The Trooper goes home (almost)

Milwaukee is the home of Harley-Davidson, and I couldn’t visit the city without also visiting the Harley-Davidson museum and factory. I’d booked into my hotel in Milwaukee for 2 nights, expecting to hang out with Thomas and Travis in the evenings, so I thought I had the whole day to visit the museum and I wasn’t in rush. I was thankfully managing to sleep in a little later, and had gone downstairs at the hotel at around 8am for a coffee and a smoke. While I was standing around outside smoking, a couple of other biker’s were loading their BMWs, and we got to chatting.

One of the first things people on the road tend to ask each other is “Where you are from?” Angel and Monica were from Mexico City and had ridden up to Milwaukee on the 2 BMWs over 4 days with their friend whose name, I’m embarrassed to say, escapes me. They’d been to the Harley-Davidson Museum the day before and were going back again that morning for the Steel Toe factory tour. I asked what time it started and it is just as well I did because it was 9am, and if I didn’t get my skates on, I was going to miss it.

Harley-Davidson Museum From ChicagoMilwaukee

I went back up to my room to get my gear, and when I came down Angel and Monica were just finishing packing the bikes, so I asked if I could tag along with them. The Trooper followed the BMWs through the wet streets of Milwaukee. At the junction into the Harley-Davidson Museum, there was a hairy moment on the slippery wet road as the Trooper’s back wheel locked up and we slid a little. Luckily balance was restored before crashing into Angel, and we all pulled into the museum.

The Trooper with the BMWs and Angel, Monica and friend outside the Harley-Davidson Museum From ChicagoMilwaukee

There is a special parking area right at the front of the museum especially for bikes with the sign “Bikes Only. No Cages”. We’d arrived early, so I grabbed a photo of the three of them with the bikes outside the museum. They said that they’d had some disapproving looks the day before from the Harley riders there when they pulled up on the BMWs. I had no qualms about parking with them, but when I left the parking later that afternoon the Trooper was all alone on that side of the lot, all the other Harley-Davidsons were parked on the other side of the lot.

When we went inside to get the tickets for the Steel Toe factory tour, there was only one ticket left for the 9am tour, and no other tickets until the following day. Angel, Monica and friend were a threesome and one wouldn’t go on their own. I felt so bad for them, they’d stayed an extra night in Milwaukee especially so they could take the tour. I wouldn’t have even been there if they hadn’t told me it started at 9am – but I was the one who got the last ticket.

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Harley-Davidson produced it’s first motorcycle in a wooden shed in Milwaukee in 1903. Today Milwaukee is still home to the Harley-Davidson’s corporate headquarters, design facility and museum, but all production is now done outside of the city, since “Big Twin” powertrain (engines and transmissions) production moved outside the city to the Pilgrim Way plant in Menomonee Falls last year. Assembly is done at two other facilities, in York, Pennsylvania and Kansas City, Missouri.

The Menomonee Falls Steel Toe factory tour starts off from the museum with a 20 minute bus ride out to Pilgrim Way. The tour is of a working factory, so you get a safety video on the bus ride and yes, you do need to put steel toe protectors over your boots, and wear safety goggles. The tour starts with a brief, informative explanation of how a Harley engine works, including why it makes the distinctive Harley-Davidson “da-dum, da-dum” sound.

Then it’s off around the factory proper. Harley-Davidson make as much in-house as they can and where it’s not economical for them to do so, they tend to source as locally as possible. They don’t, for example, run their own foundry, but they do machine almost all their parts from slugs provided from a local foundry – that’s true at least as far as the powertrain plant is concerned.

Most of the machining at the Pilgrim Way plant is performed by robots, and over half the tour takes in this mechanised part of the factory – seeing the various stages of production, with explanations, along the way, of the various heat treatments, waste metal recovery and recycling, etc.

The last part of the tour is around the engine assembly, which is done primarily by humans with computer assistance. The assembly line at Menomonee Falls produces 24 variants of 6 basic engine types.

The tour is low-key, informal but professionally presented. It’s definitely worth a visit if you have more than a passing interest in motorcycles, especially Harley-Davidsons, or if you are a factory geek. The tour lasts about 3 hours, including the bus rides there and back. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in the factory, so I have no photos to show.

The bus ride back to the museum gives a final opportunity to ask questions. One of questions that got asked that I thought was quite interesting was whether H-D had considered moving the York and Kansas operations to Wisconsin. All through the tour, the guide had mentioned that they tried to keep things as local as possible whenever they had to source things outside of the H-D family. The reason for the H-D operations being spread across the country is historical. During World War 2, manufacturing operations were purposely distributed in case of sabotage. That rational was no longer valid and moving all the operations closer together would certainly save on transportation costs, if nothing else. The tour guide’s answer to this question was quite refreshing. He said that of course it would make sense to move the operations closer together, and that this question was one that often got raised, but that H-D had no current plans to do it, especially in the current economic climate as it would inevitably been putting people out of jobs and that would be irresponsible right now. I was impressed by this attitude and I hope it does truly reflect the H-D corporate attitude rather than just that of the tour guide. So many of the companies I’ve worked with in the UK think very little of the people and local economies that made them what they are, and continually seem to go for cheapest option, putting jobs over to India & like, destroying the local jobs and perhaps more importantly local talent and expertise. Perhaps one day the whole of the US and UK will be working in McJobs, and all the expertise will be on the other side of the world. Off-shoring won’t be so cheap then.

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After the Steel Toe tour, I spent a couple of hours wandering around the Harley-Davidson Museum – admission to which was included as part of the cost of the Steel Toe tour ($38).

Harley-Davidson Museum From ChicagoMilwaukee

The museum certainly has a very impressive collection of H-D motorcycles – ranging from the very early ones of the 1900s right up to latest models like the water-cooled V-Rods (all other H-D models are air-cooled, but I’ve heard a rumour this is going to change in the years to come).

 Serial Number One From ChicagoMilwaukee

The museum has “Serial Number One” – the oldest Harley-Davidson in the world, on display.

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There is also a good exhibit on the evolution of the Harley-Davidson engines from the early 1900’s singles and twins, through classic V-twin models like the Panhead and Knucklehead, through to the modern engines like the water-cooled Revolution.

There’s exhibits on Harley-Davidsons in the police, armed services and US postal service, including a prototype desert motorcycle with really fat tyres that Harley-Davidson made for the US Army for the North African campaign in World War 2 – in the end Jeep won the contract for a desert vehicle. The new Captain America movie features a Harley-Davidson. This is actually a modern Cross Bones model dressed to look like a 1940’s era bike – the power of a modern bike was needed for the stunts in the movie.

There is an exhibit on Harley-Davidson’s iconic status – especially in the movies. There are replicas of the choppers used by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the movie Easy Rider.

Peter Fonda’s Captain America chopper from Easy Rider From ChicagoMilwaukee

 And numerous examples of heavily customised H-Ds – several of which cross well into grotesqueness – but are impressive nonetheless for the amount of time and effort the customisers have put into them.

I’d recommend the Harley-Davidson museum to anyone with even a passing interest in motorcycles and American culture – it’s well worth a few hours of your time.


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