(Editor's note: We are aware this is not a normal piece of pickup truck news. If that's the only thing you want right now, do not read this story. However, it does have some relation to the Harley F-150 and the trip we took in order to complete the recent road test, so we thought some readers might be interested. We hope you enjoy it, but if you don't, feel free to let us know that too.)
If you have a list of museums you want to visit before you die, make sure the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee is on it.
Completed just four short years ago, the museum is less than two miles away from Harley World Headquarters, where the first Harley motorcycle was built in 1903.
The museum is right on the Milwaukee River near downtown, and it covers 20 acres formerly owned by Lakeshore Sand and Morton Salt. Three separate buildings make up the 130,000-square-foot facility, with the museum taking up most of the space over two floors. Dozens of exhibits and thousands of artifacts focus on Harley's history as well as popular culture. Of course, the highlight is all the perfectly reconditioned motorcycles spread throughout the museum.
As we pulled up to the front doors of the museum in our 2012 Ford Harley-Davidson F-150, we were met by Bill Jackson, the museum's curator and expert of all things Harley. He explained the company's history and went into great detail as we wandered through each of the different displays. As you might expect, there is an amazing collection of memorabilia, as well as several stunning examples of the one-off motorcycles made for the military for World War I and II.
Several large lineups of motorcycles on both floors act as a kind of visual time line, with several bikes from every decade touching nose to tail. A huge pop-culture section features many motorcycles used in some of Hollywood's biggest movies, from Marlon Brando's "The Wild Bunch" to all the "Terminator" films.
Our favorite part of the museum (actually, we had two favorite parts, but the second wan't part of the official museum tour) is the area where the museum deals with Harley's rough years in the 1980s, called by some "the dark years of AMF" ownership. If ever there was an example of what can happen when the ownership has confused understanding of what its brand means, Harley-Davidson in the 1980s should stand as a warning to every automaker out there.
Our favorite part of our time at the museum was when Bill took us up the storage elevator — naturally, it was more than big enough to carry two Harley touring bikes — to the museum's motorcycle storage facility, where Harley houses and maintains its collection of rare and amazing bikes. And just as impressive as the models on the racks were the "carry racks" that slide and store the bikes like filing cabinets. Hundreds and hundreds of important Harleys are categorized and stored for later use or for display, stacked like government warehouse documents, aisle after aisle after aisle.
The storage facility is closed to the public, and it also houses a "conservation" shop dedicated to keeping a Harley bike as close to the original condition as possible, even if that means not allowing it to be in running condition again. The idea here is not to restore old bikes with non-authentic parts if they can't be made to run just like they did when new. At that point in our tour, Bill said, "The more untouched a bike is, the more we want it for our collection."
While we were there, the shop was working on "conserving" a 1934 race bike the museum just received, as well as offering some repairs to one of Jesse James' custom-built choppers.
The museum regularly rotates its stock and even creates new exhibits every so often. While we were there, there was a huge exhibit of watercolor paintings by Willie G. Davidson, grandson to one of the founders and Harley's current chief style officer. And if that's a little too warm and fuzzy, the paintings sit right next to the final exhibit of the museum, where you can sit on several types of new and classic Harleys and watch old drive-in-style movies.
The Harley museum holds more than 1,000 motorcycles and more than 500 cars in the parking lot, so don't worry about not getting space, no matter when you arrive. However, we recommend that you call ahead and try to set up some kind of special tour. Depending on the size of your group, you may get a pretty good discount on admission. Walk-in entrance fees are $12 for seniors, military and students, $16 for adults and $10 for children age 5 to 17.
For more info about the museum and Harley-Davidson special events, click here.
1934 Race Bike (in back) and Jesse James chopper (front)
Harley No. 1 within the 10x15-foot shack confines where designed
Most recent Hollywood Harley from Captain America
Harley engine exhibit, complete with full 360-degree sound