A Joy Ride through American History

Harley-Davidson Museum ignites adventure in riders and non-riders alike

Whether you were born to be wild, or mild, makes no difference at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee – no matter who you are, you’ll come out of this museum with a little more swagger in your step.

“Harley-Davidson motorcycles bring adventure, freedom and rebellion into peoples’ lives,” said Rebecca Bortner, spokesperson for Harley-Davidson. “And after visiting the museum, many riders and non-riders say they are inspired and enriched in ways they never imagined.”

A Trip Through American History

The Harley-Davidson Museum celebrates the motorcycles invented by two quintessential “Wisconsin Originals,” William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. Not merely a nostalgia trip for motorcycle enthusiasts and “gear heads,” the museum offers a glimpse of American history and culture like you’ve never seen it before – through the successes and trials of an iconic American product.

Harley-Davidson navigated its way out of the industrial revolution, through a depression and a few recessions, two world wars, the quagmire of Vietnam and the cameras of Hollywood. And the museum has you rooting for Harley-Davidson through each twist and turn.

“Harley-Davidson’s story is the story of America’s recent history,” Bortner said. “A visit to the museum gives you a new view of that history – and you learn a lot about motorcycles along the way.”

Throughout history, Harley-Davidson motorcycles answered when its country called. Initially used to out-muscle the horses of Pancho Villa’s rebels in early century border skirmishes, Harley-Davidson motorcycles contributed to U.S. war efforts in World War I and an additional 90,000 Harleys helped bring a nation and planet back from the brink in World War II. The Harley-Davidson Museum displays three WLA models used in WWII (a variation on the civilian WL model; the “A” stands for army), a courier bike, a Navy Shore Patrol bike, three-wheeled special-duty bikes and a desert-fighting prototype.

“Harley-Davidson has a very long history with the military,” said Harley-Davidson Museum archives manager Bill Jackson. “The war gave a lot of guys their first exposure to bikes, and it was something they wanted to take home with them.”

Harley-Davidson’s Pop Culture Influence

But it is more than American history on display, also visible is Harley-Davidson’s influence on pop culture.

The Harley-Davidson experience is one of myth and legend, as motorcycles have long served as artistic symbols of rebellion and freedom stemming from the post-World War II subculture of “bikers:” freewheeling, thrill-seekers that represented the dawning of a new America. And through it all, Harley-Davidson was at the epicenter. Marlon Brando may have been The Wild One on a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T, but Lee Marvin – the film’s antagonist and wilder one – rode a Harley. So did Elvis Presley, who bought his first Harley just before the release of “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“We have Elvis Presley's 1956 Model KH, which he bought days before he became famous,” Bortner said. “We also have the original paperwork. It cost $903.19, his payments were $50 a month and he listed his occupation as ‘Vocalist: Self-Employed.’”

Recently, American Idol finalist and Milwaukee native, Danny Gokey, spent a few minutes at the Elvis exhibit during the show’s season finale visit to the city. “We had 200 excited fans here at the Museum screaming for their modern-day hero and heartthrob,” Bortner said. “I’m sure Elvis was smiling.”

“We have exact replicas of the bikes that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode in Easy Rider down to the buttons on the seats,” said Jackson – memorabilia from a film that tells the tale of two men who “went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

“For years there were rumors on what happened to the original bike – with the exception of the one used for the end of the movie,” Jackson said.

Other pop culture touchstones referenced at the museum include Neil Young’s Harley-riding “Unknown Legend,” Bruce Willis in "Pulp Fiction" and Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

“In April, we displayed the Softail Springer used in the latest Indiana Jones film and gave visitors a chance to have their photo taken on it,” Jackson said. “We also have a screen showing famous Harley movie clips, which is a lot of fun. There are scenes from "Pulp Fiction," "Streets of Fire" and even the one from "Starsky & Hutch" where Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson parody Easy Rider.”

Gain Street Credibility

One of the Harley-Davidson Museum’s most memorable aspects is its interactive exhibits. Visitors who have never ridden a bike before – including children – can sit in the saddle of a number of legendary bikes and enjoy a video simulation of the freedom and camaraderie felt while riding.

In the Engine Lab, you learn the science of an internal combustion engine. Then, through an interactive exhibit of H-D’s family tree of engines, you learn about the famous motors, like the Knucklehead or modern Revolution engine. An interactive touch screen gives you a chance to hear what the engines sound like and learn which bikes featured them.

“After a visit to the Engine Lab, an eight year old might be able to talk engines with a 20 year veteran rider,” Bortner said.

An Inspiring Visit

Harley-Davidson Museum tells an inspiring story. Harley-Davidson has always met challenges with the roar of a mighty V-Twin, the force of heavy metal thunder. The museum is full of reasons to believe in our culture, country and the future ahead.

“After my teenage niece and nephews visited the museum, we had a deep conversation about WWII and what it was like for servicemen to return from duty.” Bortner said. “I never would have guessed that motorcycles would be the catalyst for such a great conversation with teenagers.”

“I had more swagger in my step after that conversation.”


This entry was posted in Museums & Galleries