Go Hog Wild at the Harley-Davidson Museum
By Larry Edsall
MILWAUKEE – Yes, we know this is ClassicCars.com. That's cars as in four-wheel vehicles. But even if you've never ridden a Harley, or any other motorcycle for that matter, and even if you're among those who cringe at the low but loud rumble of a Harley engine, the new Harley-Davidson Museum is well worth the admission price.
As early as 1901, William S. Harley, barely beyond his teenage years, was working to design and build an engine that would mount on a bicycle frame and drive the bike's rear wheel. In 1903, Harley and a year-younger friend from his high school days, Arthur Davidson, a patternmaker at the boat engine company that would become famous as Evinrude, put a sign on a shed behind the Davidson house. The sign on the 10x15-foot wooden structure proclaimed it the home of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
Soon, Davidson's brothers Walter and William, both of whom were working on the railroad, one as a machinist, the other as a shop foreman, joined the company and the rest, as they say, is history.
That history, a wonderfully American story of ups and downs, struggles and successes, is thoroughly and gorgeously displayed in the new Harley-Davidson Museum that opened here in July on the banks of the Menomonee River and Canal just southwest of downtown Milwaukee.
The museum is located in the central of three new buildings. To the west is the Harley-Davidson Archives. As far back as 1915, the company began preserving at least one bike from each model year. Now that collection includes more than 450 Harley-Davidson motorcycles, most of which have been disassembled, thoroughly cleaned and then reassembled.
To the south of the museum is a building that houses a gift shop, a restaurant and a café.
But the centerpiece of the project is the museum.
Though you enter on the first floor, you start your tour on the second floor, where the central hallway displays Harley-Davidson motorcycles through the 1940s. On one side of that hallway are rooms that showcase the company's history, from the first motorcycle through World War II.
On the other side of the hallway are two rooms: one, a huge cube, to display Harley-Davidson engines and engine technology (including several hands-on displays); the other, an egg or oval racetrack-shaped room, provides an in-depth look at motorcycle racing and at Harley-Davidson clubs.
Between the Engine Room and the “Clubs and Competition” displays, and from the “Tank Wall” display beyond the racing room, the central and end hallways overlook the museum's first floor, where motorcycles from the 1940s through current models are on display along one wall.
Beneath the upstairs hallway and racing room are more Harley historical displays, including special tributes to customized bikes and to American motorcycle culture (and movies). There also is a ramp from which a replica of Evil Knievel's Wembley jump bike appears to be sailing through the air.
Beneath the engine room is The Design Lab with displays about Harley-Davidson engineering and design, complete with original design drawings and clay models and prototype parts.
Then, just before the exit, there's The Experience Gallery, a room that resembles a drive-in theater, except that instead of parked cars there are motorcycles to try as you watch the scenery pass on the screen.
Admission is $16 for adults, $12 for seniors (65-and-older), and $10 for children (ages 5-17).
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