Harley-Davidson Museum – a museum to an icon, not a motorcycle.

Milwaukee’s new Harley-Davidson Museum, located at

400 West Canal St.

, is not an institution devoted to the motorcycle. It is devoted to an American icon and features a vast array of products by this venerable company for over 100 years. Neil and Alan are not motorcycle enthusiasts per se, but readily admit to being captivated by the idea of the open road astride an “in-your-face” hog. Still, both know they’ll never make their biking debut at the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. so a recent trip north had to suffice.

Founded in 1903 by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson (joined later by Walter and William A. Davidson), the Harley-Davidson Motor Company has dominated the American motorcycle business since the demise of the Hendee Manufacturing Company (makers of the Indian motorcycle) in 1953. Celebrated in fact and fiction for innovation, performance and cool looks, the Harley has had its share of hard knocks, too.

In the 1950s and 60s, movies like Stanley Kramer’s “The Wild One” (1954, starring Marlon Brando) gave Harley-Davidson and its customers a black eye. Based on a much-publicized newspaper story about a bunch of binge-drinking rowdies on motorcycles terrorizing a California town, “The Wild One” portrayed all motorcyclists as thuggish Neanderthals bent on pillage and rapine. Twenty years later (having survived its severe image problem), Harley-Davidson almost went kaput when faced with a flood of inexpensive foreign brands such as Suzuki and Yamaha. Thanks to Federal tariff intervention, the Harley survived and prospered.

Adjacent to Milwaukee‘s historic, interesting and enjoyable Third Ward (see our “Ward Healing” on getaway-chicago.com), the Harley-Davidson Museum campus is architecturally inviting, easily accessible (with plenty of parking) and befitting the roar of 500cc-plus acceleration. 

Designed by Pentagram Architects, its complex occupies reclaimed industrial territory beside the Menomonee River.  And, despite Mr. Barney’s keen observation that “this isn’t about motorcycles, it’s about Harley-Davidson,” both Guys had their favorite exhibits. While Alan savored the developmental and technical aspects of two- and four-cylinder innovation, Neil got off on appearance (“to heck with how fast it goes, as long as it looks sculpturally groovy”). 

They had their favorite bikes, too. Neil dug two: a chrome-encrusted number from the 1950s and a sleek item in stainless steel of recent vintage. Alan was mesmerized by the 1920s types and an extravaganza owned by Elvis Presley.

To top the afternoon off, they were each photographed astride an evil number and, sorry to say, neither Guy looked particularly cool and probably a little
silly. Conclusion: Neither Neil or Alan
is Sturgis material, but maybe side car people instead.

This museum is an all-encompassing experience, with a bar/restaurant dedicated to exhilarating fun and a museum shop the size of a small WalMart. Filled with everything the Harley-Davidson Motor Company ever branded, the place rocks for those wanting to live vicariously. The merchandise is first-rate and the prices are moderately high to expensive.

For dinner the Guys dined at Milwaukee‘s landmark restaurant, Karl Ratzsch’s on

Mason Street

. Around since the early 20th century, this icon of German cui-
sine still maintains its original Bavarian ambience and welcoming atmosphere in spite of nouvelle this and that or signs of more recent heart-healthy consciousness.  The menu is essentially the same as it
has always been, and the restaurant had great atmosphere, good service and
Chicago prices.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain
a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often
overlooked, but of genuine interest
and delight.