With the river from which it gets its name running through it and a laid-back pace, Milwaukee has the feel of a big city with a small-town attitude. Milwaukee is famous for being the home of the Happy Days TV show, the Fonz and, of course, Harley Davidson motorcycles. This industrial city on the edge of Lake Michigan gave birth to one of the world's most iconic brands and created generations of motorcycle fans, custom-bike builders and movie bad guys.
Away from the hype and leather, Harley really is an institution in the US, with hundreds of thousands of riders heading out onto the wide-open roads every weekend. The Harley shield has become the second most popular tattoo in the world, coming a close second behind 'Mom' for decorating people's bodies. With that kind of brand loyalty, looking after the famous name has become a major responsibility of those within the famous walls of the company's headquarters.
For most, Milwaukee is the start of their taste of riding freedom, and a visit to the factory is almost a pilgrimage. But now there's another reason to visit this fantastic city, as Harley has opened a museum to finally document the reality behind the famous badge. The museum covers two floors of a neatly designed and manicured black cubist building. Starting on the first floor, you can walk easily through the history of the brand with examples of some of the earliest bikes to emerge from the factory.
There are race bikes, military bikes and even a bike for delivering the mail. And for the slightly madder fans, you can see Evel Knievel's ride hanging in its un-mangled state. In one of the rooms, there's a wooden half bowl, which is used to display a number of flat track racers and TT challengers. Unusually, you can wander around the back to look at old posters and adverts dating back to the beginning of the company's existence. Visiting the Harley museum is a real step back in time for any self-respecting petrol head.
Videos play constantly in small rooms away from the crowds, filling in the history of the company and its key models. The staff are also very attentive and give guided tours for anyone who wants an expert to take them through the museum's main areas. On the lower floor, history moves forward and includes a long line-up of the most famous bikes created by the company. At the exit, there's an area of bikes bolted to the floor that visitors can sit on and try for size. It's good to see a display without the usual ropes to keep you away as per most other museums.
Outside the main part of the public museum is a Harley-themed bar and restaurant. But across the courtyard is the jewel in the crown; the Harley Davidson archive. Containing row upon row of files showing everything from adverts to newspaper articles, a Harley fan could spend a lifetime scanning this amazing collection. The archive even has a selection of Harley toys, jukeboxes and Fender special-edition Harley guitars tucked away in its corridors.
But upstairs is the real gem of this building. Standing proudly on an automated racking system is an example of almost every bike ever built by the company. It's enough to make a Harley fan faint on the spot. Across from the racks of bikes there's a workshop for a dedicated team of two, who restore missing bikes for the collection and prepare new exhibits for the museum. Unfortunately the archive is off-limits to the general public, but you can peak through the wire fence at it from the lift entrance. Even that's worth the trip, as it's quite a sight.
It's always heartening when a manufacturer decides to invest in keeping its heritage alive, but when its done this well it really shows those tattooed lovers of the brand that their permanent loyalty couldn't be better placed.