11 June 2018

Harley-Davidson Museum is an American history tour


Words: Roderick Eime

If there is a shrine to motorcycling in America, it has to be here in Milwaukee. 115 years old this year, the iconic brand tells the story of this great nation through motorcycles.

Swoon: Dot Smith and her 1939 Knucklehead Harley-Davidson

She sits astride the burly motorcycle like it was made for her. With custom-made, personalised gloves, scarf and a dainty bow in her tied-back hair, Dorothy 'Dot' Smith smiles like all her birthdays have come at once.

Her petite frame and delicate demeanor completely subdue the intimidating machine, a 1939 Harley-Davidson EL 'Knucklehead', as if it were some savage beast entranced - as am I - by her effortless beauty and poise.

Dot's story is just one of many hundreds collected here at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was one of the charter members of the all-girl 'Motor Maids' motorcycle club in 1940 along with 50 others such as founders, Australian-born 'Dot' Robinson and Linda Dugeau. If Dot were alive today, she would be well over 90. The club, however, continues to thrive with more than 1200 members in the USA and Canada.

Bill Davidson (H-D supplied)
Overall head of the museum is Bill Davidson, great-grandson of founder, William A. Davidson. I was fortunate enough to meet Bill and his wife Angie when he toured Down Under in 2017 for the brand's Australian 100-year celebrations.

“The Museum is not only the story of Harley-Davidson – it’s the story of America, told through the lens of an iconic company,” says Bill, “and here we are 115 years later and that dream of my Davidson relatives and Bill Harley is still alive and going strong,”

The presence of this hallowed shrine here in the state's capital, just a short drive north of Chicago, ensures a steady flow of leather-clad faithful to the city from all over the world. If you want to get a picture of the strength of this international congregation, be here on a Thursday night for 'Bike Night' when hundreds upon hundreds throng the parking lot with their wildly customised Hogs and revel in music and good times.

Every Thursday night is bike night (RE)
The collection comprises some 400 hundred bikes either on display or in archive storage on the 20-acre campus, coddled and guarded by round-the-clock security. The venerated motorcycles range from the ultra-rare, highly prized and priceless to the simply curious. I stand in front of the famous No.1, a part pedal-powered bicycle, enthroned in its own chamber, adjacent the first 60-deg V-Twin of 1909 which set the marque on its trademark design journey. The value of these two bikes alone is incalculable.

Ol' Number One. The world's most valuable Harley? (RE)

Then there are the weird and wacky, like the 2004 Night Train which took a year to float 4000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a sealed container from Japan after the tsunami. Its owner, respectful of the immense tragedy, refused an offer of a new bike and donated the corroded remains to the museum where it sits in a display case like an archaeological find. And then there is the mighty ‘King Kong’, a dual engine, radical customisation akin to a vintage sci-fi spacecraft.

The bizarre 'King Kong', dual-engined bike of 1942 (RE)

As you've already gathered, this museum is more than just bikes. It's a celebration of American folklore, culture and legend as much as it is engineering and innovation. Many of the great movie motorcycles can be found here such as those from Easy Rider, Marvel's Captain America, Terminator and Elvis’ own 1956 KH as well as the stories that bring them to life.

Those with a confirmed dedication to the Milwaukee icon should allow themselves at least a full day to absorb the total experience and it is this writer's strong recommendation to find the extra four bucks for the superbly researched and produced audio tour that details not only the machines on display but the personalities behind them.

When you visit, be sure to give my love to Dot.


Visiting the museum:

The Museum is open Oct-April 10am – 6pm Mon-Wed and Fri-Sun. Thursdays 10am – 8pm (from 9am May-Sept) and parking is free. For more information on the museum’s galleries, exhibits, special events, tickets, theme tours and more, visit www.h-dmuseum.com. HOG members are free. The complex includes a vast gift shop plus a bar and restaurant, Motor.

Staying nearby:

Iron Horse Hotel
Classy, retro motorcycle-themed hotel, an easy walk from the museum.
500 W Florida St, Milwaukee, WI 53204
PH +1 414.374.4766
TripAdvisor 4.5/5

More:

Milwaukee CVB www.visitmilwaukee.org

Flickr Album: www.flickr.com/photos/rodeime/albums/72157695707654181

Fun Facts:
  • Several identical 1991 Fat Boy motorcycles were made for the movie, Terminator 2. The one on display was ridden by Schwarzenegger during filming.
  • The gleaming chrome machine as ridden by Peter Fonda in 'Easy Rider' is believed to be one used in the movie, but my guide, Mitch, avoids committing himself to absolute authenticity.
  • A circa-1927 FHA 8-Valve V-Twin racer complete with its scramble-type sidecar recently sold at auction in Australia for AUD$600,000 (US$420,000)




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