It didn't take much to get the attention of a tour group that was forming at the Harley-Davidson Museum. All that chief archivist Bill Jackson had to do was to ask if anyone rides a Harley. As guests called out their models and years, murmurs of approval went up in response.
And then Jackson got a laugh when he revealed his current choice: "I ride a 2008 Road King," he said. "It's the black Harley out there, you can't miss it."
It's clear from such exchanges, among other things, that there's a strong bond among Harley owners. And now they have another way to bond, visiting this newly opened museum in the city where it all began.
Though there's a special kinship among Harley owners, it's equally clear that anyone would feel welcome here. You don't have to be a Harley rider -- or even want to be one -- to spend a couple of hours being entranced by Harley history.
The building, set on the downtown banks of the Menomonee River, is quite a marvel, using exposed galvanized steel and glazed black brick, along with some wooden flooring salvaged from a knitting mill down the street. The combination gives it a contemporary look that pays homage to the city's industrial heritage. The museum is set on 20 acres of park-like green space where people can take advantage of the outdoors by walking the trails, biking and enjoying picnics.
There are many levels on which a visitor can explore the museum. The heart of the museum -- a collection of hundreds of motorcycles dating from 1903 to 1940 -- greets you immediately. This central gallery shows off Harleys three deep and 180 feet long, allowing visitors to get within inches of each model so they can be thoroughly inspected.
The museum is able to display 400 original models because the company, from its earliest days, began the practice of plucking a sample right off the assembly line and saving it. So, many of the motorcycles are virtually factory fresh. Others, painstakingly restored, gleaming and glowing, come from dealers and collectors.
Besides the iconically recognizable models, there's a 1919 FUS Army cycle that was made for the Mexican border campaign; a 1920 version marketed as "the women's outdoor companion"; a 1934 style in lipstick red (a colorful departure from the trademark black) that advertises the addition of chrome for an extra $13.50.
And then there are the fully customized examples: King Kong, a 13-foot-long cycle that took 40 years to build and includes two Knucklehead engines; the 1956 model that Elvis Presley owned; the Evel Knievel jump bike; the 1937 bike that broke the land speed record at Daytona Beach at 136.183 mph.
There's the 957 Billy Bike, identical to the one made famous in "Easy Rider" when it was ridden by Dennis Hopper, displayed in a gallery where "Bad to the Bone" was adding atmosphere to the moment.
Another featured bike is the 2003 Electra Glide, a piece of memorabilia from the company's 100th anniversary, completely covered with the signatures of 6,000 employees, each of whom signed in silver paint.
For history buffs, there's a gallery devoted to the story of how William A. Davidson, his two brothers, and their next door neighbor, William Harley, began experimenting with a gasoline engine to be used for a motorized bicycle that began the brand known around the world. Every part of those first experiments had to be designed and created by these young men. A 10-by-15-foot wooden shed on the Davidson property at 38th Street and Highland Avenue was where these tinkerers and inventors fabricated their earliest models.
Proudly protected behind glass is Serial Number One, the oldest known Harley still around, which has 28-inch white balloon tires, with pedals that were used to get the engine started. It's described as "essentially an engine, a frame and a set of wheels."
One has the feeling that Milwaukeeans and Harley lovers emptied their attics and garages to add to the richness of the museum. There are posters, pennants, postcards, slogans, and other advertising gimmicks. A brochure from 1906 brags: "We have not endeavored to see how cheap we could make it, but how good!"
Original catalogs are on display, along with discussion about how the identifying Bar & Shield (trademarked by 1910) came to be the company logo, said to be the second most-recognized logo in the world.
For the mechanical-minded, there are displays on the engineering and design of the machines, including sketches, prototypes and testing machinery. Then, each visitor gets a crack at custom designing a Harley using a computer program that allows replacing parts and paint for their own fantasy model.
There are also displays on the sport of racing, the business end (the story of how the company almost went under) and, of course, its cultural allure and the apparel so tied to the ride. Grainy 1941 film shows soldiers and cycles taking a beating as they ride over hills through the woods.
In a not-to-be ignored display, there's an orange wall where each engine is treated as a piece of art hung against the trademark orange to set off the engines. Another popular stop is the Engine Room, where visitors can push a button to hear the trademark sound of each engine as it revs up.
In another area, there is a 13-foot-tall section of board track that portrays the 45-degree angle where racers would push themselves and their bike to 100 mph. Other displays tell the story of Vivian Bales, who rode a motorcycle in 1929 from Albany, Ga., to Milwaukee because "I always wanted to do something most girls wouldn't do." The museum's lower level re-creates a dealership window from 1951, and there's plenty of clothing to transport older visitors back to their adolescence and early adulthood.
Threaded throughout the displays, there are clues to the company's successful relationship with its owners. For one, there was an early campaign to set up an independently owned dealer network. Ultimately, there were dealerships in 67 countries, including Samoa.
"That network was one of the smartest things the company did," archivist Jackson told a group that had gathered for a mini-talk. "It helped keep us alive when Harley was on its death bed." He passed around a passport showing stamps from many of the countries that executives had visited to set up the dealerships.
Riders, of course, play an important role in Harley life and tribute is paid to them with a large wall of photographs and home movies that show bikes parked at beaches, parks and curbside at rallies.
At the end of the visit, guests can sit on any of a large collection of bikes as a wall-filling movie gives the illusion that they are on the open road.
Finally, they can go to the museum's top floor to visit the workroom, from behind a cyclone fence, where restorers are repairing motorcycles, which are stored on racks surrounding them.
Given all that's available to be seen, anyone wearing leathers wouldn't need to be sold on a visit, but even those attired in sneakers and pants with elastic bands should be delighted, too.
As was a 75-year-old woman, who was heard to say as she was leaving: "Well, tomorrow, I'm taking my grandchildren to the ballet. But our next outing will be here."
If you go
Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 West Canal St., Milwaukee, www.h-dmuseum.com or (877) 436-8738.
Tickets: $16 adults, $12 senior citizens, $10 ages 5-17, free for ages under 5. Audio tours are available for $5 extra.
Two restaurants: Motor, serves lunch and dinner; Cafe Racer, serves breakfast and lunch. Both serve daily.
The Shop sells apparel, art, books and collectibles.
Accessibility: There is handicap parking as well as complimentary wheelchairs on a first-come, first-serve basis. Service animals are allowed.
Photography is allowed throughout the complex.
Factory tours are available at the Capital Drive plant, about 10 miles away from the museum. Info: (877) 883-1450, www.harley-davidson.com/experience.
Iron Horse Hotel, 500 West Florida St., a short walk from the museum, is a newly opened timber-frame construction warehouse which has been turned into a boutique hotel, meant for business people or bikers. Sleek and contemporary, it features covered motorcycle parking with rag bins and check-in carts to transport the contents of your saddle bags to your hotel room and a lobby designed for guests arriving in high heels or riding boots. Call (888) 543-4766 or visit www.theironhorsehotel.com.