Hey there folks. You are in for a really big treat with this post! So, I was required to spend four days last week in Milwaukee for work. That’s right, Milwaukee in late January……brrrrrrrrr cold. However, there was a huge silver lining to having to make this particular trip up north in the middle of winter. I could finally cross something off my bucket list – a visit to the Harley-Davidson museum.
Below I take you through my experience at the Harley-Davidson museum. In particular, I will walk you through the layout of the main exhibits (I took a total of 305 pictures while inside the museum). Additionally, I will highlight some interesting tidbits of knowledge that I picked up about the company that I didn’t previously know. I imagine that if I didn’t know these things (despite being a long-time Harley-Davidson enthusiast), you might not know them either and will find them equally fascinating.
Before getting started, however, I want to say kudos to Harley-Davidson for putting together a truly amazing facility. Riders of all makes and models can appreciate what you have done here, as it is hands-down the most comprehensive and interesting motorcycle museum I have ever attended.
The Harley-Davidson museum is a huge, multi-building facility located in downtown Milwaukee. There are essentially three buildings: (1) Museum, (2) Restaurant/Gift Shop, and (3) The Garage. The last one is used for events and can be rented out for parties. The restaurant on-site is actually quite good and made for a good pit-stop after my flight and before entering the museum.
For the museum, I highly recommend purchasing the audio tour. It costs $4 on top of the entry fee and provides narration by famous people associated with the company to accompany the exhibits.
The Harley-Davidson museum is setup in chronological order, starting on the second floor. The second floor includes a main gallery, showcasing motorcycles from 1903 to 1940, with special exhibits along each side.
The photos below are from the main gallery. As you can imagine, the motorcycles from this era included many singles, followed by the introduction of the v-twin all the way up to the Knucklehead.
Special Exhibit 1: Serial #1
The first special exhibit is a room built around Serial #1, which stands in a fully-enclosed case lit from the bottom. This particular bike is the oldest motorcycle in the Harley-Davidson collection. The motorcycle is not actually the first motorcycle produced by the company, but restorations during the 1990’s revealed that several significant components of the motorcycle are stamped “1.” In other words, these parts were among the first machined parts used by the founders, leading to the motorcycle’s nickname. The same exhibit also include a 1905 Buckboard motor (one of the earliest surviving Harley-Davidson engines), the company’s incorporation papers, minutes from the first meeting of the company’s stockholders, and a book containing certificates for the first shares of the Harley-Davidson motor company. One item I found particularly interesting was a book listing the production numbers from 1902 to 1920. These values could be particularly handy if you are trying to buy a motorcycle from that era and want to know if the VIN and case numbers make sense based on the number of motorcycles produced that year (see related post on buying vintage motorcycles).
Special Exhibit 2: Engine Room
The next special exhibit on the second floor was the engine room. Here you have a wall displaying every engine the company has ever made. This is where my knowledge of the company was challenged a little. There were a few engines that I did not recognize, including an opposed sport twin, an experimental (single-cylinder) Knucklehead, the XA opposed twin, and the Nova V-4. What was also neat was that there were a few cut-away engines, where you could see inside them, and computer terminals where you could read specifications and listen to each engine’s respective sound.
Special Exhibit 3: Knucklehead, Servi-cars, and War Bikes
Across from the engine room was a special exhibit dedicated to the Knucklehead, Servi-cars, and War Bikes. The Knucklehead is a legendary bike, retaining the best of the past and spring-boarding the company into the future. Some cool things in the War room were the blackout equipment kits for the WLs (so they could safely be run after dark) and a motorcycle made for the US Navy (usually you just see the Army bikes).
Special Exhibit 4: Racing and Hill Climbing
The next special exhibit was my favorite in the Harley-Davidson museum – the racing and hill-climb room. In this room, there was a reconstructed board track with some of the most famous board track racers mounted in race position. Additionally, there was a near vertical wall with famous hill climbers mounted in climb position. Finally, there was the EL factory streamliner, which in March 1937 broke the land-speed record at 136.183 mph. I spent a lot of time in this room, because you literally could feel the history and the energy.
Special Exhibit 5: The Tank Room
The next and final special exhibit on the second floor was the tank room, which really was a wall of gas tanks set up in chronological order from oldest to newest. This was actually cool for me because I could pinpoint what my 1972 Shovelhead gas tanks are supposed to look like, while also pinpointing what year tanks I actually have based on the emblems (1950s).
The Archives – Third Floor
After the second floor, I took the elevator up to the third floor before heading downstairs to view the rest of the museum. The third floor is the home of the archives. Like any other museum, the Harley-Davidson museum has way more motorcycles in its inventory than it can display at any given time. They also have spare engines, parts, etc. A special tour of the archives can be booked on certain days and times. Unfortunately, I was not there on one of those days, so had to view the archives through the metal cage. At any given time, there are usually a couple people working in the archive area, restoring a motorcycle for the collection. What was really amazing was how many additional motorcycles were up there. The motorcycles are stored on floor-to-ceiling (and these were no short ceilings!) mechanical racks that can be moved by remote control. To be honest, I kind of wanted to yell to the two guys working that day, “hey if any of these are in your way, I will take it home!”
The main gallery on the first floor of the Harley-Davidson museum continues the chronological journey through all the makes and models that Harley-Davidson ever produced. Some of the most notable were the KRTT Road Racer (1951), the FX Superglide (1971), the XR-750 dirt track racer (1975), the SX-250 (1976 – won the Baja 500), the XR1000 cafe racer (1977), and the FLH-80 Heritage (1981 – first bike produced after the company became independent again).
Special Exhibit 1: Hummers
The first special exhibit on the first floor was dedicated to the Hummers. Many people don’t realize that Harley was making what are colloquially referred to as “Hummers” as early as 1948 and that these were not part of the joint venture with Aeromacchi that came later. These motorcycles were actually designed after German drawings that was acquired after winning WWII. The same engineering plans were shared with all the Allies and ended up influencing singles produced by several other manufacturers. Personally, I liked these bikes a lot, as they also came in off-road varieties known as the Ranger and Scat.
Special Exhibit 2: Famous Bikes (TV and Movies)
Special exhibit two on the first floor included famous motorcycles from TV and Movies, including the WLA OHV motorcycle from the Captain America movie, a replica from the Easy Rider film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bike from T2, and Elvis Presley’s personal motorcycle including the title with his signature.
Special Exhibit 3: Photo Room
The final room in the Harley-Davidson museum was a selection of motorcycles from throughout the ages that you could actually touch, sit on, and get your picture taken with. I play this game when I am at motorcycle museums, auctions, or vintage bike events. Essentially, the game is to pick from everything I have seen the one motorcycle that I would take home (if I was actually allowed). My choice from this day was the 1934 Model C side-valve single (from the second floor). Well, lucky me, they actually had a side-valve single in the photo room, and I got to get my picture taken on it.
Okay, that’s it folks – my very unofficial virtual tour of the Harley-Davidson museum. As I mentioned above, I took approximately 305 pictures that day. Obviously, I have not included them all here in this post. If you would like the full collection of pictures, feel free to reach out to me via the contact page. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed this post. Please please please, share this page via social media! HappyWrench is new and really needs your support!
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