Cycle Source Takes A Day In The Harley Archives
Article By: Rob Keller Photos By: Chris Callen
Originally Published In The May 2015 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
A trip to Milwaukee Wisconsin would not be complete without visiting 400 W Canal Street. This is the home of all things Harley Davidson. This hallowed ground consisting of 20 acres and three buildings that measure up to about 130,000 square feet is the home of over 450 Harley Davidson motorcycles and hundreds of thousands of everything that says Harley Davidson. History here dates back to the very first blueprints that were drawn by William S Harley in 1901 that designed a gas powered engine to fit a bicycle through current year production motorcycles. We also learned with the help of our good friend Matt Walksler who was enjoying our personalized tour that in 1904 the first Harley Davidson motorcycles hit the production line. There was a little discussion about this between Matt and our tour advisor who stuck to his guns that the first production racer was produced in 1903 with the collaboration of William S Harley and Arthur Davidson. Arthur’s brother Walter later joined the duo and the three of them went on to make much of the history that is documented in iron, rubber, leather and paper throughout the museum.
The first steps of our tour took us directly to a beautiful mix of restored and original condition motorcycles that date back to the beginning of the Motor Company. As you walk beside these machines that have dedicated their existence to show the time line of their production you can’t help but wonder about how things must have been back in the day. If you close your eyes you can almost see the spirits of the men and women that rode these machines for work and for pleasure. I’m reminded of men like Larry Woods who at 84 years young still restores and rides these timeless gems. I think back to a day I was visiting his shop in Florida, watching him working on a 1910 Harley Davidson that he had restored to near perfect condition. He had sold the bike to a customer and the man brought it back because the engine had cold seized. Larry meticulously broke the engine free by using an electric motor to spin the rear wheel while he gently engaged the leather belt drive that connected the small engine to the transmission. As soon as smoke would come off the rear tire he would stop that process and spray lubricant into the cylinder through the spark plug hole. His patience was astounding and after several attempts the piston rings set free and the engine began to turn over. I thought about what a loss it will be when men that grew up riding and maintaining the old iron are all gone. They will take much knowledge and tricks of the trade with them and hopefully there will be enough of us left that have paid attention to keep it all working.
As you continue along the time line of motorcycles it was not uncommon to hear someone shout out with excitement, “I use to have one of those or “I know someone that has one just like that!” The time spent reminiscing alone is well worth the price of admission. There are displays of engine time lines including prototypes and racing development one offs. Racing and periodic clothing along with a life size reproduction an actual board track and the motorcycles that made them famous. One of Evel Knievels jumping bikes hangs suspended in mid air.
Harley Davidson takes great pride in their displays and is continually changing their exhibits. They have been collecting and storing everything that the Motor Company has produced including marketing posters, literature and basically anything that Harley Davidson ever produced including material in several different languages as Harley is a global company. They have done this from the very beginning so their history is well documented. One of my favorite parts of the museum is not open to the public except for special tours. The third floor is filled with motorcycles that are arranged and stored on moving platforms. They are stacked three high and in rows of six. Each section moves so you can view each motorcycle. Most of these motorcycles come with a story documented and researched by Harley to be true. Some are rare and some just there. Some came from veterans that bought them and died fighting for our freedom. If these bikes could talk they would tell the story of our great nation and the passion we have for our two wheeled ponies. Whether you ride or dream, this is a wonderful place to see and the tour guides are full of passion, energy and knowledge. It’s a place to learn and revive your sole. Especially when its 10 degrees below zero outside! Thanks Harley Davidson for showing us what you got!