You can’t get much more of an American icon than Harley-Davidson. Ranked among the most recognizable brands in the world, along with the likes of Coca-Cola and Apple, the manufacturer has overcome its fair share of ups and downs over the years but is still here to tell the tale. Needless to say it has certainly earned the right to celebrate a century and a decade of building two-wheeled freedom machines exclusively in the U S of A.
Rather than fly to Milwaukee to attend the 110th anniversary festivities, I arranged a 2013 Electra Glide Limited for the journey. A fellow journalist named Mark was of the same mind so we decided to ride together. He actually owns a 105th anniversary edition Low Rider, which he affectionately calls Lucy. With only our final destination planned, Mark and I decided to embrace the spontaneity of the open road and see where the wind took us. We would eat when we got hungry, sleep when we got tired and drink Jack Daniels when the bikes were parked at a seedy motel for the night.
Setting off under sunny skies to the soundtrack of two rumbling V-Twins and the heavy metal lightning of Steppenwolf (I made a playlist to commemorate the occasion), it quickly appeared that this road trip would include all the necessary elements and adversity of a two-wheeled adventure. While stopping to top up our tanks and empty our bladders a few hours into the ride, Mark’s security system started giving him trouble so we made a detour to change the batteries in his key fob. Problem solved, right? Wrong. After a call to Harley’s customer service line and a boost from a local garage we limped to the closest Harley dealership where we flipped through old bike magazines and drank stale coffee for two hours just to find out that Mark had put the new battery in the key fob backwards.
After settling the tab (and much ribbing), we set off once again, only to be greeted by dark clouds eager to rain on our parade. Before we could reach a gas station, overpass or a safe place to pull over, we were drenched. By the time we did find a suitable place to stop, the sun had once again returned so donning wet weather attire was pointless.
Carrying on into the early evening it appeared that our spontaneity may have been naïve, as we were unable to find suitable accommodation on the winding and desolate back country roads of Michigan. As ominous clouds once again rolled in and night fell along with the mercury, we were becoming increasingly impatient with our lack of options when the vacancy light of a quaint little motel appeared in the distance. After parking the bikes and checking in we crossed the street for a traditional road house meal (you can have anything you want as long as it’s been deep fried) and tipped a few victory pints before returning to our motel porch to swap stories, sip JD and take in a stunning electrical storm before retiring to our respective rooms for a deep slumber.
Another day of riding later, we approached Milwaukee and began to realize the full scope of the celebration. The entire highway was absolutely jam packed with Harleys of all shapes and sizes pointed towards home in honor of a single vision. Regardless of where they reside or where they ride, there is something that bonds those who choose the distinct attributes and heritage of a Hog. “We are not all the same but there is a bonding experience among people who ride a Harley,” said Matthew Levatich, President and COO, Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
Overcoming fierce competition within the US in the early days, then from abroad by the Brits and Japanese, the bar and shield has endured the test of time and Milwaukee is a better city for it. Rolling out the red carpet for the speculated 100,000 people who attended the various events across the city, event organizers pulled off a miraculous feat by welcoming enthusiasts from all over the world to commemorate the occasion. And I do mean all over the world, as patches were worn with pride by riders from every continent (aside from Antarctica). Being fortunate enough to participate in the parade, I had a unique perspective on just how appreciative the residents of the city were. Young and old, black and white stood side by side waving flags and homemade signs welcoming bikers home. It was a touching experience that warmed even my cold, icy heart.
There was no shortage of wild outfits throughout the weekend, ranging from hilarious to borderline obscene, but the most celebrated attire of the countdown festivities has been named “The Freedom Jacket,” an iconic black leather riding jacket that has been worn by riders around the globe for the last year to celebrate the 110th anniversary. Navigating roads through countries that are not known for their political stability, the jacket received patches and signatures to commemorate its journey and the freedom it represents. “Every one of those countries is important to us, no matter what your age or experience,” said Mark-Hans Richer, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Harley-Davidson Motor Company, “We don’t discriminate. We don’t want to be everything to everyone; we want people to embrace what we are.”
The jacket was delivered to the Harley-Davidson Museum shortly before the countdown clock hit the zero hour by Marine First Sgt. Timothy La Sage, who was then unexpectedly presented with the 2014 Street Glide he rode in on. To say that it was an emotional moment would be an understatement as his career achievements were read aloud in front of his family, the Davidsons’ and several thousand onlookers. Despite the size and reputation of big, badass bikers, there are few things that will wet the eyes of that kind of audience like the unbridled patriotism of a Marine who has returned home to his family upon completing multiple tours of duty.
Named Project Rushmore, the 2014 model year touring bikes have received significant refinements to shortcomings owners have lamented for years. Encapsulating over 2,400 new part numbers, customers were sourced for input on updates that include liquid-cooling, touchscreen GPS and infotainment, improved venting, aerodynamics and ergonomics.
Keith Wandell, President and CEO, Harley-Davidson Motor Company added, “This weekend is about the celebration of personal freedom and we want to share it with our customers.” Said celebrations took on many forms throughout the week. The city was bustling with street parties, custom bike displays, the aforementioned parade, vendors of motorcycle gear and paraphernalia, riding competitions and musical performances by the likes of Toby Keith, ZZ Top, Kid Rock, Dierks Bentley and Aerosmith, who, for the record, can still rock. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry must sleep in cryogenic chambers while getting formaldehyde transfusions because they have more energy and look sprightlier (albeit from the 10th row) than many thirty-somethings I know.
Harley-Davidson knows how to treat its journalist friends. We got front of the line passes to visit the museum and attend every event and party in town, along with tickets to Summerfest grounds and the concerts listed above each evening. We were even given face time with the executive management team, along with William ‘Wille’ G. Davidson, Bill Davidson and Karen Davidson, who are affectionately known as simply “The Family” in Milwaukee. If you haven’t experienced the museum in person it is well worth the price of admission. Featuring the first known Harley model in existence from 1903 to the 2014 Rushmore Project Electra Glide, the facility boasts a fascinating collection of bikes, stunning displays and pays homage to Harley’s influence on pop culture, racing and history without glossing over the troubled times as they play just as much a part of the Motor Company’s legacy as the high points.
While the more mature and sedate riders enjoyed the sanctioned events throughout the city, we decided to take in the afterhour’s excitement of Brady Street where the revelry continued on well into the night. A heavy police presence kept close tabs, but the folks in blue were surprisingly lenient as billowing tire smoke from burnouts filled the streets and drunk women flashed their chests with all the reckless abandon of a Girls Gone Wild video. Speeding through the crowded streets or reckless behavior was not tolerated at all, however, as we witnessed several people ushered away in handcuffs for activities that placed fellow partygoers in peril.
The festivities in Milwaukee may have been a commemoration of a significant milestone for the world’s most renowned bike builder on the surface, but in essence it was a celebration of the motorcycling culture in general. Constructed from metal, plastic and rubber, these inanimate objects hold no inherent emotion within them, but they represent the passion of freedom, exploration and discovery, the lust for life and the connection between people who share a common bond no matter where they may have been born or what they do for a living.
The thumping of a well tuned V-Twin echoes and amplifies the visceral sensation of the human body; the beating heart that pumps blood through our veins as long as we’re still breathing. Happy Birthday, Harley-Davidson. Here’s to another 110!