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Archive for Sunday, July 13, 2008

Harley-Davidson revs up for museum opening in Milwaukee

A display is seen during a preview of the Harley Davidson museum Monday in Milwaukee. The museum opened Saturday.

A display is seen during a preview of the Harley Davidson museum Monday in Milwaukee. The museum opened Saturday.

July 13, 2008

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— A banker held beloved motorcycle-maker Harley-Davidson's fate in 1984.

He could agree to refinance the $90 million loan that executives took out a few years before to buy the company back from American Machine and Foundry Co., or make them declare bankruptcy.

The banker allowed the company to refinance - at the last minute - preserving Harley's folklore for decades to come.

Why?

No one knows for sure, but company officials say he owned a Harley.

That story and many others about the company are featured at Milwaukee's new Harley-Davidson Museum, which opens Saturday.

"In many ways Harley-Davidson's story mirrors the story of America," said company spokeswoman Rebecca Bortner. "The company is 105 years old, has weathered recessions, depressions, wars, and ups and downs and highs and lows ... I think that's one reason people have a lot of pride in Harley-Davidson."

The largest U.S. motorcycle maker is now a Fortune 500 company with nearly $6 billion annual revenue and a connection to its owners that is unrivaled in any industry. About half the motorcycles sold in the U.S. are Harleys, known for their sleek curves and roar.

The company boasts more than 1 million members in its Harley Owners Group, or HOG.

The museum's 20-acre site with three buildings of black brick, galvanized steel and glass will likely become a temple for Harley owners. It features about 200 bikes and other pieces of history and culture, and opens in time for the company's 105th anniversary celebration Aug. 28-31.

Among the motorcycles is the oldest Harley: Serial Number One. It's a pedal bike with a small engine, built by company founders William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson inside a 10-by-15-foot wooden shed that had the words "Harley-Davidson Motor Company" scrawled on the door.

Also featured is Elvis Presley's red-and-white 1956 Model KH, along with its January 1956 paperwork, which notes he bought it from a Memphis dealer, his payments were $50.15 a month and lists his occupation as a "vocalist-self-employed."

His reason for buying: "pleasure and business." Elvis bought it just a few months before his breakthrough single "Heartbreak Hotel" hit the top of the charts

"It was like he knew he was on his way and he wasn't going to Disneyland," Bortner said. "He was going to the dealership."

Elvis was on the cover of Harley-Davidson's magazine, The Enthusiast, in May 1956 - an artifact also at the museum.

Bill Halling, a 61-year-old family doctor from Des Moines, Iowa, got an early look - because he was a Harley owner for 15 years - at the museum and loved seeing all the bikes in one place, reading about the history and seeing the lighted wall of photos contributed by Harley riders.

"I'm really enraptured with Harley-Davidson," he said. "Riding a Harley changed my life from boring to exciting."

Museum Director Stacey Schiesl expects the museum, which is near downtown, to attract 350,000 people a year from around the world.

"It's a place where motorcycle enthusiasts, Harley-Davidson enthusiasts, will feel immediately at home," Schiesl said. "But it's also a place for people who are not yet part of Harley-Davidson really get a taste of the freedom and camaraderie and personal expression that our riders do feel every time they fire up a motorcycle."

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