Harley-Davidson Museum Opens to Motorcycle Fans

Motorcycle riders now have their own version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: the first-ever Harley-Davidson Museum. This Saturday, the $75 million homage to the Harley opens in Milwaukee, where the company headquarters have been located since 22-year-old Arthur Davidson and 23-year-old William Harley built their first motorbike in 1903. The grand opening will feature the governor of Wisconsin, the mayor of Milwaukee, four bands and a tattoo artist. (If you were hoping to get inked, you're out of luck: the tattoo artist is only doing 10 pre-selected people, including company CEO Jim Ziemer.)

The museum celebrates 105 years worth of history, as told through its choppers, from Evel Knievel's stunt bike to more pedestrian U.S. Postal Service and military motorcycles. With Harley still selling half of all U.S. heavyweight motorcycles, designed for highway cruising, and fan clubs around the world, it's no surprise that company officials expect 350,000 people a year to take it all in.

The 20-acre site, which includes parking spaces for 1,000 motorcycles and 500 cars, looks very, well, Harley, with lots of black and orange paint, 1,200 tons of steel and plenty of bricks. (Steel and bricks were chosen, says Harley-Davidson spokeswoman Amanda Lee, because, "They're very honest materials. They're reflective of the industrial history of the city.") The site officially fits 15,000 people, while the museum itself can hold 1,300. Company officials are encouraging rallies, parties and weddings. White leather, anyone?

And, as befits the Harley brand, everything is oversized. The doors into the museum are 17 feet tall, an enormous steel Harley-Davidson sign weighs in at 23,000 pounds and even the view, of the Menomonee River and nearby smokestacks, is big. A full tour will take about two hours, as visitors traipse through thematic galleries focused on how engines work, on clubs and competition, on custom culture and on the design process. The engines room is a family tree of the major motors over the past century, all lovingly displayed on the wall near buttons that allow visitors to hear how each engine sounds. Overall, it's remarkable how unchanged the famous "potato-potato-potato" sound has remained through the years.

The museum also devotes space to racing and hill-climbing, the latter a popular extreme sport in the 1930s. Riders put chains on their wheels, reduced the sizes of their gas tanks, widened their handlebars and headed up muddy, loose rock. As you'd expect, there are photos of old riders who raced through the pine forests in the '20s, '30s and '40s and motorcycle legends like Joe Petrali, who in 1937 broke the land-speed record by going 136mph, as well as actual hill-climbing bikes on display.

Think Harleys have just been for biker-gang outlaws like those in "The Wild One"? Think again—the bikes were a part of both civilian and government life. One exhibit displays the three-wheeled motorcycles that the U.S. Postal Service used in 1916 because they were cheaper to maintain than horses. Another shows Harley's police motorcycles, manufactured for the past 100 years. And hog fans can also see that women have been riding Harleys for almost as long as they've existed. One display case features photos and newspaper clips about Vivian Bales, who bought a cycle in 1929 and rode solo from Albany, Ga., to Milwaukee. Bales wrote about it for Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine, which is still published quarterly.

Be sure not to miss highlights such as Felix Predko's 13-foot-long, two-engine "King Kong" motorcycle; Russ and Peg Townsend's 1973 rhinestone-encrusted bike, and Elvis Presley's 1956 Harley. The museum even displays paperwork proving that the King got a loan to buy a Harley just days before he became famous with the hit single "Heartbreak Hotel." (In the space on the loan form that asks for an applicant's occupation, Presley wrote "vocalist, self employed.") The exhibit also features exact replicas of the two bikes ridden by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 movie "Easy Rider."

Harley-Davidson's longtime marketing savvy is also in full display—especially in the Depression exhibit. To try to sell bikes during the Depression, Harley began selling them in bright colors instead of the traditional olive green. It was a hit: people started looking at their motorcycles as a way to express themselves, not just as a way to get around. Also in the 1930s, Harley introduced functional Servi-Cars (three-wheeled cycles with bins in back) that delivered milk, soft drinks and ice cream.

Curators even include exhibits on the company's low points—the "outlaw" image and the bleak 1969-1981 period when American Machinery and Foundry owned the company. During the 1970s, Harley was even briefly in the snowmobile, golf cart and boating business. In 1981, a group of investors bought back the company—they invested $1 million and borrowed $90 million—and Harley regained its cachet.

Of course, for true Harley lovers, the two-story museum's pièce de résistance will almost certainly be serial No. 1, the oldest Harley in the world. It's dramatically presented, "Mona Lisa"-like, in a glass display case with a thin, 10-by-15-foot strip of light on the wooden floor around the cycle showing the size of the wooden shed where the original founders built their first machine. "It's to give it the reverence it deserves," says museum director Stacey Schiesl.

And Harley fans are ready to pay homage. "To me, you buy Kawasaki or a Yamaha, it's just a bike," says aficionado George Hernandez, 43. "With a Harley, you buy history."

For more information or to buy tickets visit www.h-dmuseum.com. (Tickets are $16 for adults and $10 for kids ages 5 to 17.)