The Harley KH was not Elvis Presley’s first bike. Evel Knievel was not a great spokesperson. The AMF years weren’t necessarily the worst of times.
I learned these things and more at Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum. Obviously, if you’re interested in the motorcycle industry and the motorcycle culture of America, Harley-Davidson plays a pretty prominent role. But when you’re the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, you get a lot of guff. You can count us as one of the Motor Company’s former detractors; back in the 90’s, we wagged our fingers at H-D for price gouging and for having an arrogant attitude. But despite those missteps, Harley has blossomed into an ambassador of the motorcycling industry, introducing initiatives and projects that paint all motorcyclists in a positive light, and pave the way for new adherents. One of the brightest lights is the H-D Museum, which opened to some fanfare four years ago. I’d never been before, and frankly, I wasn’t anticipating all that much. Color me jaded.
I’ll tell you this much: the venue itself is gorgeous. Opened in July 2008 near downtown Milwaukee, the 130,000 square foot complex is comprised of three buildings, all sporting modern decor, with cool colors, sleek metals, and simple geometric designs—and, of course, lots of tastefully applied black paint. Impressive too, is the fact that the company built this museum on a long-forgotten piece of land in an industrial part of the city, rather than Vegas, where it probably would’ve had double the foot traffic.
And the Museum itself is world-class—exhaustively curated and professionally administered. Far from a dry, strictly mechanical survey of two-wheel objects, the layout merges interesting historic, artistic and design standpoints, and bikers and non-bikers alike will have plenty to process.
Beginning the tour on the top floor, you step headfirst into the first Motorcycle Gallery, an impressive display of rows of vintage machines, dating from 1905 all the way to the 1940s. Off to the side, in a series of interconnected galleries dubbed the Harley-Davidson Journey, lies the rarest Harley of them all, a 1903 Serial One model—the first production H-D, and sole survivor of three ever made.
The galleries take you through the humble beginnings of the iconic American motorcycle brand begun in a Milwaukee tool shed in 1903 by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, to the disastrous AMF years, all the way to its current status as worldwide powerhouse. Mountains of fascinating mementos and historical documents compete for your attention along the way.
But it’s not just all objects sequestered behind glass; there’s the Engine Room, which showcases the engineering evolution of signature H-D engines. All the H-D variations, from F to Knuckle, are hung along a huge wall, with companion interactive touch screens allowing you to listen to the sounds of each. The Tank Wall, too, is a classic photo op, assembling some of the most iconic Harley-Davidson tanks ever designed through the years along a super-wide, backlit wall.
Meander downstairs, and another set of galleries highlights Harley’s more recent history; a window display from a 1951 dealership, photos and documents from the launch of the Sportster model in 1957 and of course, a room dedicated to the merger with AMF in 1969, complete with a three-screen video about the buy-back from AMF years later. Interesting tidbit: The Evolution engine was actually commissioned by AMF.
Various other side rooms display early 1913 U.S. Mail bikes, a series of U.S. Military bikes, and samples from Harley’s experiments with snowmobiles, boats, and mini bikes. Of course, there are “star bikes” throughout: Easy Rider’s Captain America chopper, the Terminator Fat Boy, an Evel Knievel XR-750, and the coolest one of all, a 100th Anniversary touring model personally signed by over 6000 of H-D’s worldwide employees.
There’s also a fascinating display on Harley’s racing history, with boardtrack racers set up on a section of old wooden track. Early motorcycle jerseys, gear, trophies, posters, and even race movies, litter the surrounding walls, making for a totally immersive experience.
Non-enthusiasts can rejoice too: interactive displays include one that allows you to create a custom motorcycle on the computer. Switch up the gas tank, swap out the tires, tweak the handlebars, and then save the final product up on the flat screen for you and everyone else to enjoy.
You can also peek into the Design Lab, a gallery that feels like it should be off-limits to mere civilians. Within the frosted glass walls, you’ll find the original clay mockup of the 2002 V-Rod, a hand-written design notebook from the 40s, and a flurry of high-tech assembly robots and testing machinery. We loved checking out the drawings from the first Styling Department in 1963, and examining current notes from today’s Willie G. Davidson Product Development Center.
In a separate building lies the Archives section, which is more like a secret bunker containing Harley-Davidson models from every era—some that never saw the light of day. This is where we spy Elvis’ second Harley, a 1956, 883cc Pepper Red KH model (the first was a Harley Model 165). Pretty damn cool.
OK, so let’s be honest—the Museum is basically a giant ad for the brand. Nevertheless, somehow it doesn’t feel like a crass turnoff to those who aren’t in the Bar and Shield cult. Even if you’re not big into Harleys, the Harley-Davidson Museum offers a compelling look into the history of one of America’s most famous and successful companies.
Tip: The permanent collection by itself is mindboggling, but throw in a series of rotating exhibits and you can easily spend all weekend here. Spend the extra $4 for an audio tour headset. It’ll only enhance the experience.
H-D Museum By The Numbers
Square feet: 130,000
The ultimate collectible vehicle:...
The ultimate collectible vehicle: The 1903 Serial Number One. It’s not the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but it’s the oldest Harley in existence.
The Archives building holds...
The Archives building holds a copy of every model Harley produced since 1915. Over 450 motorcycles are stored here.
The Design Lab’s rotating...
The Design Lab’s rotating treasure trove includes sketches of pre-development models. This one features early 1980s Softail mockups and notes.
400 West Canal St. Milwaukee, WI 532011