I had a few extra hours in Milwaukee this afternoon, so I walked over the the new Harley-Davidson Museum. The museum is new to Milwaukee's construction ridden downtown, but Harley Davidson is not. The American icon celebrates it 105 birthday this year in the city that started it all.
Most people don't think of me as a Harley kind of guy. And that's okay, because, well, I'm not. But there the essence of the company and the motorcycle does touch that cord in me that sings out for the open road.
I did have a motorcycle license for a couple years. I was bored and unemployed in Helena, MT for a while, when i stumbled across a flyer advertising a two day motor cycle training class. At the end of the class, you took a road test. Then all you needed to do was take the written test from the state and you had your license. So a quick trip down to the local pawn shop to buy a helmet and I was in business. I had to give up my motorcycle license when I moved to Washington because the only way I could keep it was to take a road test.
The museum, though, is very cool. They have a huge collection fo bikes from throughout the company's history.
They have the oldest known Harley still in existence in a special display. In the main part of the museum, they highlgiht bikes throughout the ages, stating with these early models from the early 20th century.
The depth of information in the audio tour it helpful, and the placards are rather technical. If you are not already well-versed in the Harley lore much of it may go over your head. It certainly did with mine.
But as I walked through the exhibits, I could see the modern motorcycle evolve. Beginning in the 30s the bikes began to look more like what I see on the road today.
These were some of my favorites from the old bikes section.
This one does remind me of a Cylon, however (not unlike that train in St. Louis).
The museum has section dedicated to the early marketing material (which was surprisingly cool) engine technology, racing and hill climbing (which looks insane), and WWII.
The second half of the museum get even more interesting. Once they start highlighting the 50s thru the 80s the focus on customization and on the biker culture.
The have a separate room painted black to focus on the dark part of Harley's history -- the 1970s where the were owned by the AMF (the bowling company). During that time, sales fell, foreign competition increased, and quality fell apart.
In this part of the museum they also highlighted some of the odder Harley-Davidson products like boats, snow mobiles, and golf carts.
Can you imagine pulling up to a bar in Sturgis, SD, driving a Harley-Davidson golf cart? I might have to try that someday.
The last room in the museum is where you can finally mount up and pretend to ride. They have an assortment of motorcycles bolted to the floor so visitors can climb on top of them and feel what it's like to actually sit on at a real Harley.
The staff at the museum was exceedingly nice. I did not expect that. I don't know what I expected, though. Either they just hired an amazing collection of friendly, chatty, and super nice people, or the museum simply hasn't been open long enough for them to hve become jaded and angry by dealing with the public.
The layout is also a little unclear. While I like that they give people the freedom to meander through the rooms and displays, I would have preferred a clearer, more obvious suggested sequence. It's tough to keep track of what I'm learning when I keep getting confused by the chronology and path of discovery. But, as I've mentioned before, I tend to be a rather linear thinker who's not big on meandering. I'm actually that guy who reads most of the placards in a museum.
The museum is definitely worth a visit if you are a fan of the Road, of Harley-Davidson, of motorcycles, or simply of American icons.