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Harley-Davidson opens museum in Milwaukee

The company is 105 years old, weathered recessions, depressions, wars, and ups and downs and highs and lows and people have a lot of pride in Harley-Davidson. Milwaukee's new Harley-Davidson Museum, which opens today, features many collections and stories.

business Updated: Jul 12, 2008 12:08 IST

A banker held beloved motorcycle-maker Harley-Davidson's fate in 1984.

He could agree to refinance the $90 million loan that executives took out a few years before to buy the company back from American Machine and Foundry Co., or make them declare bankruptcy. The banker allowed the company to refinance - at the last minute - preserving Harley's folklore for decades to come. Why?

No one knows for sure, but company officials say he owned a Harley.

That story and many others about the company are featured at Milwaukee's new Harley-Davidson Museum, which opens Saturday. "In many ways Harley-Davidson's story mirrors the story of America," said company spokeswoman Rebecca Bortner. "The company is 105 years old, has weathered recessions, depressions, wars, and ups and downs and highs and lows ... I think that's one reason people have a lot of pride in Harley-Davidson."

The largest U.S. motorcycle maker is now a Fortune 500 company with nearly $6 billion annual revenue and a connection to its owners that is unrivaled in any industry. About half the motorcycles sold in the U.S. are Harleys, known for their sleek curves and roar. The company boasts more than 1 million members in its Harley Owners Group, or HOG.

The museum's 20-acre (8.09-hectare) site with three buildings of black brick, galvanized steel and glass will likely become a temple for Harley owners. It features about 200 bikes and other pieces of history and culture, and opens in time for the company's 105th anniversary celebration Aug. 28-31.

Among the motorcycles is the oldest Harley: Serial Number One. It's a pedal bike with a small engine, built by company founders William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson inside a 10-foot by-15-foot (3.05-meter-by-4.57-meter) wooden shed that had the words "Harley-Davidson Motor Company" scrawled on the door. Also featured is Elvis Presley's red and white 1956 Model KH, along with its January 1956 paperwork, which notes he bought it from a Memphis dealer, his payments were $50.15 a month and lists his occupation as a "vocalist-self-employed."

His reason for buying: "pleasure and business." Elvis bought it just a few months before his breakthrough single "Heartbreak Hotel" hit the top of the charts

"It was like he knew he was on his way and he wasn't going to Disneyland," Bortner said. "He was going to the dealership." Elvis was on the cover of Harley-Davidson's magazine, The Enthusiast, in May 1956 - an artifact also at the museum. Bill Halling, a 61-year-old family doctor from Des Moines, Iowa, got an early look - because he was a Harley owner for 15 years - at the museum and loved seeing all the bikes in one place, reading about the history and seeing the lighted wall of photos contributed by Harley riders.

"I'm really enraptured with Harley-Davidson," he said. "Riding a Harley changed my life from boring to exciting." Museum Director Stacey Schiesl expects the museum, which is near downtown, to attract 350,000 people a year from around the world. "It's a place where motorcycle enthusiasts, Harley-Davidson enthusiasts, will feel immediately at home," Schiesl said. "But it's also a place for people who are not yet part of Harley-Davidson really get a taste of the freedom and camaraderie and personal expression that our riders do feel every time they fire up a motorcycle."

A video screen features classic Harley moments in television and movies. Harleys have appeared in classics such as "Easy Rider," and "Pulp Fiction" and there are animated versions in "The Simpsons" TV show and movie. This year, Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf rode one in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Ten motorcycles from throughout the years give museumgoers a chance to feel a Harley beneath them.

Called Harley's version of a family tree, there's a wall of V-Twin engines that shows its evolution from 1909 to now. It includes interactive screens where people can hear how each engine sounds.

There are also the three-wheeled Servi-cars _ created during the Great Depression for commercial use to deliver ice, fish, milk _ and some of the almost 90,000 WLA Harley motorcycles created for use during World War II. The military contract was a big reason the company survived the war and why many people learned to ride, Schiesl said.

The company had about 90 percent of the items in its archives _ few have been seen by the public before _ but had to go to private owners to buy some items, Schiesl said. Those included some of the hill climbing bikes, board track racing bikes and early police bikes.

The company also bought a number of customized bikes - like one by the late Felix Predko of Pennsylvania. The King Kong is a 13-foot (3.96-meter)-long cycle with two seats and two engines. Schiesl said many of the construction workers who built the buildings were Harley fans, as is the museum restaurant's chef, who was inspired to put a peach cobbler on the menu after a ride he took in Georgia during peach season.

"There are a lot of people who are passionate about riding that have put this thing together," Schiesl said.