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Museum Celebrates The Harley-Davidson Century
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Museum Celebrates The Harley-Davidson Century

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Museum Celebrates The Harley-Davidson Century

Museum Celebrates The Harley-Davidson Century
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Harley History

The Harley-Davidson Museum opened this month in Milwaukee, Wis. i

The Harley-Davidson Museum opened this month in Milwaukee, Wis. Courtesy of Harley-Davidson hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Harley-Davidson
The Harley-Davidson Museum opened this month in Milwaukee, Wis.

The Harley-Davidson Museum opened this month in Milwaukee, Wis.

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson
The WLA model was the workhorse of military motorcycles during World War II. i

The WLA model was the workhorse of military motorcycles during World War II. Harley-Davidson produced over 90,000 WLA's for the war effort. Harley-Davidson hide caption

toggle caption Harley-Davidson
The WLA model was the workhorse of military motorcycles during World War II.

The WLA model was the workhorse of military motorcycles during World War II. Harley-Davidson produced over 90,000 WLA's for the war effort.

Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson Museum Director Stacey Schiesl stands in front of a wall of rivets. i

Harley-Davidson Museum Director Stacey Schiesl stands in front of a wall of rivets outside the museum. The rivets can be purchased and engraved with personal messages. Ann-Elise Henzl for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ann-Elise Henzl for NPR
Harley-Davidson Museum Director Stacey Schiesl stands in front of a wall of rivets.

Harley-Davidson Museum Director Stacey Schiesl stands in front of a wall of rivets outside the museum. The rivets can be purchased and engraved with personal messages.

Ann-Elise Henzl for NPR
Some of the more than 130 mint-condition, vintage Harley-Davidsons in the museum. i

Some of the more than 130 mint-condition, vintage Harley-Davidsons in the museum. The oldest models look like bicycles with an engine attached. Ann-Elise Henzl for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ann-Elise Henzl for NPR
Some of the more than 130 mint-condition, vintage Harley-Davidsons in the museum.

Some of the more than 130 mint-condition, vintage Harley-Davidsons in the museum. The oldest models look like bicycles with an engine attached.

Ann-Elise Henzl for NPR
The 'Captain America' chopper was featrued in the 1969 film 'Easy Rider.' i

The 1969 movie Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, features one of the most recognizable motorcycles in history, the "Captain America" chopper. Harleywood Studios at Harley-Davidson Motor Co. hide caption

toggle caption Harleywood Studios at Harley-Davidson Motor Co.
The 'Captain America' chopper was featrued in the 1969 film 'Easy Rider.'

The 1969 movie Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, features one of the most recognizable motorcycles in history, the "Captain America" chopper.

Harleywood Studios at Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

There are probably few cars that you'd recognize just by hearing them come down the street. But the throaty rumble of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine is unmistakable.

It's a sound that you probably love or hate, and people have been hearing it for more than a century.

Harley-Davidson is celebrating its 105th anniversary with the opening this month of a museum at its headquarters in Milwaukee, Wis. But the company isn't just looking back. It's trying to lure new customers to keep its iconic brand alive.

The company got its start in a shed in Milwaukee, when the founders attached a motor to what was essentially a bicycle frame. Over the next few decades, the design evolved and the motorcycles grew in popularity.

Bikes Of War And 'Outlaws'

It took World War II to really put the company on the map. An exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum features Army-green Harleys, with large holsters designed to carry Tommy guns.

"They built almost 90,000 of these bikes, and they trained a lot of people to ride," says Jim Fricke, Harley-Davidson's curatorial director. "They left bikes all over the world, and it ... was almost a little Johnny Appleseed thing in the '40s and the '50s as people began to take these military surplus vehicles and customize them."

Fricke says that was the start of the "chopper" culture. Bikers removed — or chopped off — military features, then added personal touches such as custom handlebars and seats.

The "outlaw" persona also took hold, fueled by rowdy biker groups and numerous Hollywood portrayals of snarling motorcycle riders.

'The Rumble Of Pipes'

It's not just the image that's attracted customers over the years. Scott Szubkowski, a 36-year-old printing plant worker, started riding at age 5 as a passenger on his dad's Harley.

Szubkowski explains the attraction. "It's the rumble of pipes," he says. "It's the sound of the machine; it's just awesome. It takes my breath away."

Szubkowski was hanging out at a Harley-Davidson display at an outdoor music festival, admiring the latest models.

Across town at the House of Harley-Davidson dealership, a new rider was joining the family. Jim Kleczka, 61, is a Vietnam veteran and retiree and has traveled from Tennessee to buy his bike in Harley's birthplace.

"They always hold their resale value," Kleczka says. "Say down the road something happens to me, I get crippled up, I can get most of my money back out of it."

Kleczka signs his paperwork, then rings a bell signaling that he's ready to pick up the bike.

The Harley Mistique

Sales manager Rob McDonald says you'd be surprised who's riding a Harley.

"It could be your doctor that you're going to go see this weekend," he says. "It could be your dentist, it could be your teacher. So maybe that's what everybody likes about the mystique of Harley-Davidson."

With the median age of a Harley rider pushing 50, McDonald says the company has to attract younger riders, who are often drawn to faster, quieter, imported motorcycles.

Potential customers include 17-year-old Dakota Warren, who at the festival's display is admiring one of Harley's retro-look bikes. He's more interested in the Harley-Davidson look — and sound — than speed.

"I mean speed — you get pulled over, get your license taken away, whatnot," he says. "Sound — they tell you to make it a little quieter, whoop-de-doo."

The spiky-haired teen with braces says people have told him he'd look pretty cool on a Harley, and that's just what Harley executives want to hear.

Ann-Elise Henzl is a reporter from member station WUWM.

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