Are you an American? Are you a motorcyclist? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to go and visit the Harley-Davidson Museum. You could also be neither, and I would still encourage you to check it out. You will not be disappointed, I promise you that. By now, if you’ve read any of my articles, you already know I’m a big H-D fan. I grew up on and around Harleys and their chopper variants my whole life – it’s in my blood – so visiting the Harley-Davidson museum has been on my bucket list since forever, and I’m glad to have finally crossed it off.
But it’s all the way in Milwaukee… of course it is! It is the birthplace and HQ of Harley-Davidson, after all. Milwaukee is also a really cool up-and-coming town with plenty of entertainment, neat bars and great restaurants. It’s basically the brewing capital of the world too, so the Museum wouldn’t be the only highlight of your trip to MKE.
From its humble beginnings to what it’s grown into today, the Harley-Davidson Museum chronicles the brand’s impressive history in every which shape and form, and below are eight interesting things I saw or learned about while there, though I could probably ramble on forever…
It all started in a 10- by 15-foot, one-story tall shed located in the back of the Davidson family’s home. The shed was built in 1903 with the help of the Davidson brothers’ father, who was a cabinetmaker. The shed was located at 38th St. and what is now Highland Blvd in Milwaukee. For two years prior to that, the boys (who were barely even 22) worked in a machine shop somewhere in Milwaukee’s North End. In 1906, the new Harley-Davidson company moved to a bigger wooden building across the street, which is now the present-day site of the company’s headquarters, but the shed remained.
As the business took off, an addition in 1904 doubled the shed’s size and it was later moved across the street during the teens. Sometime in the early 1970s, however, the shed was mistakenly destroyed during a site renovation…
Serial Number One
The motorcycle you see above is known as Serial Number One, and it’s a bit of a mystery, even to Harley-Davidson experts. Its engine is very early, circa 1903, but doesn’t match what experts know about the first engines produced by Harley-Davidson. The frame dates to 1905, however it is not original to this motorcycle. These anomalies have sparked much debate among H-D experts and historians.
During the 1990s, the bike’s restorers discovered a number “1” stamped inside various components, inspiring the bike’s nickname. There is not much else known about Serial Number One, but due to all the questions it’s raised, it’s become a legend in Harley-Davidson culture. However, one thing is for sure: This is the oldest Harley-Davidson in the world.
Arthur Davidson’s Passport
Seeing Arthur Davidson’s 1915 passport was pretty special, because it’s not on display in the Museum, but rather stored in almost vault-like archives. In the upper left hand corner it reads, “The person to whom this passport is issued has declared under oath, that he desires it for use in visiting the countries hereinafter named for the following objects: Remaining in England and Scotland on motorcycle business [and] returning to the United States of America.”
Arthur Davidson was 32 at the time and was travelling to the UK to meet with other motorcycle builders like Triumph and Norton. Additionally, he would learn more about the racing scene there and specifically the International Auto-Cycle Tourist Trophy, now known as the Isle of Man TT. There was no racing between 1915-1919 due to the First World War, however the knowledge Davidson acquired and would bring back to the U.S. was invaluable.
The bottom left description corner is interesting too. Apparently Arthur Davidson had a regular nose and a medium mouth. Better than brown and loud, I suppose…
The Tank Wall
Ahh, the famous tank wall, why can’t I just have it in my living room? It’s so gosh darn pretty. Fuel tanks are the main canvas upon which any motorcycle can be completely differentiated from another, even if it’s the same model. This happens to be the case here, because each one is painted on a contemporary Fat Bob tank. There are 100 different tanks that span nearly 80 years, and they have been chosen for their memorable graphics that often reflect the times in which they were created. They’re presented in chronological order from right to left, and the various logos, art, paint schemes and pinstriping all harken back to the styles of each era.
I tried to choose my favorite, but I couldn’t pick just one. Instead, Harley-Davidson employees encourage you to seek out the tank from your birth year.
Vivian Bales “The Enthusiastic Girl”
“It makes me so mad to hear folks saying that a motorcycle is dangerous, and especially that no girl should ride one. I always wanted to do something that most girls wouldn’t do, and my motorcycle gave me the chance to satisfy my adventurous spirit.” – Vivian Bales, 1929
Vivian Bales did do something extraordinary. In 1929, she rode her Harley-Davidson from Albany, Ga., to H-D headquarters in Milwaukee. She bought her Harley when she was only 17 and later went on to say, “I’ve never been sorry I saved my money and bought my first motorcycle.”
Before she left Albany, Ga., for Milwaukee, she had never been out of that town. Since then, however, she rode and traveled all over America, talked with the President of the United States and had autographs from the mayors and chiefs of police in every town she stopped in. Vivian had been the focus of feature stories in newspapers all across the U.S. and had even been in movies. She passed away in 2001.
Incredible. It’s cool to see how Vivian’s spirit has lived on and embodied itself in so many girls who set out onto the open road today, some 90 years later.
Earl Robinson’s Transcontinental Record
Earl Robinson rolled into Los Angeles at 1:54 AM the morning on September 19, 1935, having left New York only 77 hours and 53 minutes before. That’s three days, five hours and 53 minutes for those counting… He piloted a stock 1935 45-cubic inch RLD Harley-Davidson and absolutely smashed the previous record by a margin of 38 hours and 43 minutes. The previous record was held by the Whiting brothers duo, who rode a 74-cubic inch motorcycle from another, non-disclosed make. Making the feat even more impressive, not a single repair was required on Earl’s Harley during the grueling 3005-mile journey between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.
To throw another stat at you, during Earl’s ride from New York to LA, he travelled at a constant average speed of almost 39 mph. That might not seem fast by today’s standards, but this was over 80 years ago when all he had was a springer front end and the meat on his ass to quell 3005 miles worth of bumps – gnarly!
Carl Reese is the most recent lunatic to set the record, traveling a total of 2,829 miles from LA to NYC in a psychotic, wait for it… 38 hours and 49 minutes! He completed the journey on his 2015 BMW K 1600 GT.
1972 Harley-Davidson MC-65 “Shortster”
Called the “Shortster,” a pun on the popular Sportster line, the MC-65 was the first of Harley-Davidson’s minibikes during the Aermachhi era. The second was the X-90 and was released in 1973. Weighing in at a feathery 126 lbs, the Shortster is the smallest motorcycle ever made by the Motor Co. and could fit in the back of most cars.
Its motor is a 65cc two-stroke and it claimed to pack more power than any of its competitors, like the Honda Z50 and Kawasaki MT1/KV75. Harley-Davidson marketed it as “the mini-cycle that’s mighty like a motorcycle,” and it attempted to serve as a gateway drug to ultimately hook the buyer on a Sportster.
Randy Smith’s “Magnum” OHV/Sidevalve V-Twin
Forgive me, I couldn’t help but throw at least one chopper in here… A masterful mechanical design engineer, some have called Randy Smith the Godfather of Custom Cycles. Smith delighted in creating custom parts for factory bikes and crafting “cut-downs, bobbers and choppers,” custom motorcycles that delivered unique performance capabilities, which were often achieved through combinations of unlikely parts. Such is the case with Randy’s “Magnum.”
The Magnum’s engine features an unlikely marriage between a 45-cubic inch 1941 WR Flathead bottom end and a newer (at the time) 55-cubic inch overhead valve Ironhead top end. This bike was Randy’s unique response to the age-old engineering challenge of acceleration – how to increase horsepower in a lightweight machine. At the time the Magnum was conceived, the Sportster model was popular among racers, and Randy wanted to engineer a bike that was lighter and faster, as well as rugged and reliable enough to be safe and street legal.
Several modifications and tests later, the end result was a bike that weighed less than 320 lbs Harley says (Smith claimed 203 lbs) and hit 106 mph in a quarter-mile drag. I highly doubt the entire bike weighed 203 lbs, but I like Randy’s optimism and hey, 106 in the quarter-mile using a mish-mash of 1940s and ‘50s engine parts ain’t bad. Other modifications included changes to the bike’s transmission, frame, suspension and brakes, including the addition of a Ceriani racing fork and brakes. And just for fun, he converted a welding mask into a windshield.
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