricke, explained the purpose of the Archives best in his Introduction to Aaron Frank’s book, The Harley-Davidson Story (see sidebar): “The Archives is a living collection. The Harley-Davidson enterprise continues and expands, and so does our collecting activity.” In short, every year the collection grows larger, and that growth is enhanced by singling out a particular model each subsequent year from the assembly line for inclusion into the permanent Core Collection that dates back to 1903. This is perhaps the largest collection in the world of any single brand of motorcycle. Core Collection, indeed.
Time spent visiting the Archives is not wasted, either. First stop is the Archives’ lower floor where you get a sense of what it actually takes to maintain the vast collection on display in the main hall. Archives staff includes a handful of personnel headed by Bill Jackson whose official title is Harley-Davidson Museum Archives Manager, while noted motorcycle specialist Bill Rodencal oversees maintenance of the 450-plus fleet of motorcycles.
Small, uncluttered work benches serve as the main place of business, and expect to see more than one motorcycle in attendance, perhaps with some of its components placed safely to the side while Rodencal and crew focus on prepping the bike for its scheduled appearance in the museum building. During my Archives tour, an Evel Knievel tribute bike occupied one corner of the shop, and a 1920 J-model had just been serviced for a future exhibit as well.
But that is only a preview of what’s to come. Into the elevator you go, and within seconds you’re delivered to a sight you won’t see everyday. Rows upon rows of classic and vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles lay before you. Bikes are stacked three high on individual heavy-duty steel storage shelves, and the collection seems immense. Stock models are joined by prototypes and racers, including survivors of the ill-fated Nova V-4 project from the 1970s and historic racers of every Harley pedigree. There are also special-edition models from various eras, including the 1920s when Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle company in the world. It’s a truly inspiring, even jaw-dropping, collection, unlike anything that’s featured on the museum’s main exhibit hall.
The museum offers other tours as well, but clearly a night at the museum as part of the Behind the Scenes Tour ranks among the top experiences for old-bike enthusiasts. Viewing those seemingly endless rows of motorcycles brings to mind the phrase “forbidden fruit,” and no doubt you’ll have to fight the temptation to break loose from the tour so that you can personally check out each bike!
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Book review: Check out Tales From The Archives
Can’t make it to Milwaukee for a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum? To experience The Motor Company’s daunting collection, the next best thing might be a visit to Aaron Frank’s recently published book, The Harley-Davidson Story: Tales From The Archives.
Frank, an experienced and highly respected motojournalist with seat time at Motorcyclist magazine, is foremost an accomplished motorcycle rider and racer who happens to be a native of Milwaukee, where he resides today. The combination proved a perfect fit when the H-D Museum sought to publish a souvenir tome for people who can’t get enough of the museum, or to serve as a surrogate for enthusiasts unable to visit the landmark structure itself. The Harley-Davidson Story puts you up close and personal to the artifacts and motorcycles on exhibit, plus other meaningful items that continually feed The Motor Company’s nearly 120-year history. The result is a virtual visit that you can enjoy, page by page, from the comfort of your favorite easy chair at home.
As the subhead, Tales From The Archives, suggests, the book includes some interesting back stories, the payoff giving you the feel of experiencing your own, personal, guided Harley-Davidson Museum tour by Frank himself. Like every good storyteller, Frank starts at the beginning and, no, that doesn’t mean with the iconic Serial Number One, the black bike that’s credited as being William Harley and Arthur Davidson’s first-ever motorcycle. That bike consumes Chapter 2.
No, Chapter 1 chronicles the year 1901 when William Harley, at the age of 21, drafted blueprints for his first-ever engine … for a bicycle! Yep, Harley-Davidson could have been a bicycle company, but as you’ll read, Harley, joined first by Arthur Davidson and later by brothers William and Walter Davidson, soon laid plans for that first motorcycle of 1903.
That sets the course for Frank’s in-depth look at Serial Number One, and with the blessings of Corporate Archives staff he spends the remaining 43 chapters examining and explaining all sorts of interesting artifacts, items and, yes, Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Close-up photos of early H-D memorabilia and documents give insight about how the company grew so quickly during its initial two decades of existence, and did you know that the very first Harley dealership was owned by C.H. Lang in Chicago, Illinois? Me either, and just as fascinating is an early photo of the Core Collection (Page 48) showing bikes from 1904-1938. Hey, where’s 1903? Ah, but readers with good recall know that, from Chapter 2, Serial Number One was first restored in 1970, and even that event needs further explaining, which Frank does.
Indeed, flip through the pages and you’ll spot other interesting H-D bikes, items and trivia. The photography throughout is clean and precise, too, but if there’s a complaint to be made, it’s the lack of in-depth captions to support the otherwise enlightening pictures, period posters and documents featured.
Stick with the book’s text, though, and you’ll enjoy a narration that includes historic episodes linked with tidbits of information about The Motor Company, some of which even borders on “insider” information. For instance, you’ll learn how and when Harley became known for its eye-catching paint jobs, why artillery shells shared the assembly line with motorcycles, and why golf carts, among other modes of transportation, have carried the Harley-Davidson name.
No doubt, The Harley-Davidson Story won’t suffice as a substitute for a Behind The Scenes Tour, but it certainly can be the next best thing to being there. And when you’re finished reading Frank’s book, you might even want to impress your friends with some facts and figures they never considered about America’s premier motorcycle company.
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