The Harley- Davidson Musem

World Class Motorcycles In Milwaukee

There is a new location to enter on MapQuest when heading to Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 400 West Canal Street. This address in downtown Milwaukee is one of the hottest destinations for everyone. Why? Because this is the home to the most complete one-marque collection of motorcycles in the world. The Harley-Davidson Collection, 105 years in the making (as of this year) is extensive not only in the sense of their rolling stock, but also related artifacts pertaining to their own history, as well as the country's history.

In 1915 Harley management started pulling one of each model from the production line to start an archival time line. Earlier models were procured from various sources over the ensuing years to fill in the gaps. Over the last 15 years or so, they have been actively buying artifacts and assimilating them into the collection. There have been a couple of early versions of the museum over the years-the earliest I can remember was the Rodney C. Gott Museum in the York, PA plant. The Gott Museum had about 20-25 bikes, which were arranged in a somewhat chronological order and were the first part of the York Plant Tour. Bikes not on display were housed in a huge barn on the property next to the test track-since covered-up by the new Softail factory. Beginning in 1988, H-D outfitted a special trailer as a traveling museum that visited dealerships and major events around the country. The traveling museum displays 6 or 7 bikes, which changes every two years or so, and is still on the road today.

As of July 12, 2008, the permanent Harley-Davidson museum opened in downtown Milwaukee. Presently there are three buildings on the property: the museum, the archives and the shop. The shop houses several restaurants and some meeting rooms; the archive building has an open first floor plan and more rooms upstairs will eventually hold the remainder of the archives and the new bikes and artifacts to come. There's plenty of free parking for motorcycles and cars all around the buildings. There are some details of the museum grounds still under construction, such as the rivet walls, where for a fee you can have your name and/or message inscribed onto a rivet head mounted to the wall that will be permanently displayed on the museum grounds.

The museum building has two floors, and you enter on the first floor and proceed up the stairs to the beginning of the motorcycle display, which is laid out in a chronological order from the earliest to the most modern. Turning the corner at the top of the stairs gives one a moment to pause, for there, in a column of three, stretching the length of the building are Harley-Davidson motorcycles from the early single-cylinder models to the big twins of the 40's, called the Motorcycle Gallery. However, the motorcycles may appear smaller in person, or so it seems. Closer inspection reveals the motorcycles are displayed some six to eight inches below floor level, almost giving the impression that you are seated on the bike.

Along the left side of the row of bikes are two display rooms. The first is the engine room with a unique display of a 1940 Knucklehead. The display (viewed straight-on, as you walk into the room) tricks the eye into thinking the bike is complete, when in reality the different components of the motorcycle are in perfect order but staggered or separated on the riser in the middle of the room. But the wall to your left almost makes your heart skip a beat, for on that wall is one of every engine ever built, including some prototype engines that never saw production. There is one engine absent...see if you can identify which production engine is missing. The opposite side of the room features a few interactive displays, including one that gives a feel for the force of the ignition inside the engine and another with a set of spinning wheels on an axle that you get spinning and try to turn like the front end on your bike. On the same side of the engine room are various cut-away engines, from an early JD engine and transmission to a Knucklehead and a late model Twin Cam. There's also a computer generated animation of two engines coming apart and going back together, displayed high on the wall opposite the entrance.

Walking further along the same side of the Motorcycle Gallery you come to the Clubs and Competition Gallery, where various racing bikes from the factory's past are on display. Everything from hill climbers to board trackers to Joe Petrali's land speed record-setting Knucklehead. The five boardtrack racers are mounted on a highly polished, 13-foot high reproduction of a section of board track. From above, a film of actual board track racing is played onto the polished surface of the reproduction track. Hill-climb bikes are mounted on the wall, with the Petrali Knucklehead at floor level, and a huge photograph of the sands of Daytona Beach as a backdrop. In the same room are hundreds of artifacts from some of the first motorcycle clubs, both women's and men's including: uniforms, badges, photos and trophies.

Ok, that's one side of the second floor. On the other side of the Motorcycle Gallery are five consecutive galleries depicting bikes and events from the first five decades of The Motor Company's life. Adjacent to the Number One room are displays of motorcycles and artifacts chronicling Harley's history, like the development of the Servi-Car and motorcycles for the mail and police industries. The final exhibit room is dedicated to the World War II production bikes, while a continuous loop playing on a screen features the high points of those war years. One of the more dazzling displays on the second floor is a wall of gas tanks painted in a myriad of colors and sporting a different tank badge or decal from past years production.

Downstairs is the continuation of the motorcycle production time-line, arranged in the same manner as upstairs, three bikes across, lined up nose-to-tail. The Gallery starts with a 1940 Big Twin and progresses through the current model line-up. But to get to the gallery you pass by a somewhat limited exhibit of Harley's customized by their owners. There are the usual suspects like the bikes of the movie Easy Rider. A double engine Knucklehead called King Kong just boggles the mind, looking first at the overall bike and then at the many, many small details.

Farther along on the gallery side of the building you will come to the "Design Lab" display where, on a riser in the middle of the area, is a very early Shovelhead prototype of a Softail next to a clay mock up of a V-Rod. The exhibit also contains sketches and notes from back in the '40s to present, from the engineering department to and through the formation of the styling department established in 1963. One of the hand-written notes we found most interesting is from Louie Netz in the styling department detailing how the AMF portion of the logo should be trimmed from the gas tank decals before being applied to the production gas tanks. This was back when the company was bought back from AMF by H-D management.

On the opposite side of the bottom floor of the museum is an exhibit of the American-produced lightweight Harleys starting from the late forties, using war-acquired engineering from Germany. The wall behind the lightweights (some 20 feet tall) is covered with colorful signs declaring the many features and virtues for the small bikes. Along the same wall we find a short description of the K-model/Sportster development, which then leads directly into a display of the Nova project-bike (non-running) along with drawings and scale wind tunnel models, in addition to mock up displays of V-4 and V-6 engines mostly designed by Porsche.

Along the opposite side in the same gallery is a boat mounted on the wall. Yes, a boat, a fiberglass boat. The boat was one of the products of the Tomahawk production company that H-D bought to produce their own fiberglass products including, saddlebags and fairings. Just below the boat was a beautiful example of the company's brief foray into the snowmobile market.

The last gallery before heading back out into the sunlight is the Experience Gallery. The Experience Gallery is a large room with Harley-Davidsons from different eras in the company's history and different models, from a '20s bike with a left-hand sidecar to a '60s Topper scooter. These bikes are suitably mounted for you to sit on and view the wall in front of you; the scene displayed taking you down some of the most beautiful motorcycle roads in the country.

Well, that's all the room we have to tell you about the Harley-Davidson Museum. It is by no means the whole story-we figured we would need at least a week to check out all the printed descriptions in every display throughout the building. Plus, the knowledge that many more bikes and artifacts will be rotated through the museum in the coming years virtually insures a new experience with every visit.

Stretching from the present back to the darkest reaches of the early 1900's, H-D's Motorcycle Gallery has examples of new and notable bikes for all model years, and the display will rotate frequently.
And you thought modern baggers could be gaudy?
Harley's first production V-Twin, setting the stage for all H-Ds to come.
The XLA was a WWII-era machine inspired by BMW's wartime models, with an opposed twin and sporting a shaft final drive.