Much more than a nostalgia trip for motorcycle enthusiasts, the Museum offers a glimpse of American history and culture like you’ve never seen before – through the successes and trials of an iconic American company.
Harley-Davidson Museum® Self-Guided Tours
The Harley-Davidson Museum® Self-Guided Tours provide intriguing added context to the Museum experience. Tour topics highlight the history of the Museum grounds, graphic design, and motorcycle evolution. This additional information, included in the admission cost, delivers an enhanced experience during your visit.
The Evolving Bike
Headlights, speedometers, and shock absorbers – which would you have found on the first Harley-Davidson® motorcycles? None of the above. Harley-Davidson motorcycles are works in progress. Each model represents the latest in safety, comfort, and design, with new technology continually introduced. Some features start as options and eventually become standard. The Evolving Bike Self-Guided Tour explains when and why various features made their debut.
Going from Vroom to Zoom
Riding a motorcycle is fun, but only if it actually moves. This is where “final drives” come in, transmitting power to the rear wheel. Without them, motorcycles would be just big, gas-powered paperweights.
Seeing is Optional?
Seeing the road helps – yet, early bikes only offered gas lamp headlights as optional accessories. These had an annoying tendency to catch fire or explode. (Talk about “burning up the road!)
Today we have social networks. In 1903, they had a “social attachment” — essentially a wicker chair on wheels that you attached to a motorcycle. (Presumably you could “unfriend” a buddy back then too…by unhooking the chair.)
Preferring Brakes to Breaks
Speeding along the open road is exhilarating, but being able to stop is nice, too, and safer. Braking systems have evolved tremendously. Early motorcycles, like bicycles, had pedal-operated coaster brakes for the rear wheel. Stronger drum brakes with a foot pedal appeared in 1914—but still only in the rear.
Accelerating from Zero to What?
At first, there were few traffic laws—so calculating miles-per-hour hardly mattered. Faster vehicles brought speed limits. The 1936 EL model, with a powerful, fast 61-cubic-inch engine, introduced the first integrated instrument cluster.
Gradual Shifts in Shifting
Early motorbikes had just one cylinder and just one speed. Riders didn’t have to worry about shifting. The first three-speed transmission arrived in 1915. Manual transmissions involve changing into higher gears as you go faster, which requires a clutch and shifter.
Riding Should Not be a Pain in the Butt
You could cover a lot of distance on an early motorcycle. Unfortunately, much of it was up and down. Without shock-absorbing suspension, every bump in the road rattled riders from butt to brain. Many wore “kidney belts” (like weight-lifting belts) to keep their insides inside.
Getting a Good Start
People today often talk about “kick starting” a process to get it going. The term comes from motorcycles, which for decades used kick-starters, introduced in 1916, to turn over the engine. In 1964, the Harley-Davidson® 3-wheeled ServiCar™ was introduced with an electric push button starter.
In the art world, graphic design is where “the rubber meets the road.” It’s where artistic ideas and innovations turn practical, adapted to a mass medium with tangible goals. Graphic design combines words, symbols, and images to communicate. Used in advertising, it’s meant to inspire action and drive sales. The constant evolution of 20th century graphic design and the larger art ideas that influence it are reflected in a century of Harley-Davidson® advertising and in the Graphic Design Self-Guided Tour.
Saying it (And Selling It) Simply: Pictorial Modernism
Simple composition, broad shapes of solid color, brief but strong text are typical of Pictorial Modernism, a bold, unfussy approach that was a reaction to the Victorian era’s ornate, complicated designs. In 1920, Harley-Davidson® advertisements embodied this style, with minimal detail and a simple, warm palette of greens and oranges that evoked a mix of seasons.
The Business of Art: The New York School
In the decades after World War II, America was booming. The vibrant economy brought a new vitality to advertising by transforming graphic design into professional careers. 1957, Harley-Davidson® advertising reflected the expanding economy by including something for everyone: a suburban ranch house, city skylines, and marking a cultural shift – a young woman riding alone. Harley-Davidson® designs used ‘layered’ looks with background scenes, central characters, and foreground figures to give depth and vigor to advertisements.
When Hip Was Hot: Psychedelic & Pop Art Posters
An exuberant blend of old and new, foreign and familiar, energized the Psychedelic and Pop Art movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Harley-Davidson® designers worked with Milwaukee artist, Paul Smith, to create a poster that blended bright, comic book colors and dreamlike “drug culture” imagery.
Creating a Signature Style: Hand Lettering in Art
Advertising is about getting one’s name in front of customers. It might be on posters, magazines or, in this case – gas tanks. Harley-Davidson® motorcycles have always proudly displayed the company name on their tanks. Since the early 1930s, lettering style has changed to complement individual models.
In Praise of Progress: Art Deco
Technology and progress seemed tightly linked in the 1920s and 1930s. From cars and airplanes to radios and refrigerators, machines seemed to promise a brighter future. Art Deco design celebrated mechanization with sleek geometric shapes. Harley-Davidson® advertising used this no-frills approach, especially in the 1933 “Five Standard Colors” poster, which used overlapping geometric shapes and designs.
Public Service & Public Art: The Influence of the WPA
The National Safety Council advocated using motorcycle police to curb traffic accidents in the 1930s. Harley-Davidson® advertisements supported the campaign with a 1939 poster, bearing the unmistakable influence of the Works in Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, provided work for unemployed artists in the Depression.
This 20-acre site is more than just the grounds of the Harley-Davidson Museum®. It is a potent symbol of creative reuse, and an example of a community determined to reclaim its home and heritage. Once written off as a neglected brownfield industrial tract, it has since been revitalized and restored. Dramatic views of the city and a strong connection to the natural setting make a bold statement about what is possible. The Museum Grounds Self-Guided Tour is broken into six areas of interest.
Change & Rebirth: Revitalizing and Restoring the Menomonee River Valley
Change has been dramatic on the eastern end of the Menomonee River Valley. For centuries, this was lush marshland. Native Peoples called it Menomonee (good seed) for its abundant wild rice, but industry transformed the landscape in the 1800s. Factories replaced marshes. Railroads and canals crisscrossed the land.
Symbol of Heritage & Hope: Preserving the Hoppers and Revitalizing the Landscape
Two orange hoppers at the north and south ends of the Museum grounds are constant reminders of this site’s history and future. Both are holdovers from a sand company that once operated here, incorporated into the landscaping as reminders of the area’s industrial heritage. They also symbolize a future built on smart, sustainable reuse.
Who’s Here?: Enjoying a Community of Waterways and Wildlife
Water surrounds us here. The Menomonee River flows just north of the Museum grounds. To the east and south, the South Menomonee canal carries coal barges to the Valley Power Plant. These waterways support abundant small animals.
Going Native: Creating a Smart, Sustainable Setting
Our landscape guru is the savviest gardener available: Mother Nature. Few can equal her in creating balanced, healthy habitats adapted to local conditions. Native plants create a sustainable site. They require less fertilizer, water, and maintenance, saving energy and often improving soil quality. They also forge living links to the area’s past.
Dancing with Danger: “The Dynamic Hill Climber” by Jeff Decker
This isn’t your typical, straitlaced sculpture, but then, motorcycles aren’t about being typical or straitlaced. “He is crashing,” says sculptor, Jeff Decker, describing the rider. “But every hill climber crashes. It’s part of the race.” Decker’s interpretation in bronze of a Harley-Davidson® motorcycle and its rider captures the drama and daring of “hillclimbing,” a form of extreme racing.
Sharing a Passion, Yet Proudly Unique: Harley-Davidson’s Living The Legend™ Wall
The messages engraved here vary: joyous, poignant, thoughtful, and funny. All reflect a passion for living life fully – the Harley-Davidson® spirit, and that spirit takes physical form in the rivets that carry the messages. Rivets are connector. Here, they symbolize the connections that unite the brotherhood and sisterhood of Harley-Davidson® motorcycle owners.
More information about Harley-Davidson Museum® Self-Guided Tours, Back Roads Tours, Audio Tours and Factory Tours can be found at H-DMuseum.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and (414) 287-2789.